2018-08-03 / Front Page

Mitchell Sturgeon: ‘Enjoying the Ride’

Resident pens memoir detailing life as a quadriplegic
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Mitchell and Kim Sturgeon outside their E Street home in South Portland’s historic Knightville neighborhood with a copy of his new book, “Enjoying the Ride: Two Generations of Tragedy & Triumph,” which details the experiences of both he and his mother in coping with life confined to wheelchairs. (Duke Harrington photo) Mitchell and Kim Sturgeon outside their E Street home in South Portland’s historic Knightville neighborhood with a copy of his new book, “Enjoying the Ride: Two Generations of Tragedy & Triumph,” which details the experiences of both he and his mother in coping with life confined to wheelchairs. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — In living as a quadriplegic these past 17 years, South Portland resident Mitchell Sturgeon always took strength from the example set by his mother Vernice, who herself lived confined to a wheelchair for more than twice that long.

But in the crafting of a book detailing the twin challenges in personal perseverance both he and he mother stared down for so long, Sturgeon inadvertently uncovered a deeply held family secret about the incident that robbed his mother of the use of her legs.

Discovering and dealing with that mystery adds an element of human drama to Sturgeon’s new memoir – “Enjoying the Ride: Two Generations of Tragedy & Triumph” – a book that otherwise bubbles with humorous anecdotes documenting his ongoing efforts to maintain a positive attitude in the face of a debilitating disease.

Sturgeon, 54, was an chemical engineer by trade. Raised in the mill town of Lincoln, he was a typical Mainer, enjoying hunting, fishing, golf, snowmobiling and hiking, among other outdoor pursuits, until 2001, when he was diagnosed with a progressively degenerative form of multiple sclerosis.

Since 2009 he has been confined to a wheelchair and today enjoys only very limited use of his arms. In 2011, he and wife Kim, a guidance counselor at Cape Elizabeth Middle School, moved to South Portland’s historic Knightville district. With everything he needed close at hand, from grocery stores to shops and restaurants, to his primary care physician and even an optometrist, the tiny village was a perfect solution, Sturgeon said.

Forced to take retirement by his condition, Sturgeon became something of a disability advocate, chronicling his daily challenges on a blog, enjoyingtheride.com. There, one of Sturgeon’s constant themes was the example set by his mother, who died in 2008 at age 74, but lived from age 36 confined to a wheelchair following an accident at a lakeside party with friends in 1970.

“I was only 5 years old at the time, the youngest of three boys, and the strength she showed for so long served as a constant inspiration, providing me with endless examples of how to live life and overcome adversity,” Sturgeon said. “Little did I know just how pertinent her lessons would be. I was the same age she was when she had her accident when I showed by first symptoms of MS. It’s remarkable how similar our disabilities are.”

Like his blog, the book is about living a contented life as a disabled person.

“I walk a line between humor and not sugar-coating it, in telling it like it is,” he said. “It’s not a how-to book on how to handle a chronic disease. It’s just saying, here’s how I’ve handled it, here’s how my mother handled it. And maybe you can get something from that – not just if you have a chronic disease, but to meet whatever challenges you may be facing in life.”

In doing the research for the book, which he knew from the beginning he wanted to celebrate his mother as well as chronicle his own struggles, Sturgeon inadvertently dug up what he calls a “family conspiracy” that for decades hid the truth of his mother’s accident.

“I found out that what I was always told about my mother’s injury was not true,” he said. “There are four people still alive who were at that party, and one of them could not talk about it even to this day. So, it also became a story about how this group of friends suffered this terrible tragedy that was sort of self-inflicted within the group, and how and why they kept it quiet all those years. Both of my parents passed away harboring that secret.”

The book took four years to write. As with his blog posts, Sturgeon did the work using a Dragon dictation app, although that brought its own special brand of uphill battles.

“It’s about 90 percent accurate, but there are still words is just won’t understand,” he explained with a laugh. “Sometimes it would get me so frustrated it would make me curse, and then the real frustration was that it would recognize the damn curse words.”

Initially encouraged to write a book by readers of his blog, Sturgeon acknowledges that about half of it is cannibalized from old posts.

“I freely plagiarized from myself for about half the chapters,” he said. “But even at that, writing blog posts is one thing. To try and put it all together into a coherent book – I can probably sit here and recite the whole book to you, I rewrote it so many times.”

Along the way, Sturgeon massaged his book into being through readings and peer advice from the Portland Writers Workshop, while engaging in regular talks with local barber and mystery writer Joe Souza.

“I’d pay him to cut my hair once a month and we’d spend 20 minutes talking about writing. So, that was my college education, I guess,” he joked.

Also pressed into service was a host of beta readers, until Sturgeon was convinced his self-published work, at 300 pages, was as good as it could possibly be. As with most writers, choosing what to take out was as hard, or harder, than deciding what to put in.

“People think of writing as a solitary endeavor, but at least in my case it took a village to write this book,” Sturgeon said.

In the end, it is a balance of life growing up in a Maine mill town in the ’70s, mixing the stoic strength of Mainers used to pressing on in the face of adversity with their tight-lipped stoicism when guarding personal pain, all while delivering in good humor a view of modern life as seen from the unique perspective of someone confined to a wheelchair.

Now, Sturgeon says, the hope is that the book will find an audience as appreciative as fans of his blog.

“There’s little chance I’ll break even on the book,” he said. “I invested so much in writing courses and professional editors, and a book designer and printing. I’ll never get all that money back. But getting this story out was more important to me than making money.

“I just hope to hear from people that they like the book. If I get a few people who say that, then I’ll be happy,” he said.

FMI

South Portland resident Mitchell Sturgeon will sign copies of his memoir, “Enjoying the Ride: Two Generations of Tragedy & Triumph,” at a book release party 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 6, at Willow’s Pizza, 740 Broadway. Copies of the 300-page paperback book are $15.99. A Kindle version is available online for $9.99.

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