Man in the mirror

Michael Mills, a star athlete suffering a degenerative bone disease and a digestive disorder, is an inspirational figure to many younger athletes.

You might assume from looking at him that this man is an athlete – a ball player, wrestler or a boxer perhaps – and, in a way, you'd be right.  He is definitely a fighter, but his adversary is not in the ring. 

Meet 31-year-old Michael Mills of Southaven, who is fighting every day of his life against disease and depression.  And they are fighting against him, for his life.  “My dad trained me from childhood to be an athlete and I focused early on, playing basketball and football.  But I found my niche in baseball, in the outfield where I got pretty good at it,” he recalled.  Mills was in fact good, so much so that he made the Southaven High School baseball team his sophomore year and qualified to play on the Snowden Grove Summer League All-Star team.

At age 15, and playing in state-wide competition in Biloxi,  something happened which completely changed Mike Mills' life forever.  “I was playing well, but having to leave the field to go to the bathroom.  I couldn't keep anything I ate in my stomach, but didn't think anything of it because of the pressure of the game.  Then when we got back home, a week later I complained to my dad that my knee had popped out on the field and was hurting.  I was taken to a doctor who first weighed me and discovered my weight had dropped from 125 to 95 pounds in just three weeks.  The doctor set-up a colonoscopy and technicians said I might be suffering from a virus or possibly irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or even Crohn's Disease, which I laughed off being young and an athlete,” Mills said.

Mills had never been sick but after the colonoscopy, doctors told him that he did in fact have Crohn's Disease.  “I thought they were wrong.  I just couldn't accept it,” he said, “because my mind wouldn't let me believe it.”  Mills was put on high dosages of several medications – from 5mg to 120mg tablets of Prednisone – in an attempt to bring Crohn's into remission because there is no cure.


Progress was steady but slow since the human body is much like a machine subject to breakdowns and failures, which Mills knows all too well.  “In 2008, I was working in the YMCA fitness center in Olive Branch, but always cold and suffering from 'cold sweats.'  I'd go in the sauna to try to warm up, but I couldn't get warm.  Then one morning I was in such pain that I was laying in the middle of my living room floor in the fetal position, unable to move.  My grandmother came and got me, and took me to Baptist-East Hospital.  I told the doctor that I thought I might have testicular cancer.”


The medical staff did an ultrasound, but found nothing.  They did, however, find an abscess on his colon and decided that Mills needed surgery.  “I was in my early 20s, but it had to be dealt with even though the surgery had been postponed for months due to my treatments.  But they hadn't worked, so the operation was the next step,” he explained.


Mills went home to mentally prepare for surgery.  Before it could start, an abcess on his colon had to be drained – a painful process that took a month.  The result was Mills having to wear a colostomy bag up until 2008.  But in 2017, the illnesses had come back with intensity and it was reattached to his body.


He was then able to return to work at the YMCA, but while showing a client how to do an exercise Mills' left elbow popped.  That night the pain worsened and he was taken to the hospital emergency room where the diagnosis was 'tennis elbow.'  A week passed and the pain increased.  Mills discovered he couldn't extend his left arm or straighten his elbow.


An MRI was performed and it was discovered that Mills had a very rare bone disease, Avascular Necrosis which meant another surgery to attempt to correct the lack of blood supply to the bone.  The surgery was a success, but doctors found that his bone mass had deteriorated so much that the bone fiber had become, in their words, “mushy.”  He was given a brace to wear but Mills was told that further operations were useless, that only a full elbow replacement would correct the problem.  With it, he would only be able to lift 10 pounds, a problem he has dealt with ever since.


Two years later, now at age 22, the same condition attacked Mills' left knee.  With that incursion his left knee, left elbow, left hip and left shoulder were infected.  The right side is untouched, which baffles medical science although being right-handed, Mills is grateful.


From the moment of birth, everyone is on a life-long journey of unknown length that will end in death.  For some the journey is short, for others like Mike Mills it can be long and drawn-out.  But for him, it isn't over.  He's living one day at a time with determined courage.


“You don't realize what you have until it's gone, a cliché I realize, but it's true.  Up until I was 15 years old, I took my body for granted, my mind for granted, happiness for granted and took 'normalcy' for granted.  But now I take every day for what it's worth.  I struggle with depression as my enemy and some days are better than others.  But my mind is constantly focused on my medical problems.  I worry about them almost every waking moment,” Mills stated.  “Operation number 17 is scheduled for November and my body doesn't let me forget, because I deal with pain every day and every night.  The body I have today has become my reality.  The body I had up until I was 15 years old has turned into a fantasy,” he mused.  “If I could go back in a time machine and talk to myself at age 14, I would tell me that this – today – is what's going to happen.  Don't take any day for granted.  Live it to the fullest because, fifteen years in the future you're not going to want to live.  You will literally crave death as the way out!” he offered.

Mills compared his mental state to that of a stormy day.  “Storm clouds and dark days reflect me.  I love them because they represent the real me.  It's why I hide myself under a hoodie and wear long sleeves.  I want to hide myself from the public eye.  It's a psychological thing, but it's necessary because of the way I feel about myself.  I was, when younger, the most outgoing person in social situations.  Now, I'm a recluse,” he said.  “Some people see my attitude about death as morose, but I don't.  I won't take my own life, but I've accepted deaths' eventuality as the next step.  I'm ready.  I understand what sickness and disease means, that you're not in control of your days, but you deal with the hand dealt you.  I look at time as incremental.  I see a clock as a measure of the time I have left each day until sleep allows me to escape the pain and trauma my body is suffering.”

That trauma is the core of the depression that plagues Mike Mills' daily life, a heavy burden that's impossible to understand unless you've experienced what he is going through.

What does the future hold for Mike Mills?  He's blessed with a loving girlfriend – Amy – who has been with him since his ordeal started in high school.  She has a fine job and earns enough income that they live well.  Mills does not work, having been declared legally disabled in January 2018.  “Life for me,” he stated, “is knowing that although I can't do a thing about my condition, I have to live because I have people counting on me.  I still have goals to accomplish;  I want to make my mom proud, even though she passed.  She's with me in spirit as my strength, and I want to make my grandmother and my dad proud of me.  I tell my dad every day that I let him down.  I was supposed to be a baseball player, the athlete he trained me to be.  But I feel that I let him down.  It's a symptom of depression and a very real result of the guilt that haunts me.”

Mike Mills' pride was in the man he was becoming at age 15 – an accomplished athlete – but now his self-inflicted shame is in the man he's become, a verdict not shared with those who know and love him.  “But it can't be helped,” he noted, “because I'm no longer the man I was.  I'm also not the man they know; I'm the Mike Mills that only I know, a man who will have had 17 operations since age 15 and taking up to 8 pills daily plus an injection I give myself every two weeks to combat Crohn's.  And I'm literally waiting for death to escape my life.  My mind and body are at war, a battle that eventually one will win over the other,” he said.


There is a lesson in Mike Mills' story for us all, that life is to be treasured no matter what hand we're dealt.  It's not to be taken for granted.  We can learn from this courageous young man's fight that no matter what the circumstances we have to contend with, life is a gift to be cherished every hour of every day.

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