Donna Sutton: MS, Cancer, Alcoholism? No problem.
The Power of Positivity
“If you’re not smiling and laughing at something, it makes you who you don’t want to be”.
Before I could even get the first question in, Donna started talking. 30 minutes later, I find myself frantically trying to keep up and write all of the poignant statements and stories she is conjuring. I listen, I write, I put my pen down and listen again because I am so enamored by her stories. I know I will remember her words without making notes. I am inspired, moved and grateful in this moment we are sitting at breakfast, talking about Donna’s life and the things that have shaped her into such a formidable woman.
Donna wasn’t your conventional Mom. Yes, she was kind, caring and loving of her children, but she was so much funnier than most Moms. I don’t think there was a ever time I was around Donna and she wasn’t laughing or telling a joke. She was never the kind of person that told jokes for the attention; she just had this innate sense of humor that was so indicative to her wacky personality. I only saw Donna mildly upset one time, and that is when her daughter, Michaela, and I decided to pour milk in the fish tank. They looked thirsty.
Sitting with Donna on this Sunday morning and having breakfast while hearing all of her her life’s trials and tribulations was very special to me. I grew up looking up to her and admiring her unique personality. Even as a kid I just wanted to be around her all the time. She just makes you laugh constantly. Sitting with her and talking about things that most would consider ‘heavy’, was light-hearted, fun and quite hilarious. I’ve always admired her bluntness, but today I was grateful for it. More specifically, I was asking Donna about her diagnosis and all the other bags of bull shit she’s since left on life’s doorstep to burn. I don’t think many people can talk about having cancer and make it funny. Donna talks about cancer as if she’s giving it a roast on Comedy Central.
You might start to feel worried or sad for Donna at this moment knowing that she has cancer. Well, don’t.
“I don’t want people to feel bad for me, because I don’t feel bad for me”, Donna says as she picks at her french toast.
Donna tells me about her cancer diagnosis which is fancily referred to as a Neuroendocrine tumor. Lofty.
“I looked up the colors of different cancer ribbons to see what mine was. Mine was Zebra colored!” She laughs and gives an eye roll. Donna sure has earned her stripes over the years, but I can assure you they are much more colorful than a zebra.
Living with cancer since 2013, Donna talks about it as if it’s a walk in the park. You see, Donna has also (proudly) been sober for 23 years, and been living with Multiple Sclerosis since 1998. She refers to this cancer as if it’s a vexatious family member that came to visit for the weekend.
“Alcohol was the love of my life”. Donna tells me about the hardest year of her life; the one right after she stopped drinking, cold turkey.
“It helped me be funny and be around a lot of people,” she says in a serious tone.
It’s hard to imagine someone like Donna relying on a substance to make her more likable. If you don’t like Donna immediately upon meeting her, you have no heart. She has a way of making EVERYTHING absolutely hilarious. Even sitting at breakfast talking about alcoholism, MS and cancer was fucking hilarious because of the way Donna tells her stories.
In the very beginning of her alcoholism, Donna started to turn a negative into something useful and a way to help others. For 4 years she met with teenagers at Juvenile Hall in Redding to talk about alcoholism and addiction. Being mostly young boys, she recalls a poignant moment in her years hanging in juvy.
There was a boy in their discussion that told Donna what she was saying about addiction was “Bull Shit”. Donna doesn’t take shit from anybody.
“One day, you’re going to be doing something bad, and something I said is going to pop into your head and you’re going to say, THAT BITCH”. She laughs proudly referring to how she just schooled this 17-year-old punk (*mic drop*). She says “Oh, that’s my joy”.
Even though her stories are hysterical and full of life, as she speaks of these incredible barriers she has had to climb, leap and magically fly over, I think to myself, “She is a warrior”. I like that word ‘warrior’ better than survivor. The word ‘survivor’ makes it sound like you just got lucky enough to live another day. Donna doesn’t survive, she kicks all of the ass.
As much as you might think someone would be fighting hard for their own health and happiness, Donna says it’s the people in her life that keep her motivated.
“I’m not fighting for me – I’m fighting for my kids, I’m fighting for my grandkid, I’m fighting for my husband”.
If alcoholism, MS and cancer were all separate battles, Donna has certainly won the war, and then some. She says the only way to get through anything, is by laughing. Donna says her unique gift of making people laugh blossomed after feelings of neglect and rejection as a little girl.
“I took it upon myself to love me.”
From that age forward, Donna adopted her hilarious jokes, quick wit and infectious personality. She says the feelings of be unloved fueled her to go out and be loved. And loved she is.
As well as being our own personal Ellen, Donna is one of the most genuine, kind and generous humans you will ever be fortunate enough to know.
Donna tells a story of her last day of AA. Her AA group was going around the horn and discussing their weekly banalities. She remembers a young girl standing up when her turn came and telling the group that she had a Meth addiction. Instead of being able to confide in her peers, a group of older woman shamed her. “This class is about ALCOHOL”. They suggested the girl try NA if she were to work on her problems.
It was at this moment Donna knew something wasn’t right – or at least she didn’t feel that way. When the girl got up to leave, so did Donna. She followed her out of the building and apologized for the women’s insensitive behavior and told her, “An addiction is an addiction”. Donna never went back to AA after that day.
She tells another story of recognizing homeless people around Redding and saying “Hello” to them. Her daughters in their younger age were confused by this. They asked why she knew so many homeless people. Donna explains to me that in AA, there is no class system; you all experience the same thing and fight the same battles. Everyone is equal.
“I didn’t even notice the cart he was pushing. It wasn’t a man pushing a cart. I just saw a friend that had lived through what I had”, she reminisces about old peers.
Through AA, MS and cancer, Donna doesn’t just remain positive, she remains herself.
“I don’t give people the chance to treat me differently, because when they meet me, they know me”.
This statement couldn’t be more true. Donna has always stayed to true to who she is. She’s always funny, constantly exuding kindness and warm spirits, as well as loving others unconditionally.
On this day of the interview and photo shoot, Donna celebrated 34 years with her husband, Mike. Donna tells me how she woke up early in the morning and wishes him Happy Anniversary and tells him “It hasn’t been a walk in the park”.
Donna and Mike, being close friends of my parents, have certainly seen their fair share of shit in the past 34 years. Only being married a year less than my own parents, today they seem stronger and more in love than ever. Donna tells me of only ONE time she went to the doctor without Mike, and it was because she was trying to wear her “big girl panties”.
“I can’t imagine going through this with with anyone else”. You can tell how grateful she is by the serious tone in her voice.
And go-it-alone is opposite of what Donna has had to do. Through her husband, kids, friends and an amazing support group, Donna has found strength and guidance to find what sounds like the happiest time of her life.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, because I don’t feel sorry for me.”
And sorry is the least of what I feel for Donna, especially after spending the morning with her. If anything, I feel strengthened and motivated to get out and live as truthfully as I can. As Donna’s cancer is non-operable, it seems to be a rare form; 20 years might be the minimum of years she’ll be around to proudly wear her clown nose.
A lot of the things Donna told me during our time together really resonated with me. However, I think the thing I will remember the most from her interview today was, “There’s a lot of people that still need to meet me.”
Luckily, if you’re reading this, you’ve met Donna. The quotes and the photos speak volumes to who she is. She has taken so many different pains and turned them into laughs and smiles. She has created her own happiness and infected others with it, including myself.
To be personal, the last few months I have been focusing on myself – what I want out of life, what I need to do to find my own happiness. I’ve been adding and subtracting things from my life, as well as trying to do all the other fucking equations in my head to answer questions that can’t be solved overnight.
Taking these photos, listening to Donna’s stories and sitting here writing this blog has made me feel so inspired and alive. I’ve looked up to this woman since I was a kid, and it’s refreshing to know that all of the great things I thought about her years ago, still remain true to this day. I had an incredible time taking photos of Donna – she just has so much character and it shines through in these photographs.
As a photographer, you always want to bring out the best in people. Well, shit, Donna – today, you brought the best out in me.
Donna’s big focus in life right now is nutrition and keeping herself healthy. Even her daughter, Michaela has taken a career in nutrition, inspired by her Mama. She says that happiness is what fuels her.
“I’ve had to go through a lot of crud to get here” she says proudly, wearing her crud on her sleeve if she could. Ew, bad image.
From turning alcoholism into a way to bring knowledge and understanding, to battling MS and cancer and having the most “fuck it” attitude I have ever seen in someone – Donna without a doubt as seen her fair share of obstacles. However, her sense of self love and appreciation for her body, mind and soul shines brighter than the fuckin’ sun. Through our hour and a half interview, she never gave me the slightest hint that she is unhappy with life. She’s seems proud, confident and dauntless about the woman she has fought so hard to be.
She ends with, “Today, I like me”.
“That’s the only way to get through anything, is with laughter.”