Young people live with the foolish assumption they will always be strong and healthy. Young men are particularly susceptible to thinking they are invincible. When one of their own peers is cut down by disability or a serious incurable disease — like aggressive multiple sclerosis - it shakes them to their core. After initial shows of support, they often avoid the hurt or sick friend.
Those who knew me before my disease drew back in wide-eyed fear when they initially saw me spastic or using a cane, canes, crutches or wheelchair when I was in my 30s. I had been one of them, a winner, then overnight, I became a loser.
My situation reminded them that they too were mortals. Old friends stayed away in droves.
Like the old song says "Friends weren't unkind, just hard to find." Of all the friends I had as a young man, only my wife remained.
The sudden destruction of health and the onset of disability were difficult for me to endure but the abandonment of old friends deepened my pain and sense of loss.
To be perfectly frank, isolation and lack of friendships were the sources of as much sorrow as the disability itself.
At work, I had been part of the inner ring, so-to-speak, before the multiple sclerosis. I was not a power broker but had access to them. When the MS was diagnosed, doors to power and upward mobility quietly closed to me.
Initially, the power brokers remembered that I used to be aligned with their ranks; they helped me limp along in the shadow of my former self. Managers and other executives made things easy for one of their underlings who stumbled (quite literally) into unforeseen misfortune. Blind eyes were turned when I was sick and absent from work or important meetings; easy assignments were given to me and allowances made.
Don't get me wrong, I appreciated the support I received, and some managers bent over backward to accommodate me. But I knew that sooner or later the little kindnesses (and even gushing generosity) would become tiresome and dry up.
Eventually I was seen as dead weight to the efficient operations of the department - I was a humanitarian luxury that could no longer be afforded or tolerated. Faces that were once so sympathetic and warm grew cold and contemptuous as the full realization of the phrase chronic illness and degenerative disability became apparent. They were stuck with an employee who had both . . . there would be no recovery in me.
So I was put out to pasture - medically retired at 38 years of age. Although I knew it was inevitable, the actual deed of being forced into retirement as a young man came as a terrible shock and I sank into depression.
I was brought up to believe that men worth their salt worked and made contributions and here I sat in my wheelchair each morning watching a train of commuters heading to jobs and careers. No longer was I part of that daily procession.
My sense of isolation, and loss of identity, deepened. Days passed into months and months into years.
Loneliness and isolation are constant companions to people with disabilities. The more profound and visible the disability, the more profound isolation and loneliness become.
It is important to reach out to people with disabilities and the Church has fine disability ministries. At an individual level, if you feel uncomfortable around seriously disabled people, try to look past their disabilities and see the person. It's that simple. (But isn't that the basis for all genuine friendships?)
Personally, I discovered that my feelings of isolation were either mitigated or eliminated through prayer. Seeking and encountering the reality of Jesus Christ shifted my perspective away from myself and assured me that I was not isolated in my suffering. Christ is close to me and truly understands my pain, fears and sorrows.
His Passion dwarfs the worst of human anguish. Did he not say, "My soul is sorrowful unto death"? Was Jesus not deserted by his friends? Christ cried out from his deepest point of an agony on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me." Yes, Christ understands human pain and He is our greatest solace in times of loneliness or the anguish of being cut off from human interaction.
God told us he will not leave us or forsake us. (See Hebrews 13.5.) Jesus said, "I am with you always, until the end of the age." You may feel alone, but you are not alone. Remember, Emmanuel — God is with us.