Retirement at age 36.5 – who wouldn’t want to sign up for that?
A poll conducted in December 2017 by The Journal, an Irish online paper, showed that 67% of those who took part, want to retire before they’re 65.
Despite having been a workaholic who couldn’t turn off at night, my vote would have been added to that same group.
Little did I know however that a neurodegenerative illness would make that decision for me.
Enter 2005: living in Ireland for 2,5 years, good job, fantastic friends and family, studying psychology, happily stomping around my little green island and pretending I was A-OK.
I so wasn’t OK.
Imagine an ice pick being plunged through your ears and eyes each time you hear a sudden, loud noise, or while sitting next to a cold window, or worse, while brushing your teeth.
In the space of 4 months, my facial nerves took ownership of my pain levels and decided it was time to raise the bar to new heights. I had seen my GP at least 7 or 8 times and sought answers from dentists, the Eye and Ear Hospital and a homeopath who scheduled an appointment with an intuitive healer. As it turned out, the latter was spot on with her verdict.
Two months later I was told I have MS. There were no tears, no Hollywood-antics, no drama. That day went by in an almost matter-of-fact way.
As would the following five weeks.
Loved ones call that period ‘denial’, but I prefer the phrase ‘a very matter-of-fact way’. I am only human.
I had a large group of friends in college and at work who were waiting to hear the results of my neurological appointment. The other, more painful lesson in communication started with having to tell loved ones. Like an elephant bulldozing its way through a tiny China shop, I said, “Yep, there’s no cure, I will get worse over time and I have to plunge a needle into my body three times a week.”
Subtlety was not on my list of favourite words in 2005.
The language used when talking to my employer was not as blunt but measured enough to ask if working from home would be a possibility. When it eventually happened, a year had passed, and two years later, my body decided that my time as an employee should come to an end.
It took me 1,5 years to be able to say, “Yes, this is it. Full stop. Basta. Godverdomme.”
From that moment on, I would be on an invalidity pension.
My mind was on a rollercoaster ride, one where you say upon arrival, “Are you bloody kidding me? Did that just happen?!” But, when your GP, neurologist, an occupational doctor appointed by my employer, family, and friends say it’s time to start thinking of myself, you kinda have to listen.
I was 36.5 years old.
End date of my shiny new status as a pensioner?
Unwillingly I was put in non-self-imposed isolation and I was put there because of an incurable illness I never asked for. Sadly, the outside world would do similarly.
It hurts to let go, but sometimes it hurts more to hold on
Add another nine years to what went before, and I can now safely say that no matter what happens and how stupid, vulnerable or distressed you might feel, life goes on. That’s about the only certainty we have in life.
Brutal honesty with yourself should be the main driver in your life. If you feel your health is undermining your professional life or vice versa, seek out people who’ve been there before, and talk to your family and employer. Be brave enough to demand positive change. See retirement as a second chance in life.
Had I not retired, I might have ended up in a wheelchair.
Insight, wisdom, and acceptance told me that the only way to live life in a meaningful way was to play the best game I could with the cards I was dealt.
Remember Brian O’Driscoll’s quote? “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”
Wisdom and tomatoes have been my favourite words since.
Multiple sclerosis is much more than a physical illness that weighs heavily on its host. On an emotional level, you might experience some disengagement where you quietly want to be emotionally neutral for a short period of time.
Still, you cannot erase the fact that MS is here to stay. My brain is damaged in the true meaning of the word. When I go to bed at night, I do not know how I will wake up the following morning. My mental and emotional functioning is now processed differently because of my illness. I am just not the same person any more people once knew.
But, anyone who knows me, says I am stubborn as hell, and I refuse to be classified as a liability. I cannot display how sick I feel every minute of the day because I must get on with life.
So, yes, I retired at age 36,5 and it will never be what I envisioned when I moved to Ireland. I’ve crashed and burned, stumbled and found hope in tiny triumphs and friendships larger than life that will stand the test of time.
In the end…
Retiring gave me the chance to fine-tune the meaning of my life and learn from others with MS, including the medical and pharmaceutical community. I now know with that verdict, I learned more about myself than I ever would have if it were not for MS. My illness may voluntarily put me in isolation because I’m “not the same anymore as all those years ago,” at least I broke free from the restraints it once placed on me on a subjective level.
MS will invariably be an illness that might astound, confuse and discourage people, but there are worse things in life.
Author of The Journal article:
Órla Ryan, @orlaryan