Holly & Mark / Gillian & Zach

Holly & Mark / Gillian & Zach

By Mark E. Smith

It’s official: Zach Anner and I – the two most eligible men with cerebral palsy in America – are in love.

Now, when I say that Zach and I have been the two most eligible men with cerebral palsy in America, what I really mean is, we couldn’t get dates if our lives depended on it. And, while we were tempted to date each other out of pure complacency, it turned out that waiting for the two most beautiful women in the world to sweep us off of our feet (which, let’s be honest, isn’t hard to do when we’re not on our feet to begin with), turned out to be a better idea. I should clarify that we weren’t both waiting for the two most beautiful women each, which would equal four women in total and would be really weird and a TLC reality show, but one amazing woman each. And, we scored!

In an uncanny twist, about 10 months ago, Zach and I started falling in love – with two separate women, not each other! – in Southern California. And, amazing women they were (they, of course, still are amazing, even more so, but I’m trying to keep my tense straight). Zach’s beloved Gillian is an internationally-known singer-song writer, and my beloved Holly is an artist. Both women are creative, witty, caring souls, who’s personalities truly radiate at a tangible level. Their depths of character range from funny to empathetic to being up for all that life has to offer. So, how did Zach and I ultimately get so blessed with such amazing women?

Cerebral Palsy. Fellas, trust me on this one. Forget the cheesy pick-up lines, fancy cars and medical degrees. All you need to attract a woman is cerebral palsy. Even if you don’t have cerebral palsy, say that you do. You can have a Ferrari and medical degree, but unless you tack cerebral palsy on the end, you don’t have a chance. Why? Because every woman knows cerebral palsy is where it’s at.

Of course, cerebral palsy has nothing to do with Zach and my finding love. The truth be told, we know the real secret to our finding the two most amazing women in the world: We’re just ourselves. What makes Zach and me who we are is just that – we’re happy as we are, cerebral palsy, poor posture, twisted senses of humor and all. And, with self-acceptance comes a confidence and comfort, where we have the ability to laugh and love and embrace life with an enthusiasm that’s contagious. We’re easy to love, but we equally love easily, where we know that vulnerability is a strength, empathy is a gift, and a true lover is also a best friend.

If you want to be loved for you… well… just be you.

Awesome socks don't hurt, either!

Awesome socks don’t hurt, either!

drunk

To John, February 5, 1951 – July 24, 2010

By Mark E. Smith

If you’ve read the research of recent years, then you probably already know about me: I’m an alcoholic.

Indeed, the medical establishment has concluded that alcoholism is hereditary – that is, if your family tree is lined with drunks, you’re a drunk, too. Or, you’re at tremendous risk of being a drunk. Walking past a bar or liquor store is like a metal shaving passing a magnet – it wants to suck you in!

For me, being an alcoholic is torturous because I think it’s the only thing I’ve failed at. I mean, I’m a bad alcoholic – really bad. My parents, grandparents, great grandparents and probably their parents were great at it. I mean, my mother and father had it down to a science – it’s not easy losing everything, including your life. But, me, I’m a terrible alcoholic. I’m so bad of a drinker that I haven’t drank today, nor did I drink yesterday or the day before or the day before or the day before or the day before….

But, my alcoholism even gets worse, pathetic, really. I’ve never hidden bottles, lost jobs, sobbed, Please take me back, ruined a wedding or child’s birthday party, bathed in cologne, slept on the front lawn in my clothes, wondered how my car keeps getting smashed up, vomited blood, feigned vertigo, passed out with a lit cigarette and burned my fingers, lied to everyone about everything, stole money from my child’s piggie bank, stood with belligerent narcissism before a judge, drank because of this or that, drank vodka from a water bottle at church, hugged a tree while the Earth spun at tremendous speed and I urinated on myself, or explained to a bank teller why my signature doesn’t match. Yes, I’m a terrible alcoholic.

However, here’s what I’m really good at: a little thing called personal accountability. Unlike the color of my hair, hereditary doesn’t dictate jack squat when it comes to my being an alcoholic or not. Life gives me free will to choose my path. And, while I understand the science, it’s 100 percent my choice to drink or not to drink. My mother did nine months in jail due to her third DUI, and upon being released, she stopped by a liquor store on the way home and downed a pint of vodka. Time and time again, I’ve watched people around me choose to re-elect life-destroying alcoholism, while others choose sobriety (and the science behind addiction recovery shows that the only time alcoholics maintain sobriety is when they literally choose to).

In this way, I’m among the worst alcoholics you’ll ever meet because I’ve turned my back on my own heredity.

watch

By Mark E. Smith

On Walnut Street in downtown Philadelphia – an upscale shopping district lined with cafes – I’m let into a watch store by a security guard. It’s not an ordinary watch store. In the display cases are literally millions of dollars in watches – Cartier, Breitling, Rolex. I stroll by them casually, with no interest to stop and gaze in the cases.

I have my own watch, which was a gift. I don’t get many gifts, so this watch is especially meaningful to me. No, it’s not a Cartier, Breitling or Rolex. But, then again, I can’t put a value on its sentimental value, so maybe it’s more valuable than any watch in the glass cases – at least to me.

I’m greeted by a woman, and I explain to her that I need my watch band fitted. She gets a gentleman from the back, and he’s glad to help. As he sits at a desk and removes links from my band, I know that his hands rarely touch such a watch as mine, nowhere near the cost of even the least expensive watch in his store.

“I really appreciate your adjusting my watch,” I say. “I realize that it’s nowhere near the level of watches that you sell.”

“Any watch that tells time is a great watch,” he replies with a sincere smile, handing me my watch to try on.

With my watch fit to my wrist, I head back out onto the bustling sidewalk of Walnut Street. It’s as diverse of crowd as you’ll find anywhere. And, I’m struck by the profound words spoken by the gentleman at the watch shop. He really wasn’t just talking about watches, but the people who wear them. Think about how, as a society, we label everyone like watches – labels that often dictate a person’s status – from the wealthy to the homeless, the African American to the Irishman, the gay to the straight, to me, one with cerebral palsy. Yet, we’re all just watches, aren’t we? And, as the gentleman at the watch shop summed up each of us with such humility, Any watch that tells time is a great watch.

bathrooom

By Mark E. Smith

Sometimes, vanity and modesty are voided by the realities of everyday life beyond our control, albeit disability, age or illness, and in those harrowing moments – wanting to stop time so that no one knows what we’re trying to hide from all others – we are forced out from our facades and have to ask for help, where our deepest vulnerability suddenly becomes our ultimate strength.

 

 

specialneeds

 

By Mark E. Smith

As a classically-trained writer, I understand words – their efficacy or impotence, the way they twirl off of the tongue and echo in the ear. Words are powerful, captivating, emotive. And, sometimes, words are defining, both in the positive and negative.

For some time, as a writer, as a parent and as one with a disability – but, really, just as a person – I’ve been struggling with three words that we use to define what I’ve come to know as an ambiguous, possibly specious term: special needs child.

I, of course, understand our social definition of a special needs child, that of a child with a physical, emotional or intellectual disability. But, is it – special needs child – a logical term to use? I mean, I’m not questioning it from a political-correctness or ethical perspective. I simply question if the label is logical?

And, I don’t think it is. After all, have you ever met a child who didn’t have special needs? Of course not. If we truly acknowledge what each child in our life needs, every child is a special needs child. There are eight children in my close family, and they’re all so unique in character and at different stages from one another that each one has special needs. Why only project “special needs” onto children who have disabilities when every child clearly has special needs?

The label also represents a type of reverse discrimination that’s unfair to all children. If you’re with several children in public, and one has a disability, adults often fawn over the child who has a disability and ignore the other children. Yes, such adults mean well, but they’re doing more harm than good. Such situations inadvertently patronize disability and ignore others – everyone loses.

Instead, let’s see kids as kids. Each is special and unique and has needs, and should be recognized as such. Most importantly, let’s drop the labels altogether, and just let all kids be kids.

hare-and-tortoise-694263

By Mark E. Smith

No matter how many times I’ve read Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, the tortoise always wins. Logically, at some point shouldn’t the hare win? After all, the hare is physically faster.

The answer is, no – not in the fable and not in life. Aesop, a slave in ancient Greece in the 5th century BC, was onto something: Dedication and perseverance always pay off in the end. Think about every aspect of your life, from health to career to relationships to finances – does taking the easy way ever work in the long run?

Never. The University of Wisconsin did a study (one example of many) on how long it takes to get in true physical shape. After six weeks of rigorous training, there were no results seen in the sample group; three months showed progress; but, it wasn’t till one year, then four years that there were significant physiological changes. Everyone wants a quick fix to shed those pounds and have six-pack abs, but there’s no such thing. However, you can absolutely do it if you have a tortoise mentality, where dedication and perseverance will pay off over years.

Want to be a millionaire? Maybe winning the lottery, flipping houses or playing the stock market is the ticket. No, the hare loses again. In the U.S., tortoises get rich. The average millionaire is 57, works over 50 hours per week, has a graduate degree, and is first-generation wealthy. What’s been their number one wealth-building tool? Saving 20% of their monthly take home pay over their career. Put simply, you get rich over decades, not overnight.

Of course, in relationships, the hare must win, right? Love at first sight rules all. Statistically, not so. See, your odds of staying married increase if you date for at least a year before tying the knot, and those who get married around age 30 are much more likely to stay married than those who get married younger. Want the healthiest marriage? Be a tortoise and take things slow and steady.

I live and work in the world of disability experience, where challenges abound for many of us. And, what I’ve learned is that rehabilitation doesn’t stop when released from the hospital; rather, it’s truly just beginning. There are no quick fixes, and some skill sets – from the physical to the emotional to the mental – can take decades to master. Heck, every morning I still work on the coordination needed to tie my shoes and button my pants– after over 30 years of trying. Yet, it’s the tortoise mindset that keeps us striving. If we simply stay dedicated and persevere, we will succeed in one way or form. It can take 20 or 30 years, but success will come.

The examples go on and on, but here’s the point: there’s literally no secret to success. Success isn’t luck of the draw or magic. We need only to look to Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare – a slave’s philosophy from ancient Greece – to know that success is a marathon, not a sprint.

Rising With Adversity

Posted: June 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

Rising to Adversity

By Mark E. Smith

It’s become such a widely-used phrase that it’s even transcended into the secular lexicon: God only gives us what we can handle.

Yet, within the meaning of that phrase, that belief – which suggests that we are somehow preordained for a heroic role – the individual plight is lost. And, without delving into theology or questioning one’s spiritual beliefs, I’ve witnessed a much different perspective to facing adversity: We only handle that which we choose to handle.

See, within adversity, there’s always a specific choice – that is, to rise as the Phoenix or to crumble as a house of cards. And, yes, we all have the capacity for both, where in moments we can teeter in-between. However, ultimately, we rise or crumble, where the will and choice is ours.

I’ve seen plenty crumble, choosing not to fight, not to implement free will in the face of adversity. I’ve seen those who have given up the moment that times get tough in health, relationships, careers. But, I’ve never witnessed anyone who wasn’t ultimately equipped to face adversity. It’s as they say in any rehabilitation program, You have the tools. It’s your choice whether to use them.

And, yet, I’ve also seen so many make the immediate choice to rise. An acquaintance of mine, with twin 13-year-old daughters, lost his wife to multiple sclerosis. While he rightfully could have given up on all – only seeing how unjust life can be – he sought counseling and healing, and he said to me, “I lost the love of my life, but I will not let it rob me of my love for life.”

For those of us who face adversity on a daily basis – and rise – we learn to dance with it gracefully. Yes, there are routinely challenging moments. However, instead of being discouraged by them, we move through them, then release them. Again, it’s a choice that we have, to go into adversity, succeed in spite of it, then release it, letting it go. And, that’s when we rise.

Now, there are those who are very humble in their plights of choosing to address adversity, not running from it, noting, for example, “I’m the parent of a special needs child. Being there however needed is what parents simply do. It’s just right.” However, unfortunately, that parental mindset is not a given. Lot’s of parents choose not to be parents after all. From one parent choosing to exit the picture, to special needs children as among the highest at-risk groups for foster care, not all parents choose to face adversity. Among the most painful experiences of my life was several years ago when I visited a live-in care facility for special needs children. I was struck by how active and engaged the children were, perplexed why they we’re there and not living at home? “Most of the children’s parents here are quite affluent, and the child’s special needs don’t fit their lifestyle,” the director told me. Not all parents do what’s right. Some choose not to embrace adversity with their children, but choose to shun it. Therefore, those parents who choose to embrace adversity with their children cannot be taken for granted – their choice is among the most noble in humanity.

Within all of this, then, is the key to adversity. If we choose to crumble, life stops and joy dissolves. However, if we choose with tenacity to face adversity, move through it, then release it, we will rise. Adversity isn’t a choice, but facing it is. And, the fact is this: we’re all equipped to face adversity, and when we do, we rise.