Lessons from a Recovering Doormat

Jay PLattJay Platt was medically retired from the Marine Corps in 1998 after suffering complications from von Hippel Lindau syndrome (VHL), a genetic disease that resulted in brain and spinal tumors, kidney cancer, and the loss of his left eye. When told his future would be considerably dimmer than his past, Platt set out to rebuild himself physically, mentally and spiritually, and to challenge himself by setting demanding physical goals.

He was one of fewer than 300 people to have hiked the more than 2,100-mile southbound Appalachian Trail; one of three to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco with hands and feet tied (see the video below); and the only person to swim across the Mississippi River while blindfolded, handcuffed and shackled. The proceeds from his adventures and sales of his documentary benefit non-profits, including the VHL Family Alliance. Here’s some advice from this inspiring man:

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By Jay Platt

For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be a U.S. Marine, and for nearly 15 years, I lived that dream. But in 1998, a rare condition called von Hippel Lindau syndrome (VHL), attacked my eyes, brain, spine and kidneys, forcing my retirement from the corps.

Before VHL I pretty much felt untouchable – until I started having symptoms and the eventual diagnosis. 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.

It took me some time to accept my new reality, and once I did, I recalibrated my sense of purpose: I began accepting challenges many world-class athletes wouldn’t consider. I swam across the Mississippi River blindfolded, handcuffed and shackled; I swam from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco with my hands and feet tied, and I was one of fewer than 300 people to hike the more than 2,100-mile southbound Appalachian Trail.

I did these things both to inspire other people who are trying to come to terms with their own challenges, and to raise money for charity.

In the new documentary, Living Unstoppable,  I explain my transformation, and how others might apply the lessons of my journey to their own lives:

•    The motivation of “can’t” … I don’t care who you are – everybody goes through something in life; nobody gets through unscathed. 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.
•    The lesson of the severely handicapped little girl: I experienced a long period of despair, hopelessness and rage against the universe. One day while at the park, I 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. 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 my VHL symptoms, which included vision problems in one eye and disorientation, was very scary. During that time, I made a promise to myself and to God to devote my life to others if I survived. I’ve kept that promise – my Appalachian Trail hike alone raised $109,000 for charity.

•    You are still you; don’t let tragedy totally define you: While I’m officially retired from the USMC, I’m still the same guy who fully lived a proud life as a Marine for a decade and a half. How you respond to hardship says much about your 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.


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