David Lander, 52
That single word was the trademark Squiggy greeting, uttered with just the right goofy grin, as David Lander loped onto television's Laverne & Shirley show. Just the sight of Squiggy made the audience giggle. He would stick out his pouty lower lip, stare into the camera with endearing befuddlement, and flip up the collar of his cheap shirt in a hopeless effort to appear cool. His hair was plastered to a point in the middle of his forehead. No one could have guessed that the wacky, boyish actor would soon be wrestling with how to tell people he had multiple sclerosis (MS).
Lander was afraid audiences would stare at him if they knew he had MS. Friends might make him an object of pity; casting directors could deny him acting jobs. He worried that the diagnosis spelled doom because back then he didn't know anyone else with the disease who was functioning well. As Lander put it, "There was no one to look at and say, 'Wow, he's had it for years, and he's doing okay.'"
Hiding His Problems
Lander was diagnosed with MS in 1984. For 15 years he managed to hide it from everyone but his family. He says he's relieved to tell people now because feigning perfect health was never easy. When a leg went numb and he limped, Lander disguised the problem by affecting a silly shuffle. If he was overpowered by fatigue, Lander would ask for a chair on the set of whatever production he was working on, letting others growl that he was lazy and spoiled. When his balance failed onstage, Lander pretended to be drunk. The pretense drained his energy, patience, and self-esteem. So why did he keep it up?
"For some people," says Ralph Klopper, MD, an Atlanta psychoanalyst who is on the faculty of the Emory University School of Medicine, "it's so painful to address the issues surrounding an illness that they keep the denial going for a long time."
Finally, with the support of his wife, Kathy, Lander decided to abandon the charade. "I understood his fears," says Kathy. "I had the same fears. But at the same time it was very isolating. It was difficult not to be open about it."
Several years ago,
Kathy organized a support group for couples coping with the disease and
in 1999, Lander felt ready to go public about his own MS. His disclosure
didn't keep him from landing a leading role as the King in a production
of Once Upon a Mattress. He also became a National Ambassador for the National
MS Society. Now, the 52-year-old Lander says he talks about MS because
he wants people to see that this disease doesn't have to damage relationships
or careers. "The basic thing is to be able to live with the disease as
opposed to dwelling on it," he says.
© 2000-2001 Biogen, Inc.