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June 28, 2009

I’m a writer who never finishes anything I start. When I say “never,” you probably think I’m exaggerating, but it’s true. I’ve been writing regularly, nearly every day for more than twenty years, and I don’t have a complete story to show for it.

I am also something of a perfectionist. I don’t want to show a story, or any sort of work, that isn’t reasonably complete and good as well. The result being that I’ve accumulated this mountain of half-finished, unpublished fiction, memoir and other ephemera; pages and pages, hand-written and typed, loose leaf, journal bound and digital, stashed away in cardboard boxes or buried in the folders on my hard drive.

I’ve coined a phrase for this peculiar affliction that I suffer, this incapacity to see a story through to its conclusion: “completion deficit disorder.” I’ve done a fair amount of self-analysis, and paid a confederacy of psychologists to give me their second, third and fourth opinions. But the stories remained unfinished. And because they’re all unfinished, they also remain unpublished. No one reads them. I share them with no one. Not even my wife. Very strange and neurotic, I know. In this particular failure, I understand I’m committing a terrible connubial felony.

I mean, I can see it happening occasionally. I can see where a writer or any artist occasionally encounters obstacles, real or imagined, comes up against walls that slow their progress and cause them to question their creative commitment. With time and patience and persistence these obstacles are resolved, and the artist is productive again. But that’s not the case for me. I’ve got it bad. I’m chronic. Every story starts out great, every story has its promise, but somewhere in the journey from beginning to end I get bored and restless and overly self-critical and that’s when I start thinking about the next story, how much better that one will be than the one I’m working on now. And so it goes, the cycle repeating, the unfinished business mounting, the confidence in one’s own creative integrity diminishing with every passing day…

It’s nerve-wracking.

And then something unexpected happens, a shock to the system, a jolt with the power to break the cycle, erase the past, set everything crooked straight again.

 On May 4th, 2009, I was scheduled to have an MRI. I was experiencing some unusual sensations, numbness in my feet accompanied by a feeling of electricity, a low voltage charge that jumped across my thighs, causing my muscles to twitch.

“It feels like my legs are covered in bees,” I said to my wife, Jen.

“Does it hurt? Are they stinging?” she asked.

“Not stinging, no.  Just buzzing. It’s a buzzy feeling.”

She was concerned, which in turn concerned me. We’ve been together 19 years, and I can always count on her to breezily dismiss my frequent physical complaints.  I’m sure it’s nothing serious, she’ll say with a shrug of her shoulders or a wave of her hand. Give it a few weeks. It will go away. And it always did. But not this time.

Because it began in my feet, I first scheduled an appointment with a podiatrist.  He thought the problem might be a pinched nerve, an aggravation caused by my choice of footwear.  He prescribed a two-week course of anti-inflammatory, and advised me to replace my shoes.

“All of them?” I asked. This was no small matter or expense. I have four pairs of Keens I regularly wear, each of them a problem in the foot doctor’s opinion. It would take weeks, maybe months, and several hundred dollars to locate suitable substitutes.

“Yes, all of them,” he confirmed. I felt a little faint. And for that, he billed me $175.

I filled the prescription and diligently took the medicine, but it had no effect on the numbness. I ignored the part about the shoes.

Next I called an acupuncturist.  This was a first for me. I’d never been to an acupuncturist before, not because I don’t believe in the practice, but because I have to pay out of pocket (my health insurer is the skeptical one), and because I am, shall we say, “thrifty.” That been said, it seems to me that everyone who’s ever seen an acupuncturist has enjoyed a rather speedy recovery. Patients of acupuncture, as a whole, are vocal in their advocacy for needles.  I always assumed the time would one day come, when the pain or discomfort in question was obstinate enough, that I’d finally surrender myself and my bank account to this form of treatment. Pulling out the big guns, as the saying goes. Or the big needles, as the case may be.

Blame it on popular culture, but I envisioned all practitioners of acupuncture to appear like ancient Eastern shamans: miniature in stature, wizened, hermetic, 1,000 years old with Confucius-style facial hair that fell in wisps halfway to the floor. I was therefore a bit disappointed to make the acquaintance of my newfound acupuncturist, a fair-haired, physically fit, clean shaven, overly gregarious Scandinavian named Bern. Interesting fellow, Bern: before he studied acupuncture and the art of traditional Chinese medicine, he worked for a long time in the family pest extermination business.  In his version of the story, he grew tired of killing and turned to healing instead. Personally, I think he got into acupuncture to impress the ladies. 

Bern listened to my complaint and believed that he could cure me. His confidence rubbed off a little, so that I believed it too, understanding all too well that skeptics rarely experience miracles. He had me strip down to my boxers and lie face down upon a massage-style table, then  gave me a quick back rub and assessed my condition in a single word: “tense.”

“Anything going on in your life right now that’s causing stress? Problems at work, at home?”

“Work is stressful,” I answered, writhing in pain beneath his hands. “But in truth, I’ve always been this way.” The “way” in point was tightly wound, back muscles knotted up like golf balls.

Then the fun began. I could feel Bern’s fingers drawing lines upon my back, my hips and legs, measuring out the distance from point to point, and when he’d found the spot he was seeking he would insert a needle, first a prick then two quick taps as if lightly with a hammer, securing it upon a nerve.

Perhaps it was the treatment at work, releasing all the negative energy from my body, but after a few dozen needles I began to feel a panic setting in, a shortness of breath and a compelling desire to leap from the table and run out into the street, boxers and needles and all, a sight to behold, like some animate pincushion or hybrid human/porcupine. I imagined passersby, pausing their cell phone conversations to snap a quick photo or video; I imagined it all ending up on Youtube. I was poised and ready to make my not-so-great escape, but I found I could barely move; Bern had fixed me to the table with all those needles, pinned me down like some exotic insect in a museum or a butterfly collector’s display.

Needles were just the first act in Bern’s ancient Chinese circus. Next came a practice I’d never heard of before: “moxibustion,” or “moxi” for short.  “Moxi” is apparently a Latin prefix meaning “to torture with fire.” The process involves the herb mugwort, which is burned and applied to the skin indirectly, heating different points along the area of treatment. It’s a traditional Chinese treatment, ages old, meant to strengthen the blood and get the qi moving. Bern instructed me to tell him when the heat became uncomfortable. It didn’t take long, seconds really, for me to holler “NOW!” and Bern to mutter “OK” as he moved to the next spot for burning.

When he’d seared me to perfection, Bern removed the needles and commenced flogging me with the convex side of some kitchen cutlery, a practice he gleefully described as “spooning,” designed I think too soften tense muscles, though by this point I wasn’t really paying attention.  Having been poked and burned and now thrashed with the backside of a coffee spoon, I couldn’t help feeling that:

  • The ancient Chinese were a bunch of masochists,
  • My coworkers were probably organizing a search party right now, I’d been gone from the office so long,
  • I was certainly getting my money’s worth.

And it wasn’t over yet. After the spooning came the “cupping” (neither of these activities was as dirty or enjoyable as they sound), wherein a special glass cup is applied to the back and a vacuum is formed, anchoring the cup to the skin, drawing the skin upward inside the cup. He then proceeded to slide the cup up and down my back, working in a circular motion, focusing on those areas where I held the most tension. It hurt a little; I seem to recall making noises, the kinds of noises one makes when one is stoically suppressing one’s pain, muffled gasps and “ohs.” These did nothing to dissuade Bern’s progress.  He warned me “there might be some bruising,” an understatement; my back was a mottled mess of red, purple and blue, as if I’d landed squarely on it after a fall from some great height.

When it was all done I scraped myself off the table, feeling woozy, lightheaded. I wrote Bern a check for $75, which seemed like an honest-to-god deal for so much action, and stumbled out the door, back to the life I knew, back to the familiar world, back to the man I was before.  I felt high, I felt elated, I felt transcendent. But in the end, I was still numb. In fact, the numbness was starting to spread. No longer isolated to my feet, it had now crept up my legs and taken grip of my knees as well, so that each felt just a little off, a little dead above the joint. A coworker put it succinctly: “Better hope it doesn’t spread any higher, or you’re gonna’ have a lot less fun, you know what I mean?” My worries exactly.

Another week went by without improvement. I tried the chiropractor, hoping this might be a pinched nerve, something a little spinal manipulation might relieve. It didn’t. However, my chiropractor was the first to confirm a suspicion that was growing in my mind. He pointed out that numbness in one leg would indicate sciatica, while numbness in both legs and feet simultaneously was, in his words, “a bilateral event,” and likely originated somewhere higher up along the spine.

“Should I be worried?” I asked, because of course I already was.

“It is unusual. I would check in with my primary care doctor, if I were you. They might want to do some testing.”

I soon found myself in the office of Dr.Stearn, a specialist in neurology. He put me through a battery of rudimentary coordination tests: walking a straight line. Looking up, to the side, to the other side. Holding my hands out, bringing my index fingers in to touch the tip of my nose, bending over, touching my toes. I passed each with flying colors. I’m very good at tests.

Dr. Stearn tested my nerve impulses by strapping monitors around my legs, ankles and toes and administering different types of stimulation to measure the speed and intensity of my reaction. He ran a feather along the inside of my leg (“Good.”), poked me with needles (“Good, good.”), applied heat (“Normal.”), caused sound vibrations with a tuning fork (“Yes, that’s normal.”) and administered minor shocks of electric voltage, enough to cause my muscles to jump.

“Your reactions are normal,” he said when the exam was finished, news I was grateful to hear. “Of course, conditions of the nervous system are very tricky to accurately diagnose.  But given what I’ve seen today, I would say you have a form of neuropathy. It’s another way of describing this deadening of the nerves that you’re experiencing. People typically suffer from this much later in life (“Great,” I thought. “We’re does that put me when I’m 60?” I had this terrible image of my future self, at the age when my contemporaries are about to retire and start recreating with wild abandon, and I’m debilitated by this neuropathy, struggling to negotiate my Rascal around the tight corners in the local library).

“Let’s give it some time, and see where this goes. These things will usually either get better, get worse, or stay the same (yes, he actually said this.) In the meanwhile, if you notice any other symptoms developing, give us a call.”

And I was really relieved. The numbness by this point had begun to fade, and so too the anxiety. My six-week odyssey had taken me to a foot doctor, an acupuncturist, a chiropractor, my primary doctor, and ended at the neurologist. It was all a bit reminiscent of an episode of House, all these doctors floating their hypotheses, each one proven wrong, the patient reduced to a riddle resisting resolve.

About a week later I was sitting at my work desk, taking a break from the computer to stretch my neck, lolling my head forward as far as possible, then rolling it slowly from side to side. And I noticed something unusual. Whenever my head hung forward, I felt this intense sensation of electricity coursing from my thighs down my legs toward my feet.  It happened consistently, every time, the result as predictable as flipping a switch to turn on a light. At the time, I interpreted this as a sign of a pinched nerve. This was good, I thought. With appropriate treatment and physical therapy, this was resolvable. It being a new symptom, I dutifully called Dr. Stearn to report my discovery. I fully expected him to agree with my self-diagnosis, I really did, and so I was completely unnerved when he replied that he wanted to schedule a scan, wanted to look at my brain and my cervical spine.

“Are you available later this week?” he asked.

“This week really isn’t good. Is this really bad? Is this an emergency? I mean, do you need to see me at once?”

“No, no. We can do this next week, that’s fine.” He was not reassuring.

Which is how I ended up in the MRI.

The technicians had me empty my pockets and asked me to remove all metal articles from my person; bracelets, necklace, piercings and such, of which I had none. They asked me several times whether I had any metal or pins or shrapnel beneath my skin, whether I had any plates in my head, whether I was fitted with a pacemaker, whether my eyes had ever been exposed to metal filings flung off by a welder’s torch. I answered “no, not that I can recall;” and while I was certain I hadn’t, the gravity of this business and the horrific possibility that some wayward scrap of metal could be ripped from my body by the magnetic force of the MRI truly caused me to doubt my own memory.

“How about rings? Do I need to remove my wedding ring? What about the rivets in my jeans? Will they pop out?” I am nothing if not thorough, and thoroughly neurotic.

“You can leave your jeans and the ring on.”

They explained how sound was a considerable factor of the procedure and plugged my ears with foam and cotton and a pair of specially designed, noise-cancelling headphones for good measure; I felt like one of those guys waving glow sticks out on the airport tarmac or up on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Next they fastened a sort of brace around my head and shoulders, designed to limit my movement and ensure a clearer picture of my head and upper torso. Then they smiled reassuringly and waved good-bye and fed me headfirst into the maw of the MRI.

I knew immediately this was no place for claustrophobics, and though I don’t typically associate myself with fear in tight quarters, I had to close my eyes inside the tube. It was just too confining, and the exit too far away.

I could feel myself struggling for air

Like the walls were closing in

Like I was sealed in a coffin, buried alive

I was finally able to calm my nerves by imagining myself lying out on a beach, soaking in the hot sun. This would have worked much better had the MRI been engineered to sound like lapping waves and calling gulls; instead, it sounded like a busy construction site mashed up with ambulance sirens and car alarms.

I was in there for a little over an hour. My bladder, because it has a sadistic bent, thought it amusing to fill itself up like a bloated water balloon about five minutes after the scan began (this despite my having peed twice in the waiting room lavatory, trying my best to avoid just such an emergency). There was no going back now. I put a lock on the kegel muscles and hoped for the best.  About forty minutes in, despite my extreme discomfort, and despite the loud clanging and grinding of the MRI at work, I actually started to doze.

I can sleep through anything, but sleeping in the MRI is a no-no. The sleeping body is strangely, counter-intuitively, a body in motion; the head jerks a bit, the shoulders twitch, the eyes flutter behind closed lids, a spell of REM, a nascent dream unspooling.

“Mr. Tabb,” the intercom crackled, rousing me from my fitful slumber. “We need you to remain awake for this.”

“Was I snoring?”

“A little. Worse, you were moving. The last round of pictures came out blurry. We’ll need to take it again. Can you try and keep still?”

“Yes. Sorry.” By this point the pain was profound, the situation urgent. But the MRI stops for no man, woman or bladder. All I could do was force myself to stay awake and let them finish taking their pictures. Jen had this thing she used to do when she was a kid and she really needed to go and couldn’t get to a bathroom right away, a trick that would take her mind off the problem. She would repeat a particular song to herself over and over, “Celebrate” by Kool & The Gang. I started singing it, inside my head: There’s a party going on right here, a celebration to last throughout the year

When it was all done I returned to Dr. Stearn’s office. He was going to receive the images and confirm the diagnosis right there. Same Day Service! Jen met me in the waiting room. She asked me how it went, and I told her all about the noise and the pee and the nice nap, and then we sat in silence for awhile, neither one of us much interested in discussing what we both were quietly worrying: what if it’s bad? What then?

The MRI reduces the body to a series of images, slices divided from the body proper, to be scrutinized and judged in isolation. Run the images together from first to last and you have an animation of sorts, a “fantastic voyage” through your own corpography, a detailed map of your anatomical self. Dr. Stearn sat us down and brought up my images on a series of monitors. The monitor on the left showed a sequence of images beginning at the top of my head and boring down through my skull to my shoulders; on the right, images taken in profile, starting on the left side of my head and moving through to my right.

“We’re looking for spots, anything white,” he explained as he scrolled from image to image. “White spots aren’t good.”

This wasn’t reassuring. I was unpracticed at reading the results of an MRI, and much of it looked white to me. Thankfully, Dr. Stearn was vocal in his satisfaction with the results, muttering “good, good. Yes. That’s good. Uh huh. Ok. Good,” with each passing image. I sat at the edge of my chair, my face in my hands, playing nervously with my chin, hoping the next picture wouldn’t be the one, the one that stopped him, the one that made him say “uh oh.”

In the end he found just one lesion, a small one too, a scar on my upper spinal cord, between the 6th and 7th vertebrae. Combined with my symptoms and my history, he was finally able to make a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.  I wasn’t surprised. Given the type and duration of my symptoms, I assumed it had to be something serious; in that moment, I was just happy to know it wasn’t anything worse. My brain was clear, no tumors, no cancer. Dr. Stearn explained my numbness as an MS “event.” These are symptoms of the disease, attacks upon the nervous system or the optic nerves, usually lasting about four to six weeks. He went on to explain how MS has a broad range of symptoms and patient experiences, how given my age (old for a first diagnosis) and the relative mildness of my symptoms (“many patients with similar neuropathy are numb right up to their armpits.”), I had what he called “good MS.” By that, he meant he expected my experiences to be more relapsing-remitting than progressive, my discomfort to be more episodic and temporary than permanently debilitating.

“Will I die from this? Will it shorten my life?” I asked, jumping straight to the bottom line.

“I think you’ll live a life of normal length.”

The nature of the disease is such that you never know when the next episode will occur. An MS event begins without warning. You can go to bed feeling fine, and awake in the morning feeling like hell. This is not comforting news. I’ve taken to sleeping with my fingers crossed. It could happen at any time, tomorrow or twenty years from now.  Despite this unfortunate turn, I’m more than happy with the state of my life; happy with my family, happy with my work, happy with myself. There’s really just one thing in my life that really bothers me, one thing that feels incomplete and unsatisfactory– all the writing that’s buried in boxes, all the writing that no one’s ever been allowed to read. All the unfinished business.

So that’s the intention of this blog, to be a clearinghouse for the writing, a means to get it out there to the world, allow people to read it if they choose, to comment if they choose, or not. Publishing the work is what counts to me. Allowing people to read it counts as a form of completion. I’m committed to posting here at least a couple of times a week – it may take me awhile to get into the groove, but bear with me. Posts won’t be as long as this – stories will be serialized, and searchable under tags. If there’s any news to report about my MS, I’ll post that too, but it will only inform the content of the blog tangentially. MS isn’t the point, it’s merely the catalyst. It’s as good a reason as any to put a final punctuation mark down on the page. And begin a new story.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Srooker permalink
    June 29, 2009 8:48 pm

    Bravo…looking forward to seeing more finished work!

  2. Kris permalink
    June 30, 2009 12:01 am

    I lament your catalyst, but applaud your conquering the completion deficit disorder. It is one we are all too familiar with in our home. Hoping your success can be our catalyst.

  3. Laura permalink
    June 30, 2009 1:29 am

    MS?! BLERG!
    Other than that I loved the play.
    signed your pal,
    Mrs. Lincoln

    No seriously. I can’t wait to read more.
    Love love love the discription of the acupuncture.
    I toast you with my yummy oatmeal stout!

  4. kathleen whitney permalink
    June 30, 2009 9:34 pm

    I tried to read this as an outsider, but it was impossible for me to do. The writing was great, as I new it would be, I’ve had the pleasure of you in my life for 19 years, so I know how funny and creative you are. It did however take a toll on my emotions. It’s also wonderful to know that such an unfortunate diagnosis could be your catalyst to literary success. I am very proud of you, and your giant step. kathy/Mom/Grammy

  5. Cecilia Estrada permalink
    July 1, 2009 1:25 am

    If everything happens for a reason, then I am so glad you started to publish your writings. I got caught up in the telling of what must be a very surreal experience. I look forward to the next installment and since you tried cupping, spooning and burning already, I wonder if you might just just get a pedicure. I really love how I feel afterward.

    a Real Fan of someone who can write and does.


  6. Emmanuel permalink
    June 30, 2009 11:40 pm

    Hey, guess what? That was a complete story. Blogging is obviously the way forward … fantastic and congrats on turning a punctuating event into a work of art. Very much looking forward to future posts.

  7. Paul permalink
    July 1, 2009 10:33 pm

    Brilliant and laugh out loud funny!!

    I truly hope that the “MS thing” goes away for good…..then you can go back and enjoy Bern without the worry!!

  8. Barbara permalink
    July 2, 2009 9:38 pm

    I can’t wait to read more! This newly discovered “form of completion” will keep you well and make you even happier than you already are. Bravo, bravo. Great, just great!!

  9. Michelle permalink
    July 2, 2009 10:14 pm

    Wowie, well I will definitely be an avid reader. Good luck with the project and with everything else this new twist brings. And when things get tough, just remember that Stormy Says Stay Strong.


  10. Tara permalink
    August 22, 2009 8:35 pm

    My, my, my… a lot to take in. I enjoyed reading this Sean.

    Being an acupuncturist myself, I have a question for “Bern”, did you diagnose this nice man’s radial pulse (v. imp.) prior to opening your tool chest? Sean, I wish I could have been your first… 😉

    Keep up the great reads and it’s okay if some don’t have endings, but beginnings, those we need!


  11. Kim permalink
    June 28, 2010 10:24 pm

    Sean –great writing, crappy diagnosis.

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