Overcoming Pain and Depression
Every hour, someone in the world is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a life-threatening neurological disease. Ten years ago, Emmy-winning talk show host Montel Williams was one of these people.
At first, this former Naval intelligence officer chose to hide his pain, but when a tabloid newspaper threatened to print his story, he decided to go public with his health crisis. Montel spoke about his diagnosis on his talk show, but few people knew how much he was suffering.
On set, Montel conducted interviews with poise. Then, during commercial breaks, he says he'd go backstage, sit down and cry because of the pain. "[I would] let it go, refocus, come back out and sit down, and do another interview with a person," he says. "I was doing that every day."
What is multiple sclerosis? Dr. Oz uses an electrical cable to explain how the disease attacks a patient's central nervous system.
"Imagine that [the cable is] a nerve going down to your hand," he says. "They have cables around them—insulation that protects you so the electricity can go where it's supposed to go. … With multiple sclerosis, your immune system attacks that lining, that insulation, and it makes little cracks. As soon as that illness gets a little more aggressive, it actually takes whole chunks of that insulation away."
As the nerves become more exposed, Dr. Oz says patients experience electrical, firing pain throughout their bodies. "The nerves send back messages because they're not getting the right kind of input from the brain," he says.
Montel says that the 1.5 million people in America living with MS suffer a little differently.
"My primary symptom is pain," he says. "I've got pain from my shins to my feet, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it's been there for the last 10 years."
Recently, the pain spread to Montel's face. "It literally feels like you're taking a fork and stabbing me right now. People say, 'How the devil do you deal with this?'" he says. "You have to get a grip."
Montel says he's learned psychiatric and psychological techniques to shift focus away from the intense, burning sensation. "I bundle up the pain and keep it in a box,' he says. "Put it away, dampen it down over here so I can deal with other things."
On top of the pain, Montel also deals with other crippling symptoms of MS.
Montel says 70 percent of people with MS have the inability to process high temperatures. For him, it's 85 degrees and above. "It's like if your computer gets hot and it starts shorting down," he says. "My brain starts shorting down, and I literally start losing the ability to move."
In his book Living Well Emotionally , Montel writes about a trip to Nevada that almost had a tragic ending. After being exposed to extreme heat, Montel says he experienced what some call a "chest hug"—a freezing of the diaphragm. "I thought I was having a heart attack," he says. "For the next five minutes, I don't know whether or not I need to call 911 or if this was that chest hug thing. That was the worst I'd ever felt it."
Thankfully, Montel's wife, Tara, was there to support him. "One of the things that's so magical about this journey that I've been on is the fact that I have somebody who's taken this journey one million percent with me…and that's Tara," he says. "She knows when I'm hurting this way. She has the ability to get her arm under mine and make me look like I'm holding her. Drag me to another place."
Dr. Oz says suffocation caused by chest hugs is the leading cause of death for people with MS. Another leading cause? Suicide. "Folks just cannot take it," Dr. Oz says. "It just eats away at you from the inside."
Montel knows the feeling all too well. After his diagnosis, Montel says there was a time when he went into his closet and put a gun in his mouth. He says he just wanted to stop the pain in his feet, once and for all. "The only thing that stopped me from doing that is the fact that I had very small children in the house," he says. "So I got up and said, 'No, I've got a better idea.'"
To make his death look like an accident, Montel says he decided to throw himself in front of a car. "[I thought:] 'Everybody [will] think I fell down. I have MS, they'll get it, no big deal,'" he says.
With a plan in place, Montel says he went to Columbus Circle in New York City and jumped in front of a taxi. The driver slammed on the breaks, narrowly avoiding Montel. Then, he jumped out of the car and helped Montel to the curb. "I swear to you, Oprah, that moment I had an epiphany," he says. "The epiphany was the fact that this man, out of nowhere, recognized me. He was like, 'Dude, we can't lose you. What happened? Did you trip?' … He was all concerned about me, and I stopped and I said: 'How dare I do this? How dare I?'"
After receiving a serious diagnosis, Montel says a person must learn to deal in his or her own way. "I could quit and say, 'That's it.' Stay in bed and not get up," he says. "Or I can get my butt up every single day being a contributing member to this society and try and figure out how I deal with it."
These days, Montel tries to think of his disease as a gift. "This is what God gave me," he says.
Montel shares one of his calming techniques with Oprah, Dr. Oz and the audience.
Close your eyes.
Think back on a wonderful moment in your life.
Take two deep breaths.
Open your eyes.
"I go to that place of gratitude," he says. "I go to that place of fulfillment and taking advantage of the small things."
Dr. Oz visits Montel's home in Jackson, Tennessee, to see what a day in his life is like. Every day, Montel says he pays close attention to three things—his diet, exercise and medication.
He starts the day with an array of medications—27 pills and a few injections. What's his biggest fear when he wakes up? Not being able to walk.
To ease the pain in his legs and build strength, he also hits the gym. Montel says he's rarely missed a workout since he was diagnosed.
A healthy diet—full of fruits and vegetables—is also important to Montel's health. "They are cooling for an inflammatory state, so therefore the more vegetables I put through the body, the cooler I am," he says. "That may mitigate this pain by about 2 percent."
Some days, no matter how hard he tries to stay positive, Montel tells Dr. Oz he wishes he could forget about his illness. "I have those days. 'Damn it, I'm tired of being sick,'" he says. "[But] if I spend less time focusing on how miserable…I start thinking about stuff outside of me. That's stops the hurting."
When he wants to get away from it all, Montel grabs a fishing pole and takes to the water with his father-in-law, who he calls his best friend.
"I will come out here deliberately because I don't want anybody to call me," he says. "I don't want to talk to anybody."
Though he still has dark moments, Montel has found peace with himself and his illness. "The peace comes from the knowing, when I finally figured out, I have MS. I have it. MS will never have me," he says. "I have to accept the fact that I have it, [but] that doesn't mean I have to give in to it."