Multiple Sclerosis Made Me a Better Runner: Kayla Montgomery at TEDxCambridge (Transcript)


Kayla Montgomery

Kayla Montgomery – Award-winning long distance runner

When I was 15 years old, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which is also known as MS. After this, I was completely consumed with bitterness and fear, and I’d spend a lot of time alone, and more often than not, I’d just cry myself to sleep. For a while, I even considered quitting running, even though that’s something I’ve always been really passionate about, because I figured, “What’s the point in pursuing something that my body may, some day, take away from me?

I ended up using my diagnosis as an excuse to be afraid, and to keep myself from living the kind of life I’d want to live, because I knew that it would be really difficult to overcome. So, after living like this for nearly a year, I began to realize that I was just making myself miserable.

So, I started to change my perspective, and I started to see my diagnosis in a new way, so that I wouldn’t pity myself as much. I began to use MS as my motivation, because I couldn’t stand the idea of letting it continue to get the best of me. Because of the lesions caused by MS, I have to overcome chronic fatigue, frequent migraines, a complete lack of feeling in my legs when I’m overheated, and occasional nerve pain from the waist down.

So, whenever my body overheats while running, I lose all feeling in my legs, which means, more often than not, I’m running without any feeling in my legs. I knew that it would be really difficult, but, instead of using this symptom as a barrier to keep me from reaching my goals, I used it to push me toward state titles and a collegiate career at Lipscomb University.

So, instead of being defeated by MS, I used it to motivate me. But I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m telling you all this, and well, if you haven’t been the victim of an unfortunate event – and it’s bound to happen at some point in your lifetime – unfortunately, bad news is inevitable. But if you allow that situation to get the best of you, then you’ll miss an opportunity to turn something bad into something good.

Indulging in any initial negativity will only make your situation that much more difficult, because when we’re consumed in self-pity, we tend to stop looking for solutions for our problems. For example, when I was first diagnosed, I was in complete denial, and I was consumed with self-pity. I was sick all the time, my grades were awful, and I was anything but fast.

But when I finally started to change my perspective on life with MS, I started to notice dramatic improvements on my health, academics, and athletics. But I get it: if somebody had told me all this when I was first diagnosed, I would’ve thought, “You’re crazy. It can’t possibly be as simple as an attitude change.” But even though it may not seem like it, it is possible to see a negative situation in a new way.

So, instead of allowing an unfortunate event to keep you from living the kind of life you’d want to live, use it to fuel you and motivate you toward success. And you’re right, of course it won’t be easy, but there are so many great reasons for you to pursue a perspective change like this. After changing my perspective, I started to notice that my life didn’t just turn back to normal, but that there were results that exceeded all expectations I’d had.

When I was a freshman, I dreamed of running in college, but at that time in my life, and with all the fear and negativity that consumed me, that was never going to happen. My coach, coach Cromwell, even told me I’d be lucky to be a walk-on at the collegiate level. But I guess, in other words, all the negativity and doubt in my own abilities caused my own coach to have doubt in my abilities as well.

But once I started to change my views on life with MS, we both began to realize my dreams of being a collegiate athlete could become my reality. So, I guess what I really want you guys to understand is that if you allow your difficulties to get the best of you, then your situation will only get that much worse, but as soon as you begin to change your perspective so that you view your situation as the force that drives you rather than as the force that holds you back, then good can come from the bad.

But in case you’re thinking that this is something that only applies to me, it’s not, and it can work for you too. When we’re all faced with difficult situations, it can be really hard to maintain a positive outlook, because it’s so easy to focus on all the bad things instead, but the first step is to acknowledge that having any initial negativity upon receiving bad news is completely normal. Experiencing denial and anger is normal, and it doesn’t mean that you’re weak, but that you’re just undergoing a physically and emotionally trying situation.

When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I was terrified. And not only that, but I was in complete denial, and I insisted on living life as if nothing was wrong, and like I wasn’t actually sick. When I was at home, no one was allowed to discuss MS unless they wanted to feel my wrath, and at school, nobody was allowed to know that every day I was struggling to find the feeling in my legs and to stay awake.

So every day, I’d pretend that life was fine, and that I wasn’t actually sick, until everybody, including myself, started to believe it. I spent every day doing the best that I could to pretend that my life hadn’t been flipped upside down, and that MS wasn’t something I’d have to battle for the rest of my life. But that’s exhausting, and I began to realize that pretending like this was doing a lot more harm than it was any good.

When we focus so much on pretending, we tend to stop trying to find real solutions for our problems. We have to accept our situation no matter what it is, and that can happen in a lot of different ways. For some, you may just wake up one day and realize that a change of perspective is necessary, and for others, it might take what feels like a slap in the face to come to terms. That’s what happened for me.

I was in a church retreat, and my youth pastor was speaking, and even though the words he’d said were words that I’d heard over and over since I’d been diagnosed, this time they’d finally sunk in. I felt like my eyes were being peeled open, and I could finally see MS for what it really was, just a disease, not this terrifying monster living inside of me.

I also started to realize that having a disease like MS is just a part of living in a broken world. I also realized that the entire time I’d been being diagnosed, I’d had an amazing support system I’d been refusing up until that point. And all of these realizations helped me to come to terms with my situation, and allowed me to view MS in a way that helped to stop allowing it to control me. It was at this moment that the very idea of allowing MS to keep me from doing the things I love, like running, was unbearable to me. I will now do anything to prevent MS from getting the best of me, whereas before, I’d let it walk all over me. And although I can’t control the fact I’ll lose feeling of my legs when I run, I can still control anything that isn’t MS-related.

So, I do the best that I can every day to make the most out of what I’m still able to do. And should someday I no longer be able to run, then I’ll continue to make the most out of what I can still control. That’s all any of us can really do. Once you begin to accept the negative things in your life, and have a perspective that allows you to see you situation as your motivator instead, you’ll be able to find peace again. However, this doesn’t mean that, once you find this sense of peace, it will always be there.

Every day is a new battle, and every day you have to choose again if you’re going to use your situation to hold you back, or to motivate you instead. I accepted my diagnosis years ago, but I still have to make a decision every day about whether or not MS is going to beat me. And of course, I’d like to say that, since the change in perspective, I’ve been able to easily choose to overcome every day, but that wouldn’t be the truth. There are some days that are harder than others, days when my symptoms are worse and my fear returns, but that just means that the following day I have to choose to overcome, instead of letting the negativity from the previous day become a pattern. It’s important to know that some days will be harder than others, because having this knowledge will better prepare you for the possibility of having an off-day.

Bad things will happen to all of us, but we all have the capability to overcome whatever the world throws our way. We can all turn something bad into something amazing, and anyone can do this once they accept their situation, and understand that it is a daily challenge and a daily choice to use their situation as a motivator instead of as a barrier. Because we all experience bad things throughout the course of our lives, it would be really easy to just give up and to let it get the best of us, but I believe that we’re meant to change our perspectives to use the negatives as motivators instead.

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