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ALS Worldwide
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ALS Worldwide
March 17, 2017

A Lesson on Joy

Rachel Lynn Doboga smiles for the camera with her pet Triceratops at the Maryland Science Center.

In the movie adaptation of my life, the climactic scene would go like this: the camera slowly sweeps up to where I am leaning my head against the back of a rocking chair on a rustic porch, snuggling into a warm plaid blanket. The sun peeks out from where it slept behind the mountain range that dominates my view. The soft light on my face shows I’m at peace. I struggled throughout the whole movie with how to carry on living, but last night I found the trick. My friends pushed my wheelchair out into the meadow behind my sister’s cabin, and we stayed up all night watching the stars, singing, laughing, and telling secrets. I know now that this is the key: that I must live in the moment, live for today, and let no adventure pass me by until, all too soon, I close my eyes for the last time. 

That’s what people, or at least characters, are supposed to do when they’re dying, right? It's our bittersweet version of happily ever after. 

For me, though, there was no mountain cabin, no midnight epiphany. For the longest time, there was only the looming specter of my death. When I was first diagnosed with ALS, I described the doctor telling me the news by saying, “He told me I’m dying.” I used to get those two things mixed up: having ALS and dying. They do sound the same. After all, there is currently no cure or treatment for this ruthless disease. Immediately after diagnosis, I planned everything from who would get my beloved cameo necklace passed down from my great grandmother to the type of funeral I want. In keeping with my earth-based spirituality, I will be buried in a biodegradable pod that will be placed beneath a sapling, which will derive nutrients from my remains My family and friends can visit and tend to the sapling as it grows into a sacred memory tree. 

Of course, not all of my death thoughts were so serene. The prospect of dying young fueled what became an obsession with fading into a distant memory as decades pass and my loved ones grow old without me. I worried most about what I would become to Evan. I imagined I would be a brief chapter of his life before he meets the woman who will be the main act, the mother of his children. She will succeed where I failed, giving him the family and future he deserves, transforming me into a tragic footnote in his biography. With my mind drenched in such excruciating fears, how could I surrender to the beauty of the present? 

I still haven't mastered the art of living in the spectacular now, but I was saved from misery by a series of fortunate events. First, we moved to Portland, where I received the exact kind of care I hoped for at my new ALS clinic. I now work with a creative, emotionally intelligent doctor who is full of hope regarding treatments currently being tested. She immediately empowered me by helping me take part in one such trial. Finally, I was doing something to fight back, and I dared to dream that the end of my story might not be written on a tombstone. 

Then, a few months later, I found the next rung of the ladder that I would climb towards joy. ALS Awareness Month (April) crept in, and a flurry of fundraising activity swept across my Facebook feed. Guilt pressed down hard on my shoulders; I was the one with ALS, but my family was doing all the advocacy work. As a last minute attempt to get involved, I decided to write a little note on Facebook every day of April about my life with ALS. I didn't expect to generate much interest, especially since I wasn't sure how much had to say on the subject. Flash forward three days, and I was blissfully pouring my heart out to a shockingly large and invested audience. My mom suggested a year earlier just after my diagnosis that I write about my new reality online so I could process my feelings and maybe connect with others. I rejected the idea, determined to stick with my fiction projects for fear that allowing ALS into my writing would be the first step to my disease taking over my life. That April, though, I was finally ready to tell my story. I was enamored of power those original Facebook posts gave me over my experience. That power, just like the power I gained from the drug trial, gave me the bravery to hope. I realized I couldn’t honestly fight for a cure without spending at least as much time imagining my life after ALS as I had spent fixated on my death. Furthermore, joy will remain a distant dream if a person doesn't give equal head space to the best and worst outcomes. 

Real, lasting joy pumped from my heart to every inch of my failing body when I gave myself permission to dream. I imagine that Evan and I will make up for all the years we have spent bound to our home and hospital by renovating an airstream trailer and roaming all over the country, exploring national parks, chasing northern lights, and following music festivals. I will return to writing novels because the miracle of a cure will mean that a blog about ALS will be unnecessary. Evan will play guitar in the evenings, and I'll sing along like I used to. Everything will be beautiful. Nothing will hurt. 

A few months after I started my blog, I got a feeding tube. Lying on the table looking at the distant ceiling of the operating room, it occurred to me that this would be the first scar ALS left on my body. I got sad thinking about how I would never get rid of it, even if one day I no longer needed the feeding tube. But then, I thought of myself leaning out the window of the car on a sunny day with hundreds of miles ahead of me, Evan looking handsome in the driver's seat,  our airstream trailing behind us, glittering in the sun like a mermaid tail, and I didn’t mind a small scar at all. Some day, it will be the only reminder of what I suffered, and should I ever get scared embarking on my new adventure, I can look to the hole sewn up right beneath my heart and know I will survive.