By Diane Ako
For as long as he could remember, Jay Platt wanted to be a U.S. Marine, and for nearly 15 years, he lived that dream. But in 1998, a rare condition called von Hippel Lindau syndrome (VHL), attacked his eyes, brain, spine and kidneys, forcing his retirement from the service.
“Before VHL I pretty much felt untouchable – until I started having symptoms and the eventual diagnosis,” he says. “I was scared, confused and angry for a number of years; I couldn’t understand why God would do this to me. I went from feeling invulnerable to officially being considered handicapped.”
After a personal journey of acceptance, Platt recalibrated his sense of purpose by accepting challenges many world-class athletes wouldn’t consider. Along with a record-breaking Mississippi swim while blindfolded, handcuffed and shackled, he swam from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco with his hands and feet tied, and he was one of fewer than 300 people to hike the more than 2,100-mile southbound Appalachian Trail.
Platt, who is the subject of the new documentary, “Living Unstoppable,” (www.LivingUnstoppable.com), explains his transformation and how others might apply the lessons of his journey to their own lives:
• The motivation of “can’t” … Something is triggered in people when they’re told they can’t do something. Those who want to do what they “can’t” eventually find a way if they’re motivated and determined. “I don’t care who you are – everybody goes through something in life; nobody gets through unscathed,” he says. “And everyone, at some point, faces something they believe they can’t do – but want very much. If you haven’t yet, you will, and coming to terms with it will be a process.” Use it as motivation for living life to the fullest, and let it show you how beautiful our time on Earth really is, he says.
• The lesson of the severely handicapped little girl: Platt experienced a long period of despair, hopelessness and rage against the universe. One day while at the park, he heard the pure joy in the laughter of a severely handicapped girl who was being pushed in a wheelchair by her mother. “‘Listen to the birds, Momma,’ I heard her say – she was just so happy to experience that simple pleasure,” he says. “That has stayed with me ever since; if that little girl could get past her suffering and appreciate singing birds, then I could do much better.”
• A promise to contribute to the greater good: The onset of his VHL symptoms, which included vision problems in his left eye and disorientation, was a very scary period for Platt. During this period he made a promise to himself to devote his life to others if he survived. He has kept that promise – his Appalachian Trail hike alone raised $109,000 for charity.
• You are still you; don’t let tragedy totally define you: While Platt is officially retired from the USMC, he is still the same guy who fully lived a proud life as a Marine for a decade and a half. While how you respond to hardship says much about one’s character, you don’t have to remain psychically stuck in the worst part of your life by identifying most with a weakness. Use a handicap, for example, for what it’s worth – something that helps you strive for significance and fulfillment in life.