Many, many years ago, when I first met Justin, I remember thinking he had the appearance of a typical cocksure teenager of the day. He spoke with absolute conviction on any number of subjects and commanded attention from his audience. His energy was so exuberant that he paced the floor, hands in fists, like he was ready to take on anything and everything. It was fun to watch this irreverent, funny and bigger than life personality prowl the room, never knowing what he’d say next.
Over the years, I came to realize much of his assertiveness was a compensation for a very adrift and sensitive soul. I learned he struggled and floundered in the educational system, leaving him unsure of his future prospects. You could see that he desperately wanted to show the world how capable he really was but felt directionless, scared of what the future would bring and ultimately angry that people gave up hope on him. At the same time, his mother, who was diagnosed with MS, began to feel the effects of the disease, walking with a cane, quickly progressing to a wheelchair, and ultimately paralyzed. His fears, his lack of direction, and his sense of aloneness culminated into a deep depression as he waited for the inevitable. The thing that had him frozen since his early teenage years. His mother finally subcumming to MS.
In a strange twist of fate, his mother passing oddly released him of much of what had him frozen for so many years. Waiting for the worst to come was no longer part of his inner dialogue. His worst fears had come to pass and he was still standing. As if something awakened him, he began to push himself. He started a landscaping company, he began to reach out to his friends more, he met and married his wife, Nancy, and not long after had a beautiful little girl to dote on. He had found his way.
A few years ago I remember Justin telling me that he felt something wasn’t right.
His body didn’t feel right, he was in pain, his legs felt like unmovable tree trunks. He went to his doctor and after a general physical they told him he was fine. He was probably stressed. Maybe he should start working out more. He began to take the normal steps to “get healthy”. Even called me to have me start training him. But as more time passed, he knew something was wrong. Panic attacks became a regular occurrence. He became listless, anxiety-ridden, unable to cope with day to day responsibilities which took a toll on his business. His wife, who was juggling a 3 year old and overwhelmed with bills, was at a loss of how to reach him. What do you do? Where do you turn?
This led to more doctor visits that gave him no answers… if anything, the visits made him feel like a hypochondriac. A couple of months into training him (which was becoming less and less frequent) I remember him very quietly stating his greatest fears.
Could it be MS? Could it be possible…
Much like when he was a kid, his fears were paralyzing him once again.
Eventually, with the support of his wife, they insisted that he get tested for Multiple Sclerosis. I can’t imagine the guts it took to do that. This wasn’t a disease that he looked up on the internet and thought “Gee, maybe I have that.” He was intimately acquainted with this disease.
It stole his mother from him.
It stole the security and happiness of his childhood.
It changed everything at an age where he was just discovering himself.
He went for his MRI and within an hour his doctor told him he needed to call a specialist. After exhausting all the possibilities and being tested for an array of conditions (Lymes Disease, Lupus etc.) it was as he had feared. Multiple Sclerosis.
When the outcome you fear the most comes to pass, what do you do?
Justin described the feeling as a sudden calm. Once again, when faced with the worst case scenario, he came to the same realization that he had when his mother had past. He was still standing. It was as though the monster now had a name and it had no teeth. Though still contending with the effects of the disease and its protocol, he felt the strength of his convictions. He will beat MS and live life to the fullest.
Through the past few years Justin has organized his friends and family to join in on charitable activities that led up to an MS Pooch Walk at the Belmont State Park to benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. It was a fun way to give to a community that has helped so many people inflicted with this disease and also honor his mother. This past year, recognizing he needed to regularly push himself, he decided he wanted a challenge. In January 2013, Justin, with the support of his wife, friends and family, began training to run the 3.5 mile course of the MS walk. The physical challenge and resolve it takes to get through the daily training in many ways mirrors the daily life of a person with MS. It can be exhausting. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with it….but you push through with determination. No excuses.
Since that day, Justin has been moved by the stories of people who have battled adversity, depression, and illness only to come out of it stronger than ever. The group he created, Team Phoenix, was born out of that very idea! Whether it be MS, cancer, to depression….“From the Ashes, We rise”