What Does “Orange is the New Black” Have to Do with Multiple Sclerosis?

Jamie Tripp Utitus
Written by
Jamie Tripp Utitus

Disclaimer: I never watch shows. I have little children, multiple sclerosis and lots of work. If I have the chance to relax at night, the only thing I want to do is sleep. But this one night I decided to sleep with a show on because I couldn’t turn my mind off. I stumbled across this show called Orange is the New Black.

If you haven’t seen the show, this blog post will be hard to follow. The post is not an endorsement of the television drama, but the one thing I couldn’t stop thinking about was how much the show reminded me of my adventures with MS. Not that MS is a prison sentence, but there are so many similarities!

The basic premise of the show is a woman named Piper who turns herself in for a drug crime she committed with her then-girlfriend when she was in her 20s. She is now more mature, engaged to a man named Larry and has a full crime-free life. She is sentenced to a women’s prison and the tale goes on from there!

So picture this. I am cuddled up and hit play on episode 1. By the fourth I was sitting up in bed, clutching my pillow and talking to the television.

OMG, Crazy Yes! Home girl is CRAZY!

What a beautiful man Larry Towner is, they are totally going to make it!

All of these thoughts get more complicated, and downright wrong, as you watch and finish the last episode of the second season.

What really took me by surprise were the parallels between Piper’s life (her past caught up with her and she has to go to prison for 15 months) and my life as a woman who has never been, but has had an illness and some obstacles to overcome on her own. You soon learn as you watch the show, that Piper isn’t battling jail. Piper is battling her own inner demons. She’s battling her true self, who she is when she is forced to be still with herself for 15 long months.

I can’t lie, at first my MS felt like a prison sentence, and I too was forced to sit with my demons and stare them in the eye. Like Piper, I had to decide, will I make something beautiful out of this ugliness or will I crumble? Remember when I said I had kids-right there shows you which path I took. I had kids. There was no choice but to try and make something beautiful from this ugly diagnosis.

I was especially taken with the first episode when Piper sits next to a woman in the lunch room. Someone told Piper, that this woman would be “safe” and kind. This woman, named Yoga Jones, was a very peaceful former hippy and prison yoga instructor. Yoga Jones looks Piper in the eyes and asks her if she has ever heard of Mandalas…the Tibetan monk sad art. Piper thinks she’s heard of it, but waits for an explanation. Yoga Jones explains how the monks spend several weeks mapping out the design, typically a geometric one and then dying the sand which means a grueling process of crushing different types of glass. After weeks and weeks they finally achieve a masterpiece, just to… wipe it away. They do this to symbolise how temporary material things are. Yoga Jones then takes the chance to lean in closer, look Piper square in the eye and explains that nothing is permanent, not even the time she is serving here. Her challenge is to treat it like the Monks treat that sand and make something beautiful out of it until it is washed away.

No one has come closer to explaining or articulating my approach to MS than Yoga Jones in this show. My MS is a big chunk of sand and it is my job to shape it into the most beautiful art I can until it is no more. That is why I keep going. I pray you make something beautiful out of whatever the universe hands you my friends. Namaste.

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