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The Great Eight
How to Be Happy (Even When You Have Every Reason to Be Miserable)
By Scott Hamilton, Ken Baker
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Scott Hamilton
All rights reserved.
Fall, Get Up, and Land Your First Jumps
The first time I ever skated, I fell flat on my back. As a matter of fact, the same could be said for the start of just about everything I have tried to do in my life: I fall down.
Whether learning to skate, to love, to succeed in business, or more recently, to play the drums, I have a good track record of making a total fool out of myself. But I've never let a losing start discourage me from trying to have a winning finish. It just takes committing to the task and being willing to fall down—a lot.
Of all the things I have tried in my life, skating is the best example of the happiness I have found after sticking to something, even when the beginning was a profound disaster.
Anyone who claims to have been a "born skater" is either lying or a one-in-a-million exception who, frankly, I have yet to meet. And I've met a lot of skaters! The simple truth is that the first time we step on the ice, we all end up on our backsides, not to mention in some level of pain.
A Slippery Start
My introduction to skating came on a frozen driveway across the street from my childhood home in Bowling Green, Ohio. I was four years old, and it was the dead of winter in northern Ohio. There's not much for a kid to do in that part of the country during the winter. The frozen driveways in our neighborhood provided the only semblance of a playground for kids.
My neighbors across the street had the smoothest sheet of ice on their driveway. My parents, wanting me to get out of the house for a little while, bundled me up in a warm jacket, mittens, a wool hat, and a tiny pair of skates with double runners—the skating equivalent of training wheels. My parents figured I would have fun and, since the blades (two on each skate) were so wide, even a fragile and sickly child like me couldn't do much harm to himself.
Well, they were wrong. After watching other kids cruise around the driveway with ease, I figured, Hey, I can do that! So my parents stood me up on the ice, let go of me, and I eagerly set off for my first skating experience. After a few moments of tentative skating, I fell backward!
My skates went out from under me, whipping my body back violently. I toppled backward, crashed onto my upper back, and then the back of my head landed—smack!—onto the concrete-hard ice like a dropped bowling ball.
I burst into tears, absolutely howling. I just wanted my mommy to take me home. I cried and cried and cried. Forty-five years later, I can still remember being that little kid and bawling my eyes out. Safe to say, I never wanted to get back on the ice. And according to my parents, I vowed to never, ever put those stupid skates on my feet again!
A violent spill like that would be traumatic enough for any kid, but the inglorious launch of my skating career was especially scary because, up until that time in my life, I had already experienced a lifetime's worth of physical and emotional trauma. In fact, I had been falling down in life for as long as I could remember.
Fighting for Life
As a child, I suffered through what can only be described as a mystery illness that prevented me from digesting my food normally and, ultimately, kept me from growing. My doctors in Bowling Green couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. No matter what remedies they offered, I only got worse. I wasn't eating, wasn't growing, and my strength was weakening every day. Because I was adopted and had no medical history provided by my birth parents, the doctors didn't have any genetic clues to my mystery malady.
Most of my childhood memories are a blur of undergoing medical tests, spending nights in hospitals, swallowing foul-tasting medicines, and being driven to hospitals all over the country by my mom in search of a cure for my illness. When the doctors in Bowling Green couldn't help me, my mom took me to the medical center in nearby Toledo. When they didn't know what to make of me, I was taken to the children's hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where my parents were told the best doctors certainly would be able to cure me. After spending several days giving me tests, exams, feeding me through a tube, you name it, the physicians and medical staff there came to a conclusion: they had no clue what was causing my problems. The best they could find was that I was suffering from malabsorption syndrome, meaning that rather than digesting my food, my body would reject it and get rid of it as fast as possible.
I was almost nine by then, and I had not grown since I was about four and a half years old. I was half the height of my peers and was very underdeveloped muscularly. Pale and weak, I also had a distended stomach because I was malnourished from not being able to absorb nutrients into my body.
Most embarrassing of all, I had a feeding tube in my nose. My parents had to feed me a liquid mixture of vitamins, but because it tasted so chalky, the only way to get me to take it was through a feeding tube. The supplements tasted so gross that I would go to the toilet and gag after eating them. Sometimes I would run to the bathroom and secretly spit them out in the sink so I wouldn't have to put that horrible-tasting stuff in my body. So the only way my parents could make sure that these vitamins and supplements went into my body was to hook up a bottle of this junk to a tube that went up my nose, down my esophagus, and directly into my stomach. That was how they fed it to me. As you can imagine, it was not a pleasant experience, though I realized that the tube was enabling me to stay alive.
A few of the dozens of doctors my parents consulted suggested I suffered from extreme food allergies (I had to run to the bathroom minutes after eating almost anything), so my parents put me on a very restricted diet of no wheat, no flour, no sugar, no dairy. Yet my condition was only getting worse. My parents feared they were running out of time.
The top doctor at Ann Arbor's University Hospital concluded, "If things don't change soon, I don't think he will survive much longer." Now that I have two precious children of my own, I can't imagine how horrible it was for my parents to hear that grim diagnosis.
However, one of the many characteristics I learned from my parents was a never-take-no-for-an-answer attitude. Lucky for me, they decided they'd had enough of hospitals with no answers. Rather than accept my morbid fate, they were determined to reverse it.
That's when we went to Children's Hospital Boston, where a well-respected doctor named Harry Shwachman had done a lot of research on children who had trouble digesting food and experienced stunted growth. He had even named the illness Shwachman-Diamond syndrome. Of course, no parent wants his or her child to be diagnosed with any disease, but in my case, my mom and dad were hoping that Dr. Shwachman would diagnose me so that, perhaps, I could start getting proper treatment.
In Boston, Dr. Shwachman put me through every test you could imagine. He concluded that I didn't have Shwachman-Diamond syndrome, I didn't have cystic fibrosis (which I had previously been diagnosed with by another doctor), and I also didn't have any of the myriad of diseases that various doctors suspected I was suffering from.
He told my parents, "I can't find what's causing this, so let's just go under the assumption that we're overtreating and panicking." The doctor's counterintuitive approach made sense to my parents, who had grown frustrated by getting nothing out of trying everything in the book!
Dr. Shwachman suggested, "Go home. Take him off the restricted diet. Help him live a normal life, and see what happens. We have nothing to lose."
By that point, my parents were exhausted from all the traveling, medical care, sleeping in hospitals, restricted diets, and everything else. Now that I am a parent, I cannot imagine the fear, anxiety, helplessness, and heartbreak my parents endured watching me suffer every day.
Back home in Bowling Green, my parents tried to follow Dr. Shwachman's prescription to let me live and eat like a normal kid ... and see what happens. Our family physician, Dr. Andrew Klepner, knowing my mom and dad were near exhaustion, said, "Look, to give you guys the morning off once a week, why don't you send Scotty skating with my kids?" It was November 1967, and a new skating rink at Bowling Green State University had just opened. Dr. Klepner's daughters, Pam and Sandy, had just started a kids' skating class on Saturday mornings.
My parents, as much as they loved me and as much as they wanted me to get well, could not restore my health. They knew that if I had even the slightest chance at overcoming my illness, at saving my life, it was a fight I would have to win by myself, for myself. It was a hard lesson, a profound lesson, but ultimately the one that turned my life around.
A Miracle Cure?
Given my painful introduction to skating on the neighbor's driveway, my parents and I were—safe to say—reluctant to take up his offer. But Dr. Klepner insisted, "He'll be fine. It's just skating, let him just learn how to do something and interact with other kids."
So that's what I did. I showed up, tube dangling out of my nose. The other kids, of course, said, "Eww!" upon seeing my plastic feeding tube snaking out of my nostril. Even so, skating turned out to be a lot more fun than it was four years earlier, when I fell backward, hit my head on the driveway, and insisted that I would never skate again. In fact, I soon discovered that skating was something I could do as well as the other kids.
At the time, other kids would pick me last for everything. I was always the smallest and weakest kid in class. I was different because I couldn't eat with the other kids because of my restricted diet. I wasn't allowed to have birthday cake or ice cream. I wasn't even allowed to have milk in my lunch box. I was just different. But I didn't like being different. So when I started skating, I liked it a lot because it was something I could do with other kids and also something I could do at my own pace. I could take as many chances as I wanted without some other guy inflicting his overpowering strength or athleticism on me. I tested myself and found that I really enjoyed it.
My parents kept me in it. I grew stronger. My stomach settled down and my lungs, which had been filled with phlegm, began to clear up. My overall fitness level improved, and I felt stronger. Within a few months, my feeding tube was even taken out!
The moist, cool air of the rink seemed to soothe my lungs, and my physical symptoms gradually started to dissipate. My parents felt they'd found a miracle cure.
I even started growing again, and it was amazing. The difference was night and day. My mom would say, "Oh, look how big you are growing! Your legs are getting so long!" And I'd say, "Oh, Mom, cut it out. That's so embarrassing." But I loved being fussed over. I loved how freeing it was to be on the ice, knowing that I was getting better and better. I loved knowing that I could finally do something as well as the other kids.
I kept going to skating lessons every Saturday, and soon the coach told my parents that I was good enough to start taking private lessons. It was a new feeling, participating in a physical activity that I wasn't losing in a competition to someone bigger, stronger, or faster than I was. It was just me and the ice. Me testing myself and learning at my own pace, seeing what I could do. And time just flew.
It was great to have a focus, a repetition, a challenge. Hang on the wall; step away from the wall; hang on the wall; step away from the wall. I wanted to learn how to skate forward, how to stop, how not to fall down, how to skate backward. The repetition took my mind off my problems, and for the first time in my life, I felt happy. Everyone has the potential to find something they enjoy as much as I loved to skate, and if they do, it can transform their lives.
During those Saturday lessons while I was learning the fundamental skills of skating, the coaches made it fun. If I started to get bored or bumped my knee, they would try to make me laugh. I loved getting that extra attention.
Another thing I liked about skating was the girls. There was a pretty girl named Tammy Edwards who was involved in the program, and I really liked her. One time I fell and almost completely knocked myself out, but instead of quitting and running away in tears, I got back up on the ice again because I didn't want to cry in front of her. In that way, skating helped me learn how to deal with my mistakes in a responsible way. And something about simply going to the rink day after day helped me eventually overcome my fear of falling.
There was the play aspect of skating, which was really enjoyable. You would play tag, or you would see who could do this jump or do that turn. And then there was the competitive aspect of skating where you could try to do it better than everybody else.
All of the things that brought me to skating and kept me coming back for more—the things about skating that made me happy—are the same types of things that can make you happy in your own interests or hobbies. Think about it: why do you do that hobby or sport or activity? Chances are, the simple pleasure of the activity itself helps you reach that healthy place of happiness. As we get older, we perceive some things as more complicated than they really are. Even today, I am training to get myself back into good enough shape to perform again. Some days I feel like there's no way I can get my fifty-year-old body to do all the spins and jumps I did when I was young. But when I start seeing the glass half empty, I step back and realize it's just skating. I've done this before. My body remembers how to do everything; I just have to not let my mind get in the way. Sure, my body is less flexible, and my jumps aren't going to be quite as high, but because of my years of experience, skating is not overwhelming for me.
Learning How to Get Up
I think back to my first days of going to the skating rink. It was so simple back then: all I had to worry about was not falling down. And I got better at it with each session. But it all started with the simple act of going to the rink, day after day.
In skating, the first thing you learn is how to get up from a fall. Trust me, you will fall. It's as certain a fact as it will be freezing in northern Ohio in February. Coaches teach you how to get up: first, push up on all fours like a dog, then kneel on one leg and push yourself up with your hands to standing. It's not that hard. In fact, it is easier to get up than it is to skate. So why fear falling?
It saddens me that a lot of people don't try new things because they're afraid of falling, whether literally or figuratively. It's a shame. As long as you know how to get up, you have nothing to worry about. It doesn't matter what the challenge is—athletics, business, romance, health, academics, the arts—the rule for getting up is the same: you just get up!
Then, once you learn to move forward, skating coaches teach you how to wiggle your hips and move faster. It's a slow process, but as you learn, your body gets used to this movement over the ice. Once you're able to stand up, move forward, move backward, glide a little bit, and stop, now it's time for your blades to leave the ice—little bunny hops, toe spins, pivots, and other tricks.
For a lot of my friends, skating was one of many sports they participated in, along with soccer, kickball, baseball, clarinet lessons, and other activities. They would skate for a while and then move on to other sports. But I was too sick to participate in most sports and activities. Skating was the be-all and end-all for me. It was something I wanted to stick with for a long time. I was growing taller and getting healthier. And for the first time, I had self-esteem.
Hundreds of kids all over America enroll in the kind of skating clinics I started in, but within a few years, participation dwindles. Often, after a few painful failures, kids move on to something else. The skaters who stick it out are the ones who get the double jumps, and the ones who stick it out through the doubles get the double axels and then the triples. The ones who become triple jumpers are the ones who compete at the higher levels and really get a lot of personal satisfaction out of the sport.
Usually there's some pain involved. Perhaps the skaters took a big fall and don't want to do it again. Or they think skating is too difficult and convince themselves that they will never get good at it, deciding they would rather be doing something else. Fear of falling, fear of failing—fear rears its ugly head at some point in any champion's life. Certainly, if you want to be a champion of happiness in your life, you will face some obstacles. But as actress Dorothy Bernard once said, "Courage is fear that has said its prayers."
Excerpted from The Great Eight by Scott Hamilton, Ken Baker. Copyright © 2008 Scott Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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