Coping with an unexpected illness

Ramgopal Vallath shares how he coped and what he learned when an unexpected illness threatened to shatter his whole life


I was ecstatic when I became one of the youngest Circle Heads in India for a telecom operation at 35, but my joy was short-lived. I had no idea that my health was about to take a nosedive. It started off as mild symptoms—my hands would tremble whenever I held something and I could not find my balance while trying to descend stairs. I ignored it at first, jokingly calling it my ‘handshaking problem’, and telling people it was a result of excessive handshakes, thanks to my sales job.

My deteriorating dreams

Over the next five years, my condition steadily worsened. My fingers lost sensation and strength; I could no longer perform simple tasks such as buttoning up my shirt, tying my shoelaces, writing legibly, or even typing. Picking up even small things such as a glass of water or a plate was a nightmare. Similarly, my legs became weak and unsteady. I could not climb up stairs without holding on to a railing for support; I couldn’t walk more than a couple of hundred metres at a time and my left foot started to droop, causing me to stub my toes while walking or causing me to trip and fall many times.

My corporate dream had come crashing down. I changed jobs because of my condition, in the hope of finding work I could still do without too much of a hindrance.

My condition had also been misdiagnosed a few times. Finally, I was told I had CIDP [Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy], an autoimmune disorder. Life was as tough as it could get. Fate had ideas completely at variance with the well-laid plans I had set for myself. I watched in pain as my dream of becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 company in my early 40s slowly slipped away.

But there was something about me which even fate could not touch—my attitude, [I’d like to think I am the most positive person I’ve ever met.] I knew that if I tried hard enough I would find a solution to my problems.

To accomplish this, there were a set of rules which I adhered to. Based on my experience this is the knowledge I have garnered:

1. Never think of what could have been

Thinking of what you are missing out on and wasting time brooding over where you could have reached is the single most unproductive way of spending your time. What could have been is never going to happen. Instead of wasting time mulling over things, you should spend time assessing the present situation and, based on that, plan for the future. I never spend time regretting the downward spiral in my health nor how it derailed my career.

2. Understand that life is not fair

There is no algorithm built into the fabric of the universe, which ensures that a person who does good deeds always receives a good life. The sooner you realise this, the easier it will be for you to accept reality and also to realise that the only person who can pull you out of your difficulties is yourself. This will galvanise you into action. In my case, I was always looking ahead to see how I could maximise my value addition [at work, at home or in terms of what I could contribute to the society] given my condition. This ensured that my mind was always engaged in something positive.

3. Always seek solutions

As a young boy, I studied in some of the smallest villages in Kerala, that too in government schools with Malayalam as the medium of instruction. The pass percentage in most of those schools was a mere 20 per cent. Yet, I managed without any external tuition to obtain the 129th rank in IIT JEE. The reason I could do this was because I had learned from my parents to always look for solutions. While practising for the entrance test, there were times when I would spend two to three days solving a single problem. But I never gave up. So I knew that if I explored all the possibilities and approached everything with an orientation towards finding a solution, no problem is unsolvable. As my illness progressed, I tried to workout daily, do yoga and took ayurvedic treatments. I also researched long and hard on the Internet for a possible cure. I never gave up trying. This kept my hope alive and also made me feel great that I was always doing something constructive.

When the going gets tough, the tough use humour

4. When the going gets tough, the tough get humorous

The single most important thing that kept me sane and indeed in a great mood during these trying times was my ability to look at the funny side of things. I made sure that every meeting I attended, every group of friends I spent time with or every time I sat down with my family for a meal, I would make that group feel a little more cheerful than what they were when I joined them. I would always crack a few jokes and make light of a situation. The trick is not to take yourself too seriously and also not to let others take themselves too seriously. I was always the one who told my kids many funny stories and made them roll around with laughter. When you spread cheer to others, it ensures the overall atmosphere lightens and in turn makes you more cheerful. It is an amplified positive feedback of jollity.

5. Take up something you love to do

In my case, I started blogging. I created my own blog and filled it with humorous and wacky posts. I shared it far and wide and enjoyed the praise I got for it. While undergoing my clinical trial treatment in the USA [a treatment that I had identified thanks to my intense online research], I also started writing my first novel—a funny science fiction story for all ages. Completing this book, getting it published and subsequently marketing it far and wide gave me such a powerful boost of energy that I recovered most of my strength­­—thanks to it.

6. Set yourself a series of small attainable stretch goals

Even at the height of my illness, I would set daily targets for myself such as to walk one km in 20 minutes or to lift 500gms of weight 50 times with each hand and so on. After finishing my treatment, I set daily targets to exercise 27 different muscles for the next six months. The target would increase every week. Then I went about beating each target, every day.

Today, I am a published author and a motivational speaker. I have conducted seminars in more than a dozen corporate organisations and in many schools and colleges. My aim in life is to positively touch as many people as I can. My next book is all about keeping yourself motivated through the toughest of times and turning your situation into an advantage.

Through all this [to paraphrase William Ernest Henley], the one thing I kept telling myself and that I would like to share with everyone is…

“You are the master of your fate; you are the captain of your soul.”

 This was first published in the November 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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