What does one do when one gets diagnosed with MS? Likely reexamine life’s priorities and, perhaps, stretch boundaries. Certainly Elys Bank never thought she would try out for roller derby. Until she did.
My Year 40 was not my best year. I was stuck in a bad job that continued to get worse with a long commute and an asshole boss. I had some "female" troubles in early 2013 that resulted in a hysterectomy and a week in the hospital. Relationship troubles plagued me and hurt my very scarred up heart.
Then April happened. That month started with this weird, funky light flashing in the corner of my eye (my first symptom, too—Dave) and ended with me sitting in a neurologist's office with him explaining that I had MS. He counted the 18 "holes" in my brain—areas bright as a dying star—that were evident on my MRI. That moment, life changed dramatically. My traitorous immune system was constructing a golf course in my head.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that I went into complete pity-party mode. We have all imagined sitting in the doctor’s office receiving a life-changing diagnosis. And, as it turns out, it happens pretty much like you imagine it will. So yes, I was feeling sorry for myself.
But my best friend Sara was having none of it. She made me join her one Saturday for tryouts. Roller derby tryouts. She dragged me to the warehouse, where an oval track was measured out over the concrete floor. There were bleachers, benches, and a distinct smell. It took me a few months to figure out that it was the smell of fierce women and unlaundered knee pads.
Sara strapped skates on my feet. She grabbed me by the hips and launched me forward into the pack of incredibly cool women that all harbored the dream that I had secretly had since I first learned about Derby. And I fell. And I fell again.
I can’t skate. I used to be able to. I used to skate with those old-fashioned roller skates that went on over your shoes and you tightened with a key. I used to wear the key around my neck because I feared that if I lost it, I would have to go through the rest of my life with these strange metal contraptions over my shoes. At five, I had some trouble envisioning a world where there were other ways to unlock the skate.
I remember getting my first pair of skates with the white boots that lace over your ankles. I would pretend I was Dorothy Hamill, skating in the Olympics. I would skate with my sisters for hours on end. I never feared falling. It never occurred to me that I would fall. And if I did fall, I would spend the next week showing off my scabby knees.
Somehow, between then and now, I lost the ability to skate. Maybe it is because I started being afraid to fall. I forgot the thrill of going fast. I couldn’t remember the high of trying something new and successfully pulling it off. I forgot how to skate.
During tryouts, I was fighting the side effects of the medication I had just begun to take. It was making me shake. It was making me dizzy. And it didn’t help me at all when I tried to balance on eight wheels.
My endurance was terrible. I couldn't skate fast. I couldn't stop. I was completely drained after a single lap. My legs burned from the exertion of muscles that had long since retired into a quiet existence.
Exhausted, shaky, and drained, I sat on the bench and watched these amazing women skate. And fall, and get up, and skate some more. I couldn't hold the tears back. Tiana Trauma, the team medic, gracefully skated over and sat near me on the bench.
"I'm not hurt," I told her. "I'm just frustrated."
"No you're not." Trauma looked at me and said, "You're pissed off. You’re pissed that your body has betrayed you."
She told me to stand up, and try again. Then try again, then do better next time.
Biz, the Fresh Meat mama (that would be the veteran who is in charge of teaching the rookies how to skate), called me aside. She looked over my tryout sheet with notes about my woefully pitiful try-out scores. She asked, "Do you want to do this?"
I wanted to do this. Hell, yes I wanted to do this. If I had to go through the Fresh Meat class ten times, yes, I wanted to do this. I wanted to take my body back. I wanted to get strong in preparation for the days ahead when my physical abilities might be tested. I wanted to know that if I was going to the emergency room, it was because I took an elbow in the nose while blocking the other team's Jammer. Not because by brain was being rebellious.
Biz made the announcement. We were all invited—I was invited—to begin the Fresh Meat training. Sara leaned back and gave me a wink.
It’s been about 9 months since that day. And I am learning how to balance. I am learning how to fall. I am training my body to move forward, and I am figuring out how to take a hit and stay on my feet. Oh, and I am also learning how to skate.