Energetic talk-show host reveals little hint of multiple sclerosis
Sunday, August 25, 2002
The Columbus Dispatch
Tonight, as he does almost every night, Montel Williams will hit the sack about 1:30 a.m. He will get up around 6 or 7 and work out vigorously -- lifting perhaps 275 pounds on the squat rack in the gym -- before going to his job as host of a popular daytime talk show.
Not too shabby for someone with multiple sclerosis.
In a few weeks, Williams will begin the 12th season of his syndicated talk show with a move from WBNS-TV (Channel 10) to WCMH-TV (Channel 4).
Undoubtedly, more viewers will notice the shift than will notice his illness.
''Most people can't tell,'' he said recently between tapings. ''They say, 'You look great,' or 'Hey, didn't I read that Montel had some illness?' The problem is we equate illness with weakness, and that's not necessarily true. You can pass people on the street and probably four out of 10 have an illness. But they're not stumbling, so you never know.
''I'm not weak. I put in a full day; I work out. When the illness shows itself, it's with ravaging, extreme nerve pain. But it crescendos or stays in a lull. When it crescendos, it's enough to drop you to your knees. However, I've been dealing with it for so long I've figured out ways to deal with it.
''I'll give you a little secret,'' he said. ''Three, four years ago I did maybe 60 percent of the show on my feet and 40 percent in a chair. Now, I do 60 percent in the chair. I feel better, I can do interviews better that way, so why not?''
Even doctors had a difficult time diagnosing the illness, Williams said.
''I probably have had the disease since maybe 1980, but it was continually misdiagnosed. At one time it was diagnosed as an extreme sciatic nerve injury due to my weightlifting.
''Until 1999, I kept going back to doctors when I'd have an episode and they'd say, 'Look, fool, how much weight do you lift? Lay off.'
''Until I had a major episode three years ago, I didn't know what I had. Then one day I knocked over a cup of coffee and became disoriented, and I said, 'I've got to go to a doctor.' Once I got there, he said, 'Oh, yeah. You have MS.' ''
The diagnosis brought on despair, a common reaction, he said, and one of the biggest obstacles patients face.
''The depression comes from the fact you don't know what to expect. You could be perfectly fine this morning, then trip and start focusing on the illness and start getting depressed. That's what the majority do, let themselves spiral into it.
''I went through a two- or three-month period where it was 'Woe is me,' and I didn't do anything; I didn't work out. But then I was back in the gym and I realized that by going and working out I can feel that, in spite of it, I accomplished something today.
''Every single day has its own surprises. MS is one of the most insidious chronic diseases out there. Fortunately, treatment has taken it out of the deadly category for 95 percent of us.''
Little factors affect him, Williams said, such as hot weather.
''Heat is my nemesis. When the temperature goes above 91 degrees I can't deal with it at all. We have a hard time cooling our brains -- there's something about passing water through our membranes into our brains that MS somehow affects.
''So I don't go outside in Manhattan today -- it's going to be 98 degrees.
''Even my kids understand it. They want to go out and I say, 'Guys, it's 98 degrees out. I can't go outside.' They relate. But the fact that I let my kids down is depressing for any father. But we can easily get caught up in a re-evaluation and become depressed, or we accept who we are. That's the hardest thing for me to do.''
Williams' hectic schedule helps to keep him focused, and he relishes the upcoming season, which begins with a Columbus-based story: the case of Tonya Hudkins McCartor, the Columbus wife and grandmother who the FBI says is fugitive murderer Margo Freshwater.
Guests on the show include members of the McCartor family, who feel she should go free, and a former prosecutor who says Freshwater should stay in prison.
The studio audience -- and Williams -- found the story fascinating, he said.
''I put myself in the husband's position -- OK, she lied and didn't tell me, but I look back at her life, and it is not an example of a career criminal.
''We went through information about her other trials, the fact she had two mistrials and, in the third trial, the state does convict her only after the real shooter is cut a break and sent into an insane asylum -- and now he's out on the street.
''I think we should cut her a break, although the argument does stand: If my relative were killed, I would want her tried.''
Williams said he couldn't think of a better way to start the Emmy-nominated show's season than with the Freshwater episode.
''We're very excited this year. Most of the other talk shows are gone
-- even the ridiculous freak shows are going. Luckily for us we have an
unbelievable story to start the season. We were very happy to get the story.''
Copyright © 2002, The Columbus Dispatch