January 19, 2004 12:00 PM

In the five years since he learned that he has multiple sclerosis—a progressive neurological disease with symptoms ranging from dizziness and fatigue to severely impeded mobility—talk show host Montel Williams has become a man with a mission. Refusing “to sit back and whine,” as he puts it, he is pushing drug companies to develop a cure and has created a foundation that funds MS research. And now, in Climbing Higher (excerpted below), he reveals hard truths about the disease that nearly drove him to take his life. “A lot of people who suffer the way I do won’t even tell their loved ones,” Williams says. “I want people to understand what we go through.”

In February 1999 I flew to Salt Lake City to appear in an episode of Touched by an Angel. On the plane, I got up to use the bathroom, and when I returned I stumbled and fell into the seat. A searing pain had swept through my leg’s as if they had been scalded by a blowtorch. My feet felt like someone had taken a sharp, pointed branding iron and stuck it through my toes. The pain was excruciating. Every hour for the next two days, my legs and feet hurt more. I also felt pain in my stomach that was taking my breath away.

Sent by a physician friend to a neurologist in Salt Lake, the talk show host, then 42, received some shattering news.

He did a quick eye exam and told me to remove my pants. He began sticking needles into my feet.

“What do you feel?”

“Nothing.”

He poked me in the legs, drawing blood. “Do you feel this?”

“No.”

The doctor then checked my cremasteric reflex, which is supposed to make the genitals move when the thigh is touched in a certain spot. Mine didn’t.

“I can tell you without doing any further tests that you have MS,” he said. Just like that.

What the hell was he talking about, MS? I barely knew what MS was. I broke down, crying at the thought of my own funeral. “Don’t cry,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Those first three shows when I got back from Utah took everything I had. I was falling down, bumping into people, knocking things over. At night, I was twitching so much I couldn’t stay in bed. It felt like I was walking across hot coals just to get to the bathroom.

I spiraled into a cataclysmic depression. What was there to live for? I was hiding my disease from everyone. I felt alone, hopeless and sorry for myself.

Williams’s marriage to second wife Grace, now 39, had been shaky for months, which made his burden heavier. In March 1999, at the Greenwich, Conn., mansion he and Grace shared with their children Montel II, then 5, and Wyntergrace, 4, along with Williams’s daughters from his first marriage, Ashley, 14, and Maressa, 10, the Naval Academy graduate got out his gun collection.

Nine guns. Nine choices to blow my brains out and end the misery I was in.

It was just past midnight when I went into the walk-in closet. I sat on the floor and put the .357 to my head. Then I lowered it toward my mouth but stopped myself. If I stick this in my mouth and it goes off, that’s clear suicide, I thought. My kids wouldn’t get the insurance. I had to leave it ambiguous enough that people might think it was an accident. I had that .357 in my hand for 20 minutes. I was spinning it around by the trigger. If only the damn thing would go off. Suddenly I thought, what if I shoot myself in the chest and end up not dying? That would be worse than death. I finally dragged myself into bed and lay there looking for another idea. I thought about falling off a building. I thought about driving my car into a wall.

A few days later, I had my driver drop me near Columbus Circle in Manhattan. I picked a Cadillac sedan and “tripped” in its path. The driver swerved and came cursing out of his car and then he recognized me. “Oh, Montel, oh, man, I’m sorry. You hurt?”

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I tripped.”

He helped me to the sidewalk and I walked to the studio to tape another show, more depressed than ever. What a jackass! I couldn’t even die!

Not long afterward, Williams hinted to Grace that he was considering suicide.

“And what are your kids going to do?” she said and walked away from me.

And it struck me as if somebody had hit me with a baseball bat: “How dare you?!” Because no matter which way I might have taken my life, my children were going to suffer. That was the day I decided I was going to live, period. When I came home the next day the first thing I did was grab my kids and Grace and spend an hour cuddling with them.

Hoping to close their rift, Williams put $1.25 million into Little Pieces, a romantic comedy that became a vehicle for Grace (an aspiring actress). But the film couldn’t offset troubles including sexual dysfunction caused by MS and Montel’s inability to share his pain.

One evening Grace said, “I’m not happy.” Just like that. Very calmly.

“With what?” I asked. “With the marriage? With us?”

“Yes.”

Part of me was angry. I was the one with MS, the one killing himself to produce, direct and edit her pet project, and she was unhappy! “What do you want to do about it?” I asked.

She was silent for five excruciating minutes. Then she said, “I think I want a divorce.”

In April 2000 Williams announced that the two were divorcing. Since then he has learned to live with his intermittent symptoms, which include chest spasms, difficulty swallowing and blurred vision.

I haven’t seen much progression in my MS. But when it acts up, I will try anything to ease the pain: Sometimes I do something drastic to distract myself. I’ve taken a needle and stuck it into my thigh. I don’t know anyone who can really understand this behavior, and when it’s at its worst, I’m better off by myself.

We who suffer from MS often don’t treat our spouses or loved ones correctly. We don’t want to become a burden, so we don’t share our powerful, sometimes scary feelings.

In 2001,I met a model from Winnipeg, Canada. I fell completely in love and will probably love her until I die. In the end, she broke up with me. I’d like to think MS had nothing to do with the breakup, but it did. MS has been a barrier in every relationship I’ve had.

Am I happy now? Not as much as I’d like to be, but I’m working at it. All of us with MS eventually become progressive, even if we die of something else. But it doesn’t mean all of us will become wheelchair bound. I made a decision the day I got up off the street in Columbus Circle, looking at the car that swerved around me, that even though I have MS, it’s not going to have me. Period. They’re just six little words, but once I said them, I refocused my life.

I have MS. MS does not have me.

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