My Own Prison | Grant Zemont

It was the last months of my senior year in college, 1994. I was so ready to leave N.I.U. and actually start my real life. On my last trip home before graduation, I met my dad at his favorite bar.

Unbeknownst to me, that was the night he decided to impart to me his wisdom of the ages– the three things I needed to know before I entered the working world.

  1. Never trust HR. They are not there to help YOU. They’re only there to protect the company from their employees.
  2. Watch out for guys named Dick because they usually are ones.
  3. Never ever enter “Corporate America.”

And that was that.

The Corporate America advice was especially poignant since he was a banking executive for most of his career. By that time, through buyouts and mergers, he had lost his job five times in five years—each time, a demotion. Through all of it, he soldiered on since he had two kids in college, needed to save for retirement, had a mortgage, car payments. The American Dream. He eventually made it through the layoffs, but those years changed him. He never found peace after that. He died a few years later of a heart attack at age fifty-one.

I eventually got married, and started my own family. It was now Easter Sunday, 2002. The house was buzzing with activity, as my family was getting ready to go to dinner at my in-laws. We were running late, as is often true when you have small children. My daughters were three and five at the time, and, once they were dressed, I sent them downstairs to watch TV. My wife was finalizing her makeup in the bathroom, which was a good thing. Any man knows that when your significant other is at that stage, you’re past the seventh inning stretch. Only two more innings to go. I hurried into the bedroom, sat down on the bed, and was bending over to put on my socks, when I got slammed with a massive dizzy spell. I’d never really had a dizzy spell before, so I just shook my head back and forth thinking I could slough it off. My wife came into the bedroom to get her earrings and noticed me wavering as I sat there. She asked what was wrong and I told her I was dizzy for some reason. She said I was probably rushing around too much and told me to put my head between my legs. That always worked for her. Okay, okay.  I put my head between my legs for about a minute, but it kept getting worse. I decided to lie back on the bed. It kept getting worse. I actually wasn’t even concerned at this point. I was annoyed, thinking, what the HELL is going on? Why now? Today is Easter and we are going to be even later if this doesn’t stop!

That’s when my vision started to get a bit blurry. I said to myself, “Screw it. I don’t have time for this.”

I stood up and immediately slumped down onto the floor like a sack of flour. Then, I slowly fell over to one side. To this day, I can’t describe the sensation I felt in my head. It wasn’t like I was drunk or anything. The room wasn’t spinning, and I wasn’t nauseous. It just felt like my inner ear had completely stopped functioning.

That’s when my wife rushed over and tried to sit me upright. As she held me, I looked into her eyes and said, “Something is wrong.”

It was all very surreal, as I had no frame of reference to comprehend what was going on. My wife called her parents and told them what was going on. Then, her sister came and took the girls, and she loaded me into the car like I was at the end of a very bad bender in Vegas.

The minute we got to the ER and my wife told them everything, a flurry of activity started. Doctors looked in my eyes. My ears. Tested my reflexes. Poked and prodded me. I had blood drawn and peed in a cup. CAT scans. An MRI. Then another MRI. More blood work. They let me sleep a bit. The next day, they did a spinal tap, which, in case you never had one, sucks.

The good news was they ruled out a stroke, seizure, and brain clot. The bad news was, they had no idea what was going on, until the MRIs came back the next day.

April 1st, 2002 was the day I lost my independence forever. That was the day I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. For those of you who don’t know, MS is a neurological disease where your body thinks your central nervous system is an intruder—like a bacteria or a virus. So, your body starts attacking your spinal cord and brain. The problem is that once the fibers of your nervous system are damaged, they will scar, but never repair. And there is no cure. Some people’s damaged nerves render a few fingers on their right hand useless and that’s it. Some lose their ability to speak. Chew. Or even swallow. Some will die from it. Like the Matrix, I’m in a prison I cannot smell or taste or touch.  But I know it’s there. And it’s always, slowly, getting worse. Some have it better than me. Most, much worse.

Doctors and family told me to take it easy, but I continued working my ass off in Corporate America for a decade. I completely convinced myself I had to soldier on since I invested so much in my career by this point and, like my father, I had kids, needed to save for retirement, a mortgage, car payments. I was living the American Dream. But over the years, the vertigo got worse. Crushing fatigue settled into my normal being. I can no longer dance. I can no longer run. I have a monthly infusion of drugs I absolutely rely on. And on bad MS days, I depend on a walking stick to get from point A to point B.

A little over a year ago, it finally sunk in that I had to slow down. It took months and months to adjust. But when I did, the strangest things started happening. I noticed that parts of me that were dormant for so long started to awaken. Out of the blue, I decided to enroll in various classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and began to re-kindle and explore the artistic side of me that had been asleep since college. I write stories now. I spend way more time with my kids—quality time observing and exploring the world and, sometimes, blowing shit up on the PS3. This past spring I took a solo trip to the middle of nowhere in northwest New Mexico. Once there, I was able to walk the desert around Abiquiu, New Mexico and, for the first time in my life, experience the indescribable beauty of absolute, utter, complete silence.

After all of this, I am starting to notice an odd new sensation. I think it’s called, peace. I know the seeds are there, and pray I can make them blossom in me. I do not want to share my father’s fate.

I am still serving a life sentence in prison. There is no denying that. But, oddly enough, while I have lost my independence, I feel in many ways, I may have finally gained my freedom.


Grant Zemont is a technology and strategy swiss-army knife, currently working in the advertising industry. He has 3 children and is proud of them each and every day. Sometimes he writes stories and publishes them on Cowbird. Even though he is a native Chicagoan, he absolutely loves the desert… as well as backpacking, playing drums, and being a dreamer.

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