MS survivor Montel Williams is helping people connect and thrive through storytelling
via Nick Cannon Admin / Flickr

Montel Williams is a man of many talents, he's the former host of TV's "The Montel Williams Show" which ran for 17 years, radio's "Montel Across America," and has acted on countless television shows.

He served in the U.S. Navy and Marines and was honorably discharged after 15 years of service.

Williams has also been a tireless advocate for veterans, people with multiple sclerosis (MS), and medicinal cannabis.


But his greatest talent may be his perseverance. In 1999 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and has managed to maintain a busy career as a talk show host and advocate.

Now, he has teamed up with Novartis and the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America for its new campaign My MS Second Act. The goal of the program is to encourage people with MS to share their stories to help others face the disease with confidence, hope, and a resounding voice.

MS survivors can download the My MS Second Act digital storytelling tool kit for tips on how to best present their story, then post the final video on the Talk SPMS Facebook page.

Storytelling is a powerful tool to help people with MS learn how to live with a disease that can be erratic. It also allows people with MS to expand their perceptions of the disease and relate with other sufferers.

The stories also allows people to better understand the progress of the unpredictable disease.

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"Multiple sclerosis can be a very isolating disease, so the need to connect with others is especially critical for the MS community," said Amanda Montague, Vice President of Education and Healthcare Relations, MSAA.

"We encourage those living with MS to recognize their MS progression and use the My MS Second Act storytelling toolkit to share their stories, have more meaningful conversations with their healthcare providers and inspire others living with MS to do the same," Montague continued.

via Wikimedia Commons

Upworthy got the chance to speak with Williams about his personal journey with MS, the power that comes with sharing our own stories, and why he has hope for the future.

Upworthy: What were the first MS symptoms you experienced?

Montel Williams: I should have been diagnosed back in 1980 when I was a senior at the Naval Academy. I went blind in my left eye and experienced some other odd neurological blips like left-side weakness and some numbness spots in my body that couldn't be explained.

UP: It took nineteen years of enduring these symptoms before you were diagnosed in 1999. Was that due to the lack of MS research at the time?

MW: I think people still go through that now but not to the same extent. Back then, doctors thought it was a disease that primarily affected caucasian women of northern European descent, not African Americans.

In fact, if you go back and look at it, the only African-American person that made the news was Lola Falana who got diagnosed with MS and then, after her, Richard Pryor, but his diagnosis was incorrectly attributed to his drug use.

Now, you look at family lineage, I am biracial. my mother was half Caucasian, and her mother was from Scotland and Ireland. So, I kinda fit the profile. But back then no one possibly thought that an African-American male could be diagnosed with MS.

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UP: How would your life have been different if you were diagnosed back in 1980?

MW: I was fortunate that it was misdiagnosed because I literally would have been pulled off active duty. Back then, the military didn't allow you to be on active duty with MS. I probably wouldn't be the same person that I am today. Had the diagnosis come down in 1980, I would not have been commissioned as a naval officer. I wouldn't have had the background that led to starting my own talk show.

A diagnosis of MS in 1980 was entirely different that a diagnosis in 2020. In 1980, the only thing doctors would say is "Go home and die."

via Wikimedia Commons

UP: My MS Second Act is all about allowing people to share their stories. What's the best message one can receive after receiving an MS diagnosis?

MW: It's the fact you're not alone. If we go back into the past, this is a disease that people lost their jobs and families over. You went home and told your husband or wife you have MS and they'd walk out the door on you.

I've had the ability to not just exist with MS but I've been able to thrive with MS. There are so many more stories like mine out there that aren't talk show hosts or celebrities, but people who show they've been thriving since the day the doctor said those words, "You have MS."

Up: You've mentioned that people with MS have had to endure discrimination. What is that prejudice rooted in?

MW: It's really rooted in ignorance and I don't say that as an aspersion, I say it's a lack of knowledge. That's what so good about My MS Second Act, it's not just for the MS survivor. It's also for their family, caregivers, and physicians.

UP: When you were diagnosed did anyone share their MS story with you?

MW: Unfortunately, no. When we go back in time, in say 1999, the number of people who came forward and spoke about MS were very few and far between. If you look back to when Richard Pryor was diagnosed with MS they blamed it on his drug use. People were afraid of coming forward and being labeled a crackhead. "No. it's not that I'm a crackhead. It's a neurological disorder."

We're just now putting together programs that allow people to be proud can be proud and say, "I have MS, but MS won't have me."

UP: Are there any stories you've heard through My MS Second Act that have had a profound effect on you?

MW: Today, at our formal launching of the program, we had three MS survivors who shared their stories with an audience. They were profound in the fact that their diseases manifest in different ways but each one was hopeful about tomorrow. That's one of the most important things about My MS Second Act, it's based on hope.

Up: What gives you hope?

MW: The first day that I got diagnosed I realized that I have MS but I don't have to let MS have me. I'm the same person that walked in and walked out of the doctor's office. That person who walked into the office looked forward to tomorrow. I walked out of that office in 1999 and I still have hope for tomorrow.

I know that no matter what this disease throws at me, I can handle it. As long as I pay attention, gain as much knowledge as I can possibly get, which means listening to the stories of other people, and reading about the most recent information. Knowledge is king. Having more knowledge is what will set you free and help you maintain the course that you're on. I look at tomorrow is another opportunity to do something successful.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

via USO

Army Capt. Justin Meredith used the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program to read to his son and family while deployed in the Middle East.

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One of the biggest challenges deployed service members face is the feeling of being separated from their families, especially when they have children. It's also very stressful for children to be away from parents who are deployed for long periods of time.

For the past four years, the USO has brought deployed service members and their families closer through a wonderful program that allows them to read together. The Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program gives deployed service members the ability to choose a book, read it on camera, then send both the recording and book to their child.

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