In the days leading up to my interview with Montel Williams, I was concerned. I knew that there would be a lot of intense ground to cover in discussing his life over the past six and a half years since being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I wanted to broach the issues surrounding his personal and professional journey since then, with knowledge, preparedness and compassion. As our conversation unraveled I began to realize that his willingness and even eagerness to share his personal struggles comes from a place of resolute confidence and inner strength. During my hour long conversation with Montel Williams, he taught me that courage means having the ability to admit to moments of weakness. He is a decorated naval officer, motivational speaker, Emmy winning talk show host, parent and healthcare advocate. In this candid discussion we cover the devastating effects of Multiple Sclerosis, the methods he is using to stay healthy, what he has learned from the thousands of guests who have appeared on The Montel Williams Show and his political fight to make medical marijuana legal.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): How are you feeling these days... physically, emotionally or otherwise?
Montel Williams: I guess that is in reference to the fact that most of your readers will know, of course I have MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and I've been dealing with this for about seven years. It is an everyday struggle. Every single day I am aware of the fact that I have this illness. But, I've said this since day one, and now it seems to become the new battle cry, "I have MS. MS does not have me." And it's not going to. I exercise every day, I stay on top of my diet. I'm in the process of 'guinea-pigging' myself now for a new book I 'm about to write, about food. You truly are what you eat. I've now been on a six month eating regimen with two different chefs, that has been whole food and raw food chefs, who have been preparing food for me every single day. I'm going to make it simple so that anybody else can do the same thing. It's amazing how good I have been feeling. I've been able to mitigate a few of the symptoms that I have or at least lessen their severity. I think the more I stay with this and the cleaner I get, the better and better I'll be.
PR.com: Do you notice a change in your mental state from eating this way?
Montel Williams: Without a doubt! Mental acuity is... well I have a pretty precise memory. I can sit down and focus on something and memorize it in less then two minutes and walk away.
PR.com: What about your emotional state?
Montel Williams: Emotionally, it has helped my depression, without a doubt. Since I've started this, about a month and a half in, I have noticed that my ebs and flows almost seem to stagnate. There are not big swings. Though I've had a couple of moments, where... you know I suffer from depression. But I've not fallen into what I consider one of my holes since I've started this diet.
PR.com: Right. You haven't gone into a spiral...
Montel Williams: I've not been in one. I've been close, I'll tell ya, and maybe it's psychosomatic, but two extra green drinks that day, a little extra working out that day, a little bit more focused thought and yoga that day... I keep myself from falling into that hole.
PR.com: Good! I was watching your show yesterday and there was an expert on the show who was teaching children what to do if someone should approach them and try to abduct them...
Montel Williams: Sure, yes...
PR.com: I loved the show. I was really impressed with the information.
Montel Williams: That's one of the things we're doing, that we've been focusing on and how the show has been changing. My mom called me about two months ago and said, "Baby, the show is great. I love it. However, I am really getting sick and tired of crying every day." (I laugh) I'm thinking to myself, "Ok mom, I hear you." But it's not that we're just depressing. We just do extremely serious topics. The show's been through a little metamorphosis in the last couple months and I unleashed on my staff two of my seasoned producers who've been with me for over ten years each: Susan Henry and Kim Forman. They've just been promoted to Senior Supervising Producers of The Montel Williams Show and are running the show. We're excited about a lot of new things we're doing, like our "Friday Shows." I'm trying to lighten some things up and just bring more information to the public, like yesterday's show.
PR.com: Is it fair to say that you tend to stay away from subject matter that's topical, or the latest news in the headlines, in favor of more of a social work slant?
Montel Williams: I don't know if its social work as much as it is trying to... this is an unbelievable medium that we have to play in every day; the medium of television. If you listen to some people who program (producers of programming) they say that it's all about entertainment. That may be true, but I don't think that's exclusive of information. We can provide information. That's been the moniker of the show for the last 15 years! I must be doing something right. Fifteen years later I'm still expressing and giving you information about things that can keep you and your family safe. We've changed our Friday format. I opened up my show at the beginning of the season and said I wanted to bring on some female co-hosts. So I've opened my door up on Fridays and since this has started we've had everyone from Vivica Fox, Stacey Dash... the list goes on and on. Now actresses and singers are coming out of the woodwork asking us, "Can we come on and be your co-host?" So it's turned into a lot of fun. We have Rachel Hunter coming on real soon. I think she'll be here tomorrow and we're going to be taping with her.
PR.com: All gorgeous women...
Montel Williams: ALL gorgeous women! (We laugh) But you know what... all high profile, high intensity achieving women is what I like to call them.
PR.com: Right. Not bad to look at, and high achieving...
Montel Williams: (he laughs) Come on, I'm a single guy! I get to go look at beautiful women everyday. But it's been working really well and I think the audience is appreciating it. My mom has been on [the show] as a correspondent. It's been funny...
PR.com: That's cute. Does your mom still live in Baltimore, where you're from?
Montel Williams: My parents still live in Baltimore. She did a report for me out of Johns Hopkins University Hospital (in Baltimore, Maryland). She went to the Johns Hopkins Children's Center for our Christmas show. My mom was my roving reporter. It was a trip. She was like, "Ok, and back to you Montel!"
PR.com: That's very cute. I know your show established an aftercare program in 1992. How does the aftercare program work?
Montel Williams: This really came about because I had a young lady on the show who was both anorexic and bulimic, but she also had a malady where she physically cut herself. She had cut herself two days before she got to the show and came to me with fifteen brand new stitches in her. She spoke about things that... I knew that if this woman walks off my set, I don't know if she's going to kill herself. That day, I said I'm not letting you leave here until I find somebody who will help you. And we did that day. Ironically, the next day I had a woman come on the show where the show was about, "My husband makes me do these silly things around the house," like fold the napkins in a particular way, for example. The first guest walks out and I look at this lady, and I looked at her neck and I saw a bruise going down the back of her neck. I thought it was weird and I said, "Did you hit your head?" She said, "No, he beats me." Then, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... and the camera starts running, and [her husband] got infuriated and I had to get some security to help.
PR.com: And this was something that the producers didn't know about ahead of time?
Montel Williams: Nope. And in two days, and this started in 1992, in two days I had two people who I had to find a place to send when they left the show. That's how The Montel Williams Aftercare Program was formed. Since then we've sent well over a thousand people to different types of treatment centers, programs, counseling, and therapy. We've gotten people actual full operations after the show. We had a young lady on the show who had a deformity on her nose and we had a doctor who did that surgery for her. We had a women who was the victim of spousal abuse to a horrendous degree and we had a plastic surgeon repair her face. We pair up services with our guests.
PR.com: And the production pays for these services?
Montel Williams: Well, no a lot of these services are provided pro bono. There are a lot of services out there that help us out or we help pay the person who is the guest. Through our legal department, we illicit the help through their insurance company, so they have a small co-payment. We've put people through residential treatment programs that have cost $100,000.00 that have been donated for free.
PR.com: Do you track these people's progress?
Montel Williams: Yes we do. I have a staff psychiatrist who is a practicing psychiatrist in the state of New York. She is our point person who matches our guests up with services, and she also tracks them.
PR.com: In watching you on your show, you appear to be the picture of health, and you seem 100% focused and in the moment. What exactly do you need to do to prepare yourself and to manage your MS symptoms before you do your show each day?
Montel Williams: I believe in therapy, so I go myself. I have worked with a couple therapists who have taught me some techniques to help lessen my pain. Fortunately, for me, my pain spikes normally between 6 and 9pm. So it's normally early evening after I've been up an entire day and I'm starting to get tired, that's when I will normally get the biggest burst of pain. But I'm in pain 24 hours a day. I'm at a point now in my life where I use a lot of mental tools to keep that pain in a box. There are techniques where you can actually put a ribbon around it and tie it up and hold it.
PR.com: And this is what you're doing when you're taping the show?
Montel Williams: I do that and I would say if you talk to some of my staff members, there have been days where I have to leave the set for a few minutes and sit down just to get a grip on what's going on with my feet. Then I'm back to work. It's one of the things that I have to live with.
PR.com: Tell me what Multiple Sclerosis is and what it does to the body...
Montel Williams: Multiple Sclerosis is, in its name and its definition, means multiple scars. The word 'scleros' is scar. The multiple scars appear on the brain and the spinal cord. For some reason in people with MS, the immune system has turned on itself, we think. It is an auto immune disease where a portion of our immune system is attacking a portion of the central nervous system which is called the myelin sheath around the nerves. The analogy is, if you think about an electrical wire to your lamp coming out of the wall. All of that plastic coating on [the wire] is the myelin. The copper running down the middle is the nerve. If I took a knife and I scraped that plastic coating off of that wire, without touching the wire, just scrape off the coating and bare it to the air...
PR.com: Leaving it exposed...
Montel Williams: That's right, it starts to rust. When it starts to rust, the signal doesn't get through. In a layman's term, that's what is going on in the brains and the spinal cords of people with MS. Then a myriad of symptoms can come out of that.
PR.com: When you were first diagnosed with MS, was your only vision that of somebody like Richard Pryor (who also had MS) who was very frail and wheelchair bound?
Montel Williams: Unfortunately, like so many other people in this country, I had no idea what MS was. I had to actually sit down and study, myself. I was in the middle of shooting an episode of Touched by an Angel in Utah. I had flown out to do that, when I slipped into an episode of bout or exacerbation that really prompted me going to the doctors and then being diagnosed. I flew out to Utah from New York on a Friday. I was shooting an episode on Monday. That whole weekend was characterized by extreme pain in my feet. My balance was a little off. My left eye was a little off. I got diagnosed on that Tuesday and I was just in despair. I don't even remember what movie I went to go see [afterwards], but I went to go see a movie and I sat down in the theatre, and the employees walk up in front and they're standing there with these cans. Right before my eyes, a public service announcement starts on the screen for MS. The theatre chain was doing a fundraising drive for the illness that I was, just two seconds earlier, diagnosed with. It just was kind of crazy. It was that which made me understand very quickly that I needed to step up publicly and do something about this.
PR.com: And your doctor had said to you at the time, "Don't cry. There's nothing you can do about it anyway."
Montel Williams: Correct.
PR.com: And that was the end of it. That was all he said to you?
Montel Williams: Yeah, and the next couple of months were really difficult. It was hard to grasp your own mortality. Then once I realized that it wasn't my mortality I was grasping, it was dealing with and coping with an illness that unfortunately was going to require a lot of mouth on my part to help see if we can raise some money to get this thing, cure is probably the wrong word, but to at least come up with some sort of a resting agent that helps to abate the symptoms.
PR.com: Do you find it as frustrating as I do that it seems as if medicine is all about treatments nowadays and no longer about curing and eliminating a disease?
Montel Williams: I spent fifteen years on air, holding the pharmaceutical industry and the medical industry to task on almost any issue that's come up and been very angry, because I felt the same way. Then I put myself on the other side of the research paradigm, looking and asking questions. I'm finding research at some of the top hospitals in the world: Harvard, UC San Francisco, USC, The Nobel Institute in Stockholm, Sweden... I see how frustrating it is for these doctors. I truly have been there sitting at the side of a doctor in the trench, whose only life ambition is to see if they can solve that one puzzle before them. And they've been doing it for twenty years and they haven't solved it yet, and they're willing to do it for another twenty. So I can't beat them up. What's going on right now is that there's so many things that we have done to ourselves. I spent time in the military and I was in submarines. I slept by nuclear reactors for about sixty days. I worked out by a nuclear reactor for days. Who knows what I did to my body to now put me in this place that I have this illness.
PR.com: So you don't think they're putting their focus on treatments at the expense of finding a cure?
Montel Williams: The problem is, I want to choke these guys, but I also have to pat them on the back. The truth of the matter is, we say they're in it for treatment versus cure, but everybody runs down to the local drugstore to treat a symptom, and are demanding symptom treatments. Like with me, I'm taking a drug right now for MS where the best thing they can offer is the possibility of slowing down or extending the period between my exacerbations. That's really what it's doing. It's just to slow it down enough where maybe two years from now they'll come up with something that may stop it. And this drug is $1,500.00 a month, and you can't even tell me what it really does??
PR.com: Does insurance cover this medication?
Montel Williams: For me it does because I have incredible insurance, but there are a lot of people in this country who don't. I'm now the national spokesperson for a program that the drug companies have come up with called the PPA - Partnership for Prescription Assistance. I am now advocating this, because this is what's closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots in America when it comes to prescription medication.
PR.com: How does somebody qualify for this program?
Montel Williams: Everybody in America who is uninsured is qualified.
PR.com: So you don't have to prove that you make under a certain income?
Montel Williams: They will ask you questions. You have to go in and you have to fill out paperwork, but so far what's happening is that 85 to 90 percent of people who fill out a form are being qualified. Since April, 1.2 million people in America have already received assistance from the PPA which is amazing, because I don't think Medicare can say that. I'm not gonna put [Medicare] down, but somebody finally got smart enough and realized, because we are holding the pharmaceutical industries to task, they've decided to give something back or at least to say to the American public, "Look, we're making profits off you. Here's the way that we can bridge the gap for those of you who can't afford." They are providing medicine to people who are uninsured and can't get it otherwise. They're either getting it for free or at very minimal cost.
PR.com: Is the Partnership for Prescription Assistance a private organization? It's not a publicly funded organization by the government?
Montel Williams: No, no it's private and sponsored by the entire pharmaceutical industry: pharmaceutical companies, organizations, doctors, people from across the country are all involved in this to help bridge that gap. (The number is 1-888-4-PPANOW and the website is www.pparx.org)
PR.com: Now let's talk about medical marijuana.
Montel Williams: Sure.
PR.com: What led you to discover that marijuana was the only thing that could properly manage your pain? What medications were prescribed to you first that didn't do the job?
Montel Williams: I've had Percocets, Vicodin, OxyContin...
PR.com: All legal drugs...
Montel Williams: All legal and prescribed to me. Here's something that a lot of people don't get, medicinal marijuana is legal too.
PR.com: Oh, it is?
Montel Williams: Now I'm gonna shock you. For the last twenty five years in this country the federal government has been, on every seventeenth of the month, been distributing canisters of medicinal marijuana to patients across the country. They started off with 21 [patients] and now it's down to seven, because they're the only people that have remained alive. Every single month on the 17th, what day is it today?
PR.com: The 17th!
Montel Williams: Today seven cans of marijuana will be sent out from the University of Mississippi to seven patients across the country with an FDA stamp on it.
PR.com: And you have to get a prescription from your physician?
Montel Williams: No. This is a program that was started by the federal government about twenty-five years ago when they realized that marijuana was a viable medicinal agent. The federal government started providing it to certain patients across the country because there was a lawsuit. But then when everybody started to realize that it worked, the program was closed to just those people who get it. So what I say to you when you say, "the other drugs, like OxyContin and those things are legal," well for seven people in America, Marijuana is legal. Why does the federal government have the right to determine whether or not my pain is less than or greater then one of these seven people?
PR.com: The reason I made that comment, saying all of those pills are legal, is because I wanted to make a point to say that, because I know individuals who have become physically addicted to those pills, who had used them for recreational purposes. So, why are cigarettes legal? Why is alcohol legal? Why is Marijuana not legal? Why is the federal government afraid of Marijuana?
Montel Williams: It's a dog chasing its own tail. It's happened in our government over and over again. When lies are told they have to be perpetuated. And they have to be perpetuated at the most extreme level they can be. If you really dig into why marijuana is illegal in this country, it wasn't made illegal because people feared it as a [harmful] drug. We knew that financially, you can't make money off of it. If you follow the bouncing ball, which is the money trail to marijuana, you will start to understand why it's been illegal for the last seventy years in this country. Right now, there's been so much research going on, we have thirteen states in America right now, who started and initiated medicinal marijuana policies to distribute and get medicinal marijuana to their constituents. It's really just a matter now of pure and simple ignorance.
PR.com: Now when you say medicinal marijuana, you're referring to the fact that it's given to you for medicinal purposes, but you're using it the same way that somebody would use it recreationally, meaning that you're smoking it...
Montel Williams: That's also what is so crazy, and a fallacy. Most people think about people sitting around in a group passing a joint...
PR.com: Like at a party...
Montel Williams: But marijuana can be eaten, it can be liquefied, it can be freeze dried, it can be turned into other substances. Right now in California you can purchase marijuana in an oil that you can put under your tongue. That's the same effect as if you would smoke it. In some cases the edible version of it is for me, and for other people I know who use it medicinally, works better then actually smoking it. Smoking allows for immediate cessation of your pain because it goes right up to your brain and into your nasal passages so you get relief quicker, but the relief lasts longer if it's ingested. We have all of these fake and false ideas of what marijuana is.
PR.com: And right now you eat it as opposed to smoke it?
Montel Williams: For immediate cessation I smoke it. Most of the time I eat it at night because I suffer from extreme tremors in the evening and I also suffer from extreme neuralgic pain in my feet. If I eat it in the evening it takes [the pain] from a six to about a three. When I pop out of bed I'm normally at my best, so that's when I work out and I try to get as much work done early in the day. As I get later on in the day, my feet start to go on fire. When they start to hit the fire mark I'm easing my pain, it's just that simple. I've been speaking to politicians all around the country and all around the world on this issue and you'd be surprised; more people understand and back it and believe in it then would step up right now today and vote for it.
PR.com: What would you say to people who say, "What's next? Then they may legalize cocaine or heroin..."
Montel Williams: Cocaine is legalized right now for a doctor to prescribe.
PR.com: In the form of what?
Montel Williams: Cocaine! A doctor can prescribe for me, right this second, cocaine in a powder form that I can ingest in my mouth. It's a schedule two drug. Marijuana is a schedule one drug. It is considered one of the worst drugs ever introduced to mankind. It's in the same category with PCP and Heroin. Below that, schedule two. All the federal government would have to do is change the schedule from schedule one to schedule two, which then makes it a prescribable drug by a doctor. Then marijuana is in the same category as...are you ready for this? Cocaine, morphine, barbiturates and amphetamines. All the other drugs! So just put marijuana on the same schedule and all the answers are solved.
PR.com: You know what people are afraid of because you have four children and you certainly wouldn't want them using drugs recreationally. In many people's minds, drug use is drug use, and that's the end of the story.
Montel Williams: If you take a look at the state of California, since the legislation was passed and they started providing marijuana on a medicinal level, do you know marijuana use among teenagers is down? Since marijuana was made legal for medicinal purposes in the state of California, the usage among teenagers has constantly gone down.
PR.com: Let's go back to some personal stuff from several years ago, because I think it can be helpful to other people. Back around 1999 and 2000 there were times that you were suicidal, shortly after being diagnosed with MS...
Montel Williams: Yeah, I discuss it in my book (Climbing Higher, 2004) at length. A lot of people who have this illness suffer from depression.
PR.com: Is that part of the illness?
Montel Williams: Yeah, well chemically, depression is a part of the illness. That's one of the symptoms that we have, and the medications that we take also can cause extreme mood swings, depression and other psychotic behavior. So we take medications and we are already pre-disposed to a chemical form of depression. So I was going through an extreme depression before I even realized and had a doctor who told me that you could have depression (associated with MS).
PR.com: So this is something that you never had in your life until then?
Montel Williams: Nope, never in my life. It started to consume me and because of the pain and not being able to deal with it, I made a couple of suicide attempts.
PR.com: Thank god you didn't go through with it, because you had so much more to give.
Montel Williams: Yeah, it was a tough period in my life. (His speech grows more quiet and pensive) I think what picked me up off the street was my children's eyes and realizing what I would do to them, not as much as what would happen to me.
PR.com: It's a betrayal to them.
Montel Williams: Absolutely.
PR.com: What advice would you give to somebody who has MS or perhaps even another chronic illness, anything where they feel a sense of hopelessness or are clinically depressed?
Montel Williams: Recognize that those are natural thoughts and then seek out help before it's too late. Fortunately for me, I have the ability to be able to tap into resources, so I was immediately able to tap into a resource and say, "This is how I'm feeling, can you help me?" Then they tried to help me put that in perspective and started me on my path to acknowledging the fact that there are certain things that none of us can control. It takes a lot to actually be able to look at yourself and take your ego out of things. But those are things that are a must in surviving chronic illness. Try your best to focus on the fact that: One, you're not alone. Two, someone else has been down this path before you. Three, if you stop in your most despair moment in the deepest darkest corner and reflect on how you got their, most of the time you can dig yourself out.
PR.com: Did somebody take you and say, "Ok, we have to do something about this," or did it come from within?
Montel Williams: Since I started doing the [Montel Williams] show, I've interviewed 27,000 people. I've been able to look eye to eye with that many people who have sat in the primary seat of my show, as my primary guest, and the thing that's so crazy about it is what happened to me, and as silly as this is going to sound... you hear it all the time about psychologists and psychiatrists. They can help everybody else in the world but they can't help themselves.
PR.com: And they're all in therapy themselves.
Montel Williams: Yeah, they're all in therapy themselves. When I finally acknowledged the fact that I wasn't Superman, and I finally acknowledged that it's ok, like I've been saying to other people for ten years, that it's ok to be in therapy...
PR.com: Did you feel like a hypocrite?
Montel Williams: I felt like a hypocrite in the fact that I was going to quit, when I've told so many people not to. That's a powerful force in anybody's life when you finally realize that. You have to look at yourself and you have to face yourself and I did. All of the hundreds of books that I've read on issues of depression and how to cope, all that comes to bare. I started seeing a therapist who has helped me try to navigate those waters.
PR.com: If you could trade the success that you've had on television and the financial success that you've had, to be permanently rid of Multiple Sclerosis... if that kind of bargain was available to you, would you take that deal?
Montel Williams: It almost in some ways puts a monetary value to my life, it says "Do I think it would be worth paying x number of dollars to live a life illness free?" I'm going to be fifty years old this year. I'm not upset about, nor do I regret any day of those fifty years, including the day that I was diagnosed, because that has made me learn more about me and human nature then I could have learned in my entire life. So I wouldn't trade it for a thing.
PR.com: What makes you feel hopeful, joyous and peaceful these days?
Montel Williams: For all of the above, it's my children.
I'm hopeful because I see in them and in their generation, just through
the friends that I've been able to meet of theirs and I have kids from
10 to 21... among their friends, I am hopeful that they... get it.
They get a lot of stuff that we as adults don't get. They get along with
each other because of the content of their character and they judge their
friends based on what their friends bring to the table as human beings,
rather then what they bring to the table financially. I get a lot of joy
in contributing and feeling as if I've accomplished something bigger then
me, and I work really hard at doing that every day. What gives me peace
is the knowledge that whatever happens around me, I will be the person
that defines who I am, period. If I went out today, on my tombstone it
would read, "There goes a man who only defined himself."