Linda Furiate’s saga began when she noticed her head drifting to the right. The odd and uncomfortable sensation began shortly after a car accident whose date -- Nov. 13, 1995 -- is forever etched in her memory.
The awkward positioning of her head led to her losing her balance and running into walls since she couldn’t look forward as she walked. Soon she was regularly experiencing jerky movements and abnormal posturing that made people stare and steer clear.
Cervical dystonia, a painful and incurable condition triggered by the trauma of her accident and marked by contracting of the neck muscles, was Furiate’s diagnosis -- a fate that would eventually derail a number of her professional and personal relationships.
But, says the longtime Columbia resident, she knew from the outset that she couldn’t let it define her or it would swallow her up.
“I have never asked, ‘Why me?’ because all of our lives can be crazy at times,” said Furiate, 51. But she has asked, “Why this?”
“I have wondered why I had to end up with something so physically debilitating and hideous,” the marketing professional explained.
Random outbreaks of weird movements caused her to lose her job in 2004, she believes.
“My employer encouraged me to take a month off from work, but within two weeks I was fired,” she recalled.
Some of her friends deserted her as well. “Who wants to be around someone who’s constantly in spasms?” she asked. “They didn’t want to see me anymore, and I learned quickly who my real friends were.”
Regimen for relief
Over the years she’s developed a personalized set of neck exercises that has helped her live nearly symptom-free for five consecutive years, though she’s recently noticed some of the old problems returning.
To figure out that routine she scoured medical books and websites, and consulted physical therapists and personal trainers. She also is treated with injections of botulinum toxin, commonly referred to as Botox.
Longtime friend Allen Hatton, a Woodstock resident and management consultant, knew Furiate before her diagnosis and recalls the changes in his friend. “There was a time when her neck was completely twisted and she had to turn her body sideways to look you in the eye.”
But Furiate always perseveres, he said. “Linda is a pretty remarkable human being,” Hatton said. “I’ve asked her in the past why she didn’t just apply for disability and say the heck with it, but she doesn’t want dystonia to define her.”
Furiate decided to fall back on her previous experience in marketing and work from home after she lost her job, and she also renewed her interest in astrology. Her spirituality remained unsinkable throughout her ordeal.
Back in the early 1990s, Furiate had visited an astrologer and was impressed by the reading she received. She realized after her accident that astrology, which is the interpretation of the influence of heavenly bodies on human affairs, “helped eliminate the chaos” in her life. So in 2007 she enrolled in a four-year program offered by the Virginia-based International Academy of Astrology.
“Predictive astrology allows me to understand my life better and to anticipate events,” she said, adding she recently completed her online studies with the academy and received astrology certification. “There’s no magic in it; it’s about self-awareness.”
Destined to help others
Furiate said she’s always known that she was destined to help people. After graduating from high school in her native Ohio, she enlisted in the Air Force, where she served as a radio operator and cryptologist from 1978 to 1984. She left military service to try her hand at sales and communications.
After her diagnosis, she hosted a cable-access TV show in 1998 called “Portraits in Determination,” which was as cathartic and helpful to her as it was to the subjects of her interviews, she said.
Living with the condition “has changed my life dramatically and made me slow down and focus on the things most important to me,” said Furiate, who is divorced and has a grown son.
Taking stock of her life has allowed her to redirect some of her energies toward volunteering with cervical dystonia organizations. In 2008, she won an essay contest about living with the condition and got to allocate a $10,000 donation by the makers of Botox. She chose the Bethesda Naval Hospital for its work in treating returning soldiers.
Along with maintaining an astrology blog and website called “Of Universal Mind,” she still continues her volunteerism and recently donated stuffed animals to child patients at Howard County General Hospital. But mainly she wants people to learn from her example that anyone can overcome a deflated sense of self-worth and lead a full and productive life.
“I wasn’t able to build a career early on, and that changed my identity,” Furiate said. “But that change also helped me find out who I really am, and I’m all about giving back and helping people. ... If you follow your heart when making a decision, then you can’t make a bad one.”