Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Sometimes we want to make changes, and sometimes we need to make changes. We choose some, and some are thrust upon us. It doesn’t always mean we’re ready or able to make them. Making a fresh start can be exciting and intimidating.
I’m a big fan of trying to make these changes easier. Like the placebo effect can help us feel better when we take sugar pills thinking they’re medication, I’m all for using how our brains work to – for lack of a better word - trick myself into doing things I want to do.
How we think, our opinions of ourselves, and the language we use can limit us and our personal growth. I’m considering which of my memories, thoughts and reactions aren’t serving me. Some of them make me feel like a powerless victim. I want to lose the ones that are holding me back from doing things I want to do and from being who I want to be.
With my divorce from a long-term marriage final, I’m making a conscious effort to change the stories I tell. Things that were funny and garnered laughter when shared previously are now sad given our relationship ended. With self-reflection and practice, I’m learning to stop myself before telling some of these stories that feel like automatic responses in conversation. When friends or guests would ask where something is that I don’t have, I initially said, “I used to have some, but I didn’t get them in the split.” Over time, I changed it to “I haven’t replaced them yet.” Recently I didn’t say anything when it came to mind in conversation. Soon, I may replace some of these items with things I love in hopes of adding more enjoyment to my new circumstances. I think once I’ve trained my brain to react with a thought that is pleasant for me, I’ll have completed the transition for the better.
If I keep telling myself or others about memories that make me sad or feel bad about myself, I’m hampering my ability to move on. I’m actively working on a new life and creating a new outlook in an effort to respond in ways that make me feel good about myself. I don’t need to forget or ignore challenges, but I don’t need to keep giving them power over my future. I get to be the editor of my life story, and I can be intentional about what serves me well for what’s to come.
When I think about my body and my health, am I focusing on what I’ve lost or what I’ve gained? It pains me when I think, “Multiple Sclerosis took this from me.” It’s true, it did. MS has taken a lot from me, and it’s not something I dismiss. It took from me the ability to do some activities I enjoyed. It took my sense of self as it was. It revealed my belief about my excellent health to be one of ignorance. It’s taken years for me to learn how my MS affects me and what helps me live well with it. If I focus on what MS has taken, it doesn’t feel good. If I focus on how my life is better today than it was before I was diagnosed, I feel better.
I’m trying to rewire my brain and my automatic responses to be thoughts and comments that help me feel good about myself. It helps me to notice where my thoughts aren’t serving me in a way that encourage, motivate or inspire me.
Just in everyday living, I aim to be intentional about my word choices. The word diet feels like punishment to me. I replace the word diet with nutrition, sustenance, food choices and delicacies. My food choices are somewhat restrictive given food sensitivities. I’d love to lose a few pounds, but I try to think of it as respecting my body by making nutritious food choices. Some foods are sustenance, and some are indulgences. I’ll avoid foods that don’t sit well with me. And when I choose to eat them anyway, I’ll refer to it as feeding my soul so that I can stay on track. Will power, restriction and fear don’t keep me making the food choices I’d prefer long term. I need to allow for indulgence periodically to maintain overall good health.
When it comes to physical fitness, I avoid saying I need to exercise. Exercise connotes punishment and dread when I hear the word. Instead I write “daily fitness” on my to-do list. I aim for a mix of stretching, strengthening and improving endurance. I’ll say I need to be outside and active when I’ve felt I’ve been too sedentary.
For me, the language I use influences how I feel immensely. If I can frame things in ways that entice me rather than shame me, I’m more likely to act on them.
In the last year, I felt like I was getting a lot done, but I also felt like I was coping. I’d really like to shift my thinking to feeling like I’m maintaining and thriving. Making a fresh start is a perfect time to lose what doesn’t help and build what does. How I talk to myself is a terrific way to start.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
I love family traditions. They’re unique to each family, and they bond us to each other. Sometimes it isn’t until we’re older that we realize there are other ways to celebrate. It’s also not until we talk to each other that we realize traditions we love may not be universally liked.
Throughout my youth, Santa always included an orange in the toe of my Christmas stocking. As an adult, I feel like the holiday is incomplete if my goodies are missing the orange. When I peel the fruit and eat it among chocolates and candies, I feel connected to my parents and our Christmas morning celebrations from decades past. I told my sister this a few years ago, and I learned she didn’t share my fondness. She not only disliked it, she had a passionate resentment that produce took up valuable real estate in her stocking. As an adult, Santa accommodates her distaste for it by leaving a chocolate orange instead. The fact that she still receives a type of orange in her stocking reveals an appreciation for tradition with a creative adaptation to the portion of it that didn’t bring her joy. I think this perfectly showcases an approach we can use when family customs or expectations start causing us stress.
A common challenge during the holidays is accommodating seeing all of the people in our lives we care about. With evolving families and distance, it can become impossible to continue them without someone feeling slighted or stressed. With age and health issues, our endurance to do and participate in all we’ve done in the past may no longer be feasible. I think this creates perfect opportunities to shape our family traditions in ways that please us. At a minimum we can attempt to satisfy our needs and accommodate our health. Being flexible offers increased opportunities to connect with people we care about.
Some friends and family members will be disappointed when they no longer can expect your attendance as they have in the past. Hopefully they can be disappointed without anger or resentment. I try not to be one of those people who cause others to feel bad. My mantra is “invitation not expectation.” I’ll invite loved ones to get together at times that are convenient for all of us. If we can’t get together in December, we’ll make it happen in the new year. If I expect them to sacrifice to a point of personal detriment, we’ve lost the purpose and joy of the season. It’s not neglect or martyrdom on my end; I think of it as leading by example. With my health issues, I need to accommodate my energy level and life obligations. I hope they’ll appreciate my inability to do everything is not for lack of love. I hope they’ll also be responsible for their own health and well-being.
I try to find alternative ways to celebrate and preserve the core of our family traditions. I consider the holidays as an extended weeks long celebration. Celebrating in person the weekend before or after the actual holiday can be less stressful for everyone. We’ve alternated years to celebrate holidays with each side of the family. Giving plenty of notice so everyone can plan and look forward to “their year’s celebration” helps soften the blow. In off years, opening presents by video chat can be pretty special. If I won’t see them in person on the actual holiday, calling or texting helps keep us feeling connected and loved.
Reminiscing is one of the best ways to connect family generations and glean the seed of family traditions. Sharing stories and memories that siblings may have forgotten can bring forth bursts of joy. Disclosures of the “rest of the story” can bring revelations possible now that time and age have changed our family dynamics. Some stories are cherished as we reminisce about those that have passed away. These stories are especially perfect for sharing with younger members who weren’t afforded as much time with those loved ones.
Traditions can be great, but when life changes they might not serve us anymore. When they become burdensome or obligations leading to stress or resentment, it kills the joy. If conflict results, it’s worth finding the core feeling or connection from that tradition that’s worth preserving. It helps to be intentional about what we choose to continue as is, what can be adapted and what can be lost for good reason. Our unique family traditions bond us to each other, and being a part of creating new traditions can strengthen family relations. It’s worth the effort.
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
In wellness circles, we focus a lot on trying to reduce, offset, and avoid stress. It sometimes seems like feeling anxious or overwhelmed is perceived as a deficiency in our ability to handle life. I’ve come to believe that certain life chapters and physical conditions are inherently stressful and completely outside the limits of what any well-adjusted, positive and active person can live through without physical consequence.
I once heard that moving is among the most stressful events in a person’s life. Add changing my job, separating from a long-term marriage and living with a chronic illness to this life chapter, and it was stressful. Sure, it seemed less stressful than staying married, staying in my old job, maintaining my previous home and living with the same chronic illness, but it was difficult. I think it would have been unreasonable to think that I could breeze through so many changes without my body revolting or at least letting me know it’s not operating at full capacity.
Multiple Sclerosis is among the many health conditions that can drastically worsen with chronic stress. I saw it firsthand when my fatigue level skyrocketed and my normally manageable symptoms affected my activities and abilities. I hoped these conditions were temporary, and I knew that I was building a better future. I didn’t know if my health would improve after these life events passed.
It was natural to beat myself up for letting things get to me, but I tried to keep telling myself that I was coping well. It wasn’t a character flaw to have stress affect me physically. I can exercise, eat healthy, do yoga, meditate, talk to friends and counselors, journal and combat stress with every tool in the toolbox, and some things are just too much.
I kept anticipating the completion of events that would eliminate certain things that were stressful. After milestone events occurred, I was asked if I’m feeling great with what felt like an expectation of agreement. Honestly, I wasn’t feeling it yet. I couldn’t flip the switch from feeling stressed and anxious to feeling ecstatic or joyful. There was a sense of relief, but it also came with a bit of sadness for having to live through extremely rough patches. There was grief for things turning out differently than I’d hoped leading me to think, “now what?”
I would’ve thought that once a stressor is over that there would be positive energy, a sense of calm and generally feeling better. I’m learning it’s usually a rough time for me. My fatigue level can actually go up when life demands lessen and I’m able to slow down. All of the time spent dealing with stressful circumstances is now open. While it was eagerly anticipated, it can leave a void in the routine. Frustration for experiencing residual effects can last a while. It’s occurred to me that allowing myself time to recover from chronic stress is a necessary step.
During this recovery time, it’s an arc of relief where the feeling of stress gradually lessens and a sense of empowerment builds slowly. It takes the time it takes, and I need to not pressure myself to feel any differently than I do. I can however do things that will set me up to feel better when I’m ready.
- Mark the occasion. Making it to milestone events is worth rewarding.
- Assume it might take time to transition emotionally and physically.
- Find something to look forward to that excites and motivates. It might even be great to refocus if a distraction is needed.
- Spend time with people I care about and who care about me to celebrate and move on.
- Find the humor in my situation. Laughter provides relief at a cellular level. I don’t have scientific proof, but I can feel it.
- Be patient with my feelings. I’m not required to feel differently on anyone else’s timeline.
- Be as compassionate with myself as I would be for someone I love.
Sunday, October 14, 2018
I wrote a guest blog for Northern Lights Life Coaching by Kate Olson, "Weakness, Wisdom & Finishing Strong." I was truly honored when she asked me to submit something on a topic I’m passionate about. It was posted this month, and I hope you’ll follow the link to read it on her site. I decided to write about how I try to make decisions – first looking at whether I’m coming from a place of fear or strength in assessing my situation and options. I’ve provided this advice to friends making tough life decisions, and they’ve said it really helped them. It always helps me gain clarity for the best option for me to pursue. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Saturday, September 29, 2018
Living with Multiple Sclerosis, I find I repeatedly need to accept my diagnosis and reality. I have moments where I feel great and totally at ease with my health, life and possible future decline. Other times I have symptoms ramp up, and frustration and fear can leave me rattled.
I’ve been living with my diagnosis ten years, have likely had MS at least another 15, and have accepted my MS diagnosis. Unfortunately, it’s not a one-time event or accomplishment. Friends who were diagnosed 20 and 30 years ago also periodically need to adapt to changes in health and abilities and accept things are different than they’ve ever been. I find the process of encountering challenges, adapting, and coming to a place of acceptance is a life skill that we use repeatedly. Sometimes it’s easier and feels seamless, while other times the challenge is harder and the process takes longer.
If I compare myself to people with terminal illnesses or living with disabilities far more limiting than my own current condition, I’m grateful that I am still active and quite capable. When I’m not feeling great and I compare myself to people that appear to be healthy, active and without any illness, I sometimes feel sorry for myself.
A book I once read described how a person with MS went to a rehabilitation center for people with all types of issues. The people who were para or quadriplegics due to injuries were deemed better off than people with MS, because their trauma and damage was done. The people with MS would continue to experience disease progression and decline in health and mobility at an unknown rate. I appreciated hearing that perspective, since the fear of the unknown and inability to prevent probable decline is an added mental burden to conquer. I’m thankful medications to slow MS progression exist, but I’m not arrogant enough to think it will prevent my decline. I am hopeful that myelin repairing medications will be developed and will someday be available to us. I hope this is in my lifetime, but I anticipate it is more likely to benefit those that come after me.
I’ll compare how I’m doing with others, and I’ll appreciate that my health is still highly manageable. I’ll be thankful that I’m able to do so much still given MS has done a lot of damage. To me, the result is that I have an appreciation for their struggles. I make it clear to others that I don’t know their hardships. I merely feel a kinship to them and wish them well.
I do feel like I’m experiencing bodily issues that may come with normal aging, but I have them 10-20 years younger and for a different reason. Often people will respond to an issue I’m having with, “You’re too young for that!” They’re right. Yes, I would be too young for that if I were a healthy person without a chronic illness. But I have MS, and that means I’m lucky my problems aren’t worse. I may actually have been staving off these issues longer than other people with MS have.
I think it's normal and even pretty difficult to avoid comparing ourselves to others. I think it's what we do with that mentally that matters. If I can build kinship and compassion with others instead of feeling resentment or self-pity, it builds a sense of gratitude and provides a reality check that helps me cope with my own condition. Feeling compassion for others can help us build compassion for ourselves, cope with MS, and accept our condition.
When I see others living seemingly without any health limitations, I try to remember that I too used to think I was as healthy as a person for my age could be. I was very active with early morning workouts, running competitive races, and doing gymnastics through my late thirties. In hindsight, I can see that I was living with MS for at least 15 years while experiencing relapses that I chalked up to normal aging, stress and health issues. This reminds me that people we know may be living with as yet undiagnosed conditions like heart disease, cancer and/or autoimmune diseases.
Whenever I think during a race or fitness class that doing this is harder for me than others and no one else knows what I’m going through, I try to remember that they may be living with and overcoming unseen challenges too. It reminds me to just do my own thing and push myself at a level right for me.
I think whether we think someone else’s condition would be better or worse than ours really depends on each of our levels of resiliency, biology, approach to life and sense of self. One person can feel depression and not make it through, while another can experience similar circumstances or diagnosis and find a greater sense of purpose. Boosting our coping strategies is necessary to live with and possibly thrive with chronic illness. Strong personal relationships and sense of place in social, community or religious organizations help us live beyond our own thoughts. A network of medical care providers with a counseling component can address our physical and mental health needs as they change. Finding a sense of purpose that extends beyond our physical or cognitive abilities can help us accept declining health as best as possible.
I think it’s great to look to others for suggestions, inspiration, motivation and connection, but I think it’s necessary to value our individual strengths, weaknesses and preferences in order to find our own path toward acceptance and purpose. It helps to look around, and it’s crucial to look within ourselves. Often our best path forward isn’t following someone else’s, it’s the one we create for ourselves.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
This post is an essay my mother wrote while attending Evergreen College in the 1990's. Her wish for her daughters shared at the end of the essay is poignant and has come to fruition. That she is a part of so many of our precious memories makes this essay all the more touching to me.
|My Mother, Chris Ann|
Chris Ann Smith
September 26, 1946 – May 21, 1994
At times, each of us thirst for the warm pleasant remembering of things past that take us back to a time of innocence and security, a time of new family traditions, and an era of eager learning of all that surrounds our world. These keepsakes remembrances tucked in a corner of our souls are forever a part of us – memories that will never be duplicated, only rerun as a memorial to former times. For me, each of my recollections is accompanied by different feelings and sensations. As I reflect, it’s as if I’m reliving the experience through the emotional responses that escort each memory.
At two years old, blond, blue-eyed, thin and scrawny, I never walked when I could run; and, I was seldom speechless even if I didn’t have anything to say. My curiosity and inquisitiveness kept me busy exploring while my parents invariable chased me. One of my earliest memories is of food – blackberry pie to be specific. My taste buds react to the sugary sweetness of a freshly baked blackberry pie as I remember eating the whole pie without using silverware. I can still feel the enthusiasm and eagerness as I put my face in the middle of the juicy berries and proceeded to eat the entire pie and finish by licking the pie pan to a shine.
Last year, I asked my Dad to help me put this memory into a setting. He said, “That’s easy. I took you on the construction site with me and there was a pie shop around the corner. I’d buy you a pie for lunch.” “But why don’t I remember silverware?” He smiled and replied, “I never gave you a spoon. You’d eat too fast. Giving you just the pie always kept you busy so I could work.” To this day, I love any kind of berry pie, but I would never have the abandon to eat the pie the way I did when I was two years old.
At three years of age, independence, eager anticipation of an adventure, and power were experienced when I received my first “boat.” There was a lighthouse, lots of water, a salty taste in my mouth and a multitude of boats when I begged my father for my very own boat. I felt so grown-up as I climbed into my little square boat. My knees pulled up tight to my chest, I waved to everyone on the shore as my Dad pushed me out into the bay in my new special boat – a cardboard box. For a few minutes, I was the captain of my ship feeling special and very grown-up. It didn’t take long for my adventure to end as the cardboard absorbed the water and my great ship started filling with water. I don’t remember the rescue, but I’m sure someone brought me back to the sandy shore just before my “boat” went under.
Every child looks forward to the circus – I was no exception. My unforgettable adventure was a quest to see, hear and smell all the sights and sounds of this traveling menagerie. My seat in the Big Top was at the end of an aisle only a few rows up from the stage. My Dad sat next to me and next to him the other eight people in our group, but my seat was the best. The bench was hard as I shifted and fidgeted waiting for the beginning of the most exciting adventure in my entire life. Then, my eyes opened wide as the biggest and most colorful clown I’d ever seen started walking toward me. My smile was ear to ear as I held my breath hoping and wishing the clown would see me. He saw me. Fireworks went off as this childhood idol gave me a can of peanuts. These weren’t ordinary peanuts – these were CLOWN peanuts. I knew that nothing in my life would compare with this moment. My Dad took the special one-of-a-kind can and opened it for me. Of course, he took some peanuts first. Then, he passed this unique container of clown peanuts to the other people in our group. I protested saying that these were mine. The clown gave them to me. But, I was reprimanded and reminded to share, so I nervously and eagerly waited for my special peanuts to get back to me. A few moments later, my special world came to an end as I looked into the vacant, uninhabited can – not one clown peanut was left. I can still feel the emptiness inside. I’ve reminded my Dad about the special clown peanuts several times in the past few years.
Last year, I invited my Dad to the circus. I hadn’t been back since the clown peanut incident. My dad surprised and embarrassed me by asking a clown to come up to me and give me some peanuts. It was a cellophane package, not a can. But, this small package was “sent” to me with a lot of love and a plea never to mention the “clown peanuts” again.
Many of my special memories are of the times spent with my father. He loved exciting hobbies, and whenever possible, I became his shadow. Thoughts of boating, skiing, driving three-quarter midget race cars, go-carts, and flying antique airplanes awaken memories of a special childhood. Nothing was ordinary; the unusual was normal.
At ten years old, my first airplane ride with my father was unique. The butterflies in my stomach were working overtime as I anticipated my long-awaited flight. As I looked at the huge yellow biplane, I tried to act as if I knew what to do while I waited for the other pilots to prepare me for the flight. As my Dad pre-flighted and prepared the plane, I was given a parachute. Two pilots helped me put the cumbersome parachute over my shoulders and fasten the buckles. As they let go and stood back, I unceremoniously plopped down on the ground. The parachute must have weighed twice as much as me and standing was a challenge. As they laughed at me, they pulled me to my feet by the shoulder straps. A helmet and goggles were added next. Now, it was time to climb into the plane. One problem – I couldn’t move.
It took three men to pick me up and put me in the front cockpit of the plane. After shoulder straps and a seat belt were fastened, I was ready to start my adventure. I did have one question for my Dad though. I yelled back to him, “How do I use the parachute?” His reply, “Don’t worry about it. If anything happens, you’ll fall out of the chute.” He then started the engine. My confidence was a little shaky at this point, but the aerobatic flight filled with loops, hammerheads, rolls and stalls was the beginning of a lifelong love of flying.
Memories are a precious gift – a heritage from our family and friends. All my adventures are unique and priceless to me – some create special feelings and a smile, others bring tears and sadness. I hope my children have special remembrances that they can think about and share with others, whenever they need to feel good about themselves or just remember family and friends.
Thursday, September 13, 2018
When summer turns to fall, a sense of routine and normalcy seems to return to my life. Kids are back in school, my coworkers and I are done with big vacations, and we’re all ready to get back to work. This year it occurred to me to start reflecting on this year and planning for next year earlier than usual. I think this might be a terrific time of year to assess what I’ve accomplished, what I want to accomplish before year end, and what I want to accomplish in my life as a whole.
Much like the beginning of the school year with class plans and schedules, this is a natural time of year to approach as a check in point and beginning. I usually reflect on my life and create New Year’s resolutions in December and January. It works, but with the holidays and so many extra obligations and erratic scheduling, it’s sometimes difficult to find time. In September, there’s less of a deadline and more of an organic opportunity to check in.
My method is pretty structured. Okay, I’ll admit it’s probably extremely structured. Yours doesn’t need to be like mine at all. Just stopping for a moment and considering our lives periodically is helpful to prevent one year from blending into the next and time seeming to pass us by.
That said, I’ll share mine in hopes it spurs your own imagination for how you do it differently and might want to modify it.
I listed things I love and bring me purpose, and I’ve created a vision of what I want my life to be. These lists have stayed really consistent over many years. I organize my goals by categories of my life that are important to me. The categories are similar each year, but the goals I have within each category change a bit as I change. I use these goal items to decide what I’ll do each year to achieve these goals.
Things I love/Purpose:
- Be healthy, organized, prepared, and financially well-off.
- Enjoy life, make things easier where I can, and spend energy and time on things I love or enjoy.
- Build and enjoy relationships
- Feel useful, contribute to society.
- Be as healthy as I can be. Strong, fit, flexible and energetic.
- Have a home that is relaxing and company ready anytime.
- Explore interests and follow them.
- Be excellent with my career and enjoy it.
- Be financially responsible, and prepare for retirement and possible disability while enjoying today.
- Do things now that I want to do and that I may not be able to do in the future if I lose mobility.
- Cultivate good relationships with people I care about and care about me.
- Express myself creatively with photography, art and writing.
Life Categories & Goals:
- Health & Fitness: Improve strength and endurance. Be consistent with daily fitness, nutrition and self-care.
- Relationships: Call, visit, and connect.
- Finances: Be organized. Purge what doesn’t need to be kept.
- Home: Continue improvements, streamline things to make it easy to care for and keep clean.
- Creativity: Continue blog and cultivate writing skills, take photos and work on projects.
- Travel/Adventure: See family, explore new places and experiences.
- Career: Drive the office forward, accept new roles, cultivate working relationships and keep learning.
Plan: This gets pretty personal, so I’m not going to share my list as is. I will share some of the items on the list to give an idea of how I do it.
- Visit family, attend my high school reunion, and do a 14er hike.
- Write a monthly blog post.
- Take pictures and organize them.
- Work on kitchen remodel, try to finish before year end.
- Go to concerts, plays and museums.
- Maintain financial system, filing, purging and paying bills on time.
- Complete health insurance online health assessment to make sure my out of pocket is the minimum possible next year.
- See my neurologist and get MRIs annually. Take medications and supplements consistently.
- Have a daily stretching routine and stay active. Do a mix of short and long workouts weekly.
I think putting our goals on paper or in a computer document is a terrific way to see how much we change over the years and how much we don’t. The thought process of putting a task to things we value in life provides clarity for where we have control in our lives. For me, it shows how consistent my values and preferences have remained. It feels good to look at how far I’ve come and recognize how much my life has become what I envisioned years ago. It feels great to see that I’ve built a base that makes me happy and may allow me to do so much more in the years to come!