Most people never notice, but I live with a cow. She’s always around. Sometimes she’s so quiet I don’t even notice. Sometimes she’s downright mad. And occasionally? She’s flat out pissed off.
I don’t live on a farm and I don’t have suburban yard livestock, so a word of explanation is in order. When I was in college, I lived in England long enough that I’m ineligible to donate blood under the Red Cross’ “Mad Cow Edict.” So the family joke was that one day I would come down with Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (even though, granted, it’s in questionable taste and statistically unlikely).
I had dealt with random neurological weirdnesses (definitely) since 2002 and (probably) for more than a decade before that. But one morning toward the end of Summer in 2007, I woke up and couldn’t feel any of my body, save for my head and my right arm. My wife put her foot down and said I was going to be looked at.
I dutifully made my appointment and that set off a few escalating rounds of testing. Feeling very much the guinea pig — a bit bruised from months of poking, prodding and scanning — and there it was: a confirmed diagnosis of Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but what you’ve named you can understand — and fight.
When I got home, I sat the family down and explained it to them. The kids were still very young and one of them quipped to the other, “Daddy got the Cow!” It stuck.
Ever since, when my MS is acting up, we say that it’s a “Mad Cow Day.” And, on occasion, when it’s really fierce and they think I can’t hear them, I’ve overheard one child say to another, “Daddy’s Cow is really pissed today!”
So I just happen to live with a Mad Cow called Multiple Sclerosis. But I’ve long realized that each and every one of us lives with a cow. No matter how perfect a life may seem from the outside, we all have a dark, troubling burden that (often) can’t easily be seen from the outside.
Sometimes, my cow is out there for all to see. For me, especially when I’m exhausted or it’s very hot and humid, my balance gets wonky and my hands tremor. At other times, the cow is hidden to everyone else: most of the time I can’t feel my legs below my knees and I experience random electric shocks, but I cover well and no one else notices. Sometimes, the emotional burden of living under the Sword of Damocles is almost overwhelming. At other times, it’s barely a glimmer at the edge of my perception. Living with the capricious variability is, perhaps, the most difficult obstacle to surmount.
Your cow is different, but it’s still your challenge. It may be a physical characteristic: a chronic or emergent health condition, a catastrophic injury, or something far more subtle — but, nevertheless, a limitation or marker that you must navigate daily. It may be personal: addiction, depression, compulsion, anger, or fear. It may be a social characteristic that others react to: race, gender, sexual orientation, economic stress, unhealthy or abusive personal or working relationships, the list is long. It may be something else entirely.
But whatever your cow, it’s something that (either through its nature or how others react to it) you must deal with every day. Whatever your cow, it’s something that you must factor into your decisions — it impinges and constrains what you would otherwise do. Whatever your cow, too often, it’s a big, lumbering, sometimes unruly something that gets between you and what you need to accomplish.
You can call it a “demon” or a “monster,” but these are scary and grow more terrifying in the dark recesses of our minds. They are fearsome. But I don’t want to fear my MS, I want to laugh at it. So I prefer to think of mine as a cow. A cow is silly and ungainly (although still dangerous and not to be trifled with when she’s mad). She’s bulky and moody and gets in the way of everything. I don’t like her, but she won’t go away and her needs must be addressed so that I can tend to myself and everything else I want to accomplish.
It’s easy to feel burdened by your cow. It’s easy to feel that you are a burden to those who love you because of your cow. But we all have cows, and over time, most of our cows become burdensome and unruly. It’s not a matter of comparing our cows to see who has it worse. It’s a given that some of us face far bigger challenges than others. Some of us even have to negotiate a whole herd of the beasts. That’s not the point.
The point is that we all have a cow. Acknowledging our cows allows us to share our humanity. Acknowledging our cows gives us the strength of sharing our weaknesses and learning from the successes of others — rather than wasting our energies hiding behind the false comfort of face saving behaviors. Acknowledging our cows increases our compassion, encourages our common support, and reminds us to extend a bit of grace to others — and even to ourselves. Acknowledging our cows allows us to put them in their places and get on with the business of living.
We can’t choose our cows; they choose us. But we can choose how we live with them. We can train ourselves to better strategies and responses. We can order our environments to our advantage — not our cow’s. We can live in ways that minimize and mitigate their influence. And the first step is claiming our cows: what we identify, we can fight. And we can choose to identify them in ways that empower ourselves, rather than our cows. And so, my personal challenge is a cow — not a demon or a monster.
Some days, my cow wins. But I can laugh, and that gives me the courage to try again tomorrow. #ClaimYourCow
If you’re interested in me speaking to your group <mad cow link> about strategies for successfully living with a chronic condition, contact me. <email link>
• “Living with a Mad Cow: Managing the Experience of Chronic Illness”
• “Happy with a Mad Cow: Strategies for Staying Strong”
• “A Herd of Mad Cows: Living Together & Supporting One Another”