By Josh Leetch
It all began on Halloween night, October 31, 2014. Normal day, same routine, usual setting. School had let out for the day, and I was enjoying my afternoon, when I decided to go get some pizza with my mother. We headed out, the brisk afternoon smacking my face with unexpected cold on my way out the door, but still we continued on our way.
Then suddenly, something changed.
I looked at my hand. I couldn’t focus on it. I moved it, and there was a visual echo of the hand that followed my actual hand itself.
This can’t be good, I thought. I decided I probably just needed sleep. After we got home, I told my mom about it and then went straight to bed, hoping I just had a really bad cold.
The bed was cold, but in a strange way. As soon as I was lying down, a headache abruptly kicked in. Dizziness followed the headache, making just lying in my bed feel like I was on a bull ride from hell. The vomiting started next, followed by rapid changes in how warm or cold I was feeling. It felt like the inside of my skull was being stabbed by a frozen knife while I was simultaneously getting whacked in the stomach by a truck. It was one of the worst nights of my life.
Having no idea what this problem was, I was very worried. I continued to feel sick during the weekend, feeling only a bit better on Sunday. The next day, Monday, I got to skip school in order to go to the doctor, which provided a much-needed distraction. Besides a headache, my symptoms had all but gone away.
I soon found myself in a clinic with comfortable, soft, bland-colored chairs. They called me into the MRI room, and I mentally prepared myself to enter its metal coffin. The constant thrum from the machine didn’t help my still-present headache, which soon became a minor migraine.
I quickly tried to push away the claustrophobic panic deep inside myself, as I knew the scan would be done faster if I could just lie still. As soon as I was freed from what surely equates to a medieval torture device, I greeted my mom and rushed with her out the door.
“It felt like the inside of my skull was being stabbed by a frozen knife while I was simultaneously getting whacked in the stomach by a truck.”
“That took a lot longer than I thought it would,” my mom said.
I suppose the length of time I had been in the MRI scanner was unusual, but I brushed the thought aside — I was starting to get hungry. Thankfully, about 10 minutes later I was enjoying Smashburger, letting the delicious aroma of the popping oil from the hamburger help me banish my troubles.
I took a bite, but my bliss was interrupted by my mother’s blaring phone. She picked up, said, “Yes. He’s here,” and handed me the phone.
Because I had just turned 18, the doctor wouldn’t talk to my mom, so it all fell on me when I answered.
“Is this Josh Leetch?” the doctor asked.
“I’m sorry to inform you, but we have reason to believe that you have multiple sclerosis, due to unusual spots on the brain.”
I didn’t hear anything after that. You ever listen to the song “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd? The one about how the main character decides to stop caring and basically falls back into his own mind? Yeah, that was me.
I knew I was crying, but still I was telling myself nothing was wrong — it couldn't be! The reality of the doctor’s words had not yet sunk in.
My next step was to get a lumbar puncture, a procedure that requires doctors to insert a needle between two vertebrae in order to obtain spinal fluid. This would either confirm or disprove the diagnosis. After the procedure, I was required not to move for 24 hours, because of the risk of re-opening a hole in my spine. The procedure itself thankfully was not as bad as I have heard, but it did just happen to take place during finals for my senior year of high school. So yeah, still rough. Let’s just say I could have done better on those exams.
Even before the lumbar puncture, I knew the diagnosis was true; all the signs and symptoms of MS fit what I was experiencing. Throughout the whole diagnosis experience, I meandered along, trying to ignore anything that would set me off because I could not take much more stress.
“I knew I was crying, but still I was telling myself nothing was wrong.”
Hands down, it was the scariest time of my life, and looking back on it, it hasn’t gotten much easier. My diagnosis changed my life in more ways than I will ever realize, and it changed my family members’ lives, too.
My family has supported me through this journey, but they can only do so much. When my body decides to stop working, the only thing they can do is help me with external things such as opening doors or walking correctly. I’ve come to realize they cannot help me with my internal physical issues.
They try not to worry about my disease (same as me), but whenever I have a doctor’s appointment and my mother comes along with me, I can see the pain in her eyes. For me, seeing this pain is much worse than having the disease — no one wants to see their mother worry about them when they can't do anything to stop her from worrying.
So I’ve decided that first, I need to believe things will be alright for me in the end, no matter what happens, before I can start to help my mother and the rest of family understand what I'm going through and how to deal with it.
Today, two years later, I’ve decided that my health issues cannot control who I am. I've decided that if I live my life according to what the doctors tell me, then I will not truly live. For example, if I focus on the idea that I may not be able to walk someday in the future, it’ll get me nothing except worry. Now, whenever I get tired of standing, I tell myself that being able to stand at all is a gift, and that I cannot worry about what this fatigue might indicate.
I live to create stories I may one day tell my children, in hopes that they will understand this idea that life is precious and will live fully and courageously, like I do.
Hearing the phrase “life is short” means much more to me than it did before the diagnosis. Those words put into perspective that life needs to be lived to the fullest now. You may not be alive tomorrow. Live for now. Today!
If you see life for how truly short it is, then maybe you’ll enjoy the small things, maybe you’ll show your family more love, AND maybe the next time you see someone you’ve secretly been in love with for years, you will finally talk to them. Tell them what you're feeling, right now.
That's how I found my current girlfriend. I was too nervous to talk to her throughout high school but promptly decided after the diagnosis to take a chance and strike up a conversation. We officially met at a graduation party, I finally talked to her, and the rest is history. I realized I didn't want to live with any regrets. And that's the message that I try to pass on to people, including my family.
Even though life can make me sad from time to time, life is too short to continually worry. I take it day by day.
Now I don’t feel that same cold feeling that pierced every fiber of my being during those first few rough months. I am finally warm, safe and ready to take on the world.
Josh Leetch is working full time, still seeing the same girl and sharing his hope with to others, all while working towards his goal of becoming a writer.
A version of Josh’s story originally appeared on author and speaker Dan Maurer’s Transformation is Real, a site for contributors to share their own stories of transformation.