Book Review: Climbing Higher By: Montel Williams


By: Montel Williams with Lawrence Grobel
“At this point, one of the doctors mentioned something about this weird disease, MS, but then said that I couldn’t have MS because I was in much too good a shape.

I was ripped: I weighed 190 pounds; I had a twenty-eight-inch waist, with
eighteen-inch biceps. So for the next twenty years that was my problem and my blessing. Why? Because that was the same thing every doctor for the next twenty years said: ‘Look at you – you don’t have MS ‘ On the one hand, maybe I’d be better off if I’d been diagnosed sooner; on the other hand, I don’t know if I’d be here today if I believed twenty years ago that I had MS.”

If anyone knows what it’s like to not look sick, it’s Montel Williams. This
ex-military, bodybuilding, successful talk show host appeared to have a perfect life. In fact, his motto was, “Mountain, get out of my way!” In Climbing Higher, Montel speaks very candidly about how multiple sclerosis caused an avalanche in his life that very nearly did him in, and about how he emerged from that rubble and decided he’d rather scale mountains than push them aside. For when we climb mountains, we’re able to enjoy the view from the top.

Montel is the son of a firefighter who helped integrate the Baltimore City Fire
Department. Montel was bussed out of his neighborhood as a child and experienced racism firsthand when he was forced to attend a predominantly white school at the age of six. Despite this and teachers who attempted to discourage him, Montel was determined to excel and thrive. And he succeeded.

Montel was about to graduate from the Naval Academy when he first experienced what he later realized was a classic symptom of MS – he lost the vision in his left eye. This caused him to no longer be physically qualified to be commissioned. His vision did spontaneously improve, but he was left with a blind spot that was not correctable. Through petitioning Congress and creative skill updating on his part, he managed to get commissioned in one of the few positions in the navy that does not rely on perfect vision – cryptology. He would continue to get mysterious symptoms that came and went over the next several years. Some were reported to doctors and others he just hid or ignored. But no one seriously entertained the idea that he could have MS.

In the late 1980’s, Montel was a motivational speaker for teenagers, touring
high schools around the country, which led to him being asked to host his own show. The Montel Williams Show hit the airwaves in 1991. It quickly
achieved distinction with its emphasis on serious subject matter and stories of people who persevered despite great pain and suffering. He also dabbled in acting from time to time.

It was while doing a guest appearance on a TV series in 1999 that he developed symptoms too painful to ignore. He went to a neurologist recommended by a friend. This doctor was able to tell from a physical test alone that Montel definitely had multiple sclerosis. The neurologist was not very encouraging, and Montel thought he had received a death sentence. He initially kept his diagnosis a secret from nearly everyone.

Depression brought Montel to the brink of suicide. But he had a change of heart when he realized what effect his suicide might have on his children. He began to think of ways that having a chronic illness might instead be a blessing in his life. But still he told almost no one that he had MS.

Then in August 1999, he received word that the media had gotten a copy of his MRI and intended to “out” him. Realizing he’d rather have the news of his MS come from him initially and not the tabloids, he hurriedly scheduled a press conference to take place two days before the story about him was due to print. And he hadn’t yet told his parents or kids that he was sick.

Going public had all sorts of unexpected consequences. Instead of losing his job as he had feared would happen, he had the opportunity to meet others with MS and see for himself that it was not necessarily a death sentence. He learned far more about the disease than had had been told by doctors. And he was able to establish a foundation that dedicated all its funding to research.

Given how secretive Montel was about having MS at first, it is shocking how
honest he is in this book. Some of the most valuable chapters are about topics that affect most people with chronic illness but are seldom discussed, such as dealing with sexuality, resorting to illegal means of pain control, and the many facets of depression. But the honesty makes his testimony more credible.

The book has value to a healthy person because it paints a vivid portrait of
just how intense chronic pain can be, and how one illness can affect nearly
every aspect of a person’s life. But it is even more valuable to people with
chronic illness because it shows someone functioning successfully despite an unpredictable and frightening disease. Montel discusses his daily regimen of supplements, medication, exercise and diet but is careful to emphasize that what works for him might not work for others with MS and vice versa. Still, it is encouraging to read of a man who was told he could never exercise again but who now goes snowboarding as much as possible. And he has encouraging words for people of all ability levels.

One bonus at the end of the book is a section containing a question and answer session with various MS experts on subjects such as what we know so far, effective current treatments and what the future of research holds.

Here is a final quote from a man at the front lines of raising awareness about
chronic illness:
“There are usually two hundred people at any taping of my show and I’ll
sometimes ask those who are suffering from any illness or disease to raise their hands. “Who’s just had bypass surgery? Who has a loaner heart? Who’s just come from chemotherapy? Who has cancer?” Usually fifteen hands go up. All of these people look fine. And yet we equate illness with weakness. If you’re ill you must look ill. If you don’t look ill you can’t be ill. But you don’t have to see illness to know it’s there. It’s there.”

Title: Climbing Higher
Author: Montel Williams with Lawrence Grobel
Publisher: New American Library
ISBN: 045121398X
Review Written By: Karen Brauer

    just because he black has not A dum thing to do with MS my husband as MS and he is white.

  • emma

    i don’t understand what race had to do with this article ? because montel is black that is reason enough to bring up a race issue that has nothing to do with chronic illness ? …weird

  • Faith

    I do admire Montel for his honesty. As far as the race thing goes though I want to be honest also. I went to several predominantly black schools and was bullied constantly. I also went to a high school that had only one black girl in it and we treated her very well.