Sunday, May 5, 2019

My Mother's Lasting Influence

As a young child wrapped in my mother’s arms, I’d hear her ask me, “What am I going to do with you?”
I’d answer in tempo with the script we’d created, “Hug me, and kiss me and love me forever.”  She’d squeeze me harder while kissing the top of my head, and I knew she would. 
She died suddenly at the age of 47, and she never knew I had Multiple Sclerosis. This was 15 years before I was diagnosed with MS, yet she’s been a constant companion as I’ve navigated my life in general and the challenges I face living with MS.
Throughout the past 25 years, I’ve drawn upon her strength and quiet grace when I’m feeling fearful and untethered. She wasn’t without her own challenges, and seeing her life through an adult lens has helped me appreciate how amazing she was.  I was lucky. I had that special relationship of a mother and child where I felt completely loved and supported.  It was so pure, it could embarrass me to have her gush about me to her friends. Yet I held an arrogant confidence that if ever my life fell apart, my mom would be there to help me and she’d be glad she could. 
When she died, it was a glaring realization to me that the one person I felt completely at ease asking for help was gone. After my MS diagnosis, I felt like the one person I needed most and who would have been the most helpful to me wasn’t there.  I didn’t realize at either time that in my 23 years with her she’d become someone who would continue to inspire and guide me throughout my life.  Her physical absence was real, but her strong presence in my thoughts gave comfort and pushed me to continue learning, living and connecting when so much was uncertain.  
I have a lot of wonderfully kind, compassionate and supportive people in my life, and they help me through so much.  At times they treat me in a way that resembles the unconditional love and compassion I felt from my mother.  I’ve had people make suggestions and show concern while worrying they’re overstepping the boundaries of our relationship.  These instances warm my heart profoundly.  They’ve shown me the capacity for kindness and generosity people have even when they aren’t responsible for my wellbeing.  I could dismiss my mother’s influence as required maternal behavior.  I’ve learned though that not all people are hardwired to give selflessly.  
The act of supporting and comforting others is truly a thing to nurture and cherish. It lives beyond the moments we share and shapes our ability to persevere. My mother’s influence many years after her passing is proof for me.  She continues to guide my actions, she inspires me to be someone who gives love and support, and she encourages me to live a life of contribution where I’m able.  Her love endures as a fact of my existence and influences all I do.   

Monday, April 15, 2019

Getting Organized and Staying Organized: It’s a Lifesaver When Living with a Chronic Illness

I love being organized. I love containers and labels. I love having my finances organized and being able to find paperwork when needed. It brings me a sense of peace to plan things, be prepared and know what to expect.  When everything has a place and is put away, it brings me joy.  Living with a chronic illness like Multiple Sclerosis can be the exact opposite of that. It’s unpredictable, it disrupts plans, it can be invisible, and often it doesn’t have a logical reason behind the symptoms it brings. It can be manageable, but it’s not curable.  Unlike my belongings, it can’t be fixed and controlled.
I know not everyone shares the love of organization that I have, but I promise you that small efforts into organizing tasks, time and belongings can make any person’s life less stressful. When keys are put in the same spot each time I get home, I don’t spend any time looking for them when I’m rushing out the door. When household goods like toilet paper are purchased before I’m down to the last roll, I don’t need to make a special trip to the store when I might be tired from a long day or experiencing MS fatigue. When I fill up the car’s gas tank when it’s half full, I won’t be late for an appointment because I needed to refuel on the way. If I bring snacks and water when I leave home, I’ll spend less money stopping somewhere to get them and I can control what I eat or drink. I have the option to get something different, but I won’t be forced to have something I don’t want. It takes less energy to stay organized than it does to deal with the chaos disorganization can cause, and putting effort into organization helps me live with MS fatigue with a semblance of grace. 
My days rarely go as planned.  There’s always something that comes up, and if I allow time for emergencies or unexpected opportunities, I’m less likely to get stressed about it. When my finances and home life are organized, I’m better able to roll with inconveniences instead of them disrupting my entire schedule. With MS, having an exacerbation can put everything on hold.  Needing to schedule doctor appointments, get daily steroid infusions to calm down the immune system, travel to clinic appointments, and focusing on recovery becomes a priority. Everything else gets pushed aside.  If I’m not organized, it can be costly and chaotic.  Bills paid late can incur interest and late payment fees. Missed deadlines can create consequences that increase stress even more.  Stress can contribute to MS exacerbations and symptoms, and it can become a downward spiral for our health.
But it’s hard to get organized in the first place. 
I’ve had my share of shame surrounding disorganized papers and things in my life.  When I inherited decades of paperwork from my mother after her death, I kept a lot of it in the attic.  When money was short, it was hard to stay on top of financial paperwork. As time passed and I lacked a good organization method for new papers coming into my home, the boxes of paperwork stored in the attic grew. These boxes held unimportant paper along with important documents and possible treasured keepsakes.  The idea of going through all of them was overwhelming and easy to ignore if I didn’t venture up the drop-down ladder to the attic. 
Along the way, I bought a book that guided me through tasks to complete to become financially organized.  It had assignments to do each week and promised complete financial organization within a year.  I followed it diligently, and the papers in my home along with my financial tracking became something of beauty to me.  The boxes in the attic remained untouched.  
Then I moved, and something needed to be done. My new home was one-fifth the square footage of my old place. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know what was in the boxes, nor could I recycle or trash them without going through them.  Luckily, I had two friends who never judge me poorly and are extremely generous. They offered to help, and I’m so grateful that I overcame my embarrassment and accepted it.  
I think there were about 30 boxes that we took directly to a friend’s garage.  The following Friday night, we met for dinner and afterward each brought a martini to my friend’s garage where we spent five hours going through boxes.  My instructions were to sort through things into recycling, donation, trash and keepsakes. We would identify anything that might look important and hold it up so I could say whether I wanted to keep it or not. As stressful and overwhelming as the project seemed to me to do alone, it ended up being a really productive and fun evening.  We laughed over old photos, drawings and notes, and we told stories about ourselves.  By the end of the evening, we’d whittled the number of boxes for me to keep down to five that could fit into my new place and be dealt with another time. That weekend, we took the paperwork to shred to a local free shred event, and we dropped off items for donation at a local charity.  Trash was picked up with the garbage within a week.  What would have taken me months to go through and caused a lot of stress became an opportunity to connect with friends and make a fun memory.  
For tasks that need to be done regularly, I prefer to do them throughout the week.  Growing up, my family’s method for cleaning the house was to do an all hands-on deck cleaning session once a week. Sure, we cleaned up the kitchen each night and tidied up after ourselves, but a full-home clean would take a few hours each Saturday morning. I hated it.  It felt like punishment, and it had to be done before we could do anything fun. I learned years later of a method where cleaning could take 15 minutes per day, and I joyfully converted my approach.  Now I use that method for a lot of things I need to do.  I don’t combine everything into one session; I split up chores into small fairly quick tasks. Some are maintenance done daily or weekly, and others are done monthly, seasonally or yearly.  I wish I had a cleaning person, but for now I don’t feel comfortable with the expense. With this approach, I’m able to keep my place tidy and company ready within a few minutes.  This works well with my MS fatigue issues, since accomplishing something in 15 minutes and resting is doable.  Saving it to do all at once can be exhausting, it might limit my ability to do anything else that day, and it might require recovery time beyond the one day.  
How to get organized: There are lots of good reasons to be organized, but that doesn’t always lead to action.  I like the specifics of what I can do to make my life easier.
  1. Enlist help. This is especially useful for big projects that only need to be done once.
  2. Break up tasks into small and consistent routines. Success builds on success.  
  3. Do one thing at a time. Don’t worry about everything, just focus on one thing to improve.  Getting overwhelmed will just lead to inaction and no improvement at all. Any improvement is better than none. 
  4. Cleaning in five to 15-minute spurts rather than long sessions can accomplish a lot while accommodating fatigue issues. 
  5. Pick the one thing that causes the most stress and focus on how it could be streamlined. The library and internet offer a wealth of suggestions and resources.  Find one that makes sense and try it.  Keep it if it works, and try something else if it doesn’t.  
  6. Consider organization as a lifelong component of living well. It might take five years to get each aspect of a life more organized. As life, health and obligations change, so will our organization methods.  
Having control over things in life builds confidence and eases stress.  Chronic illnesses like MS can be unpredictable and suddenly disrupt our plans significantly.  Being organized with belongings and doing tasks as part of a routine ease stress.   Knowing what needs to be done and where to find things makes it easy for friends and family to help us when called upon.  Tasks become more difficult when we don’t feel well, and being organized can allow us focus on our health and recovery. If things are organized and planned, then impromptu things don’t worry me. I can add them without overloading myself. I know for certain that being organized enriches my life and allows me to say yes to more experiences.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The People Who Surround Me: Those I Keep and Seek

As I age, I’m getting more intentional about who I spend time with and how I shape interactions.  We can’t always completely avoid people who drain us, but we can shift how we approach our interactions.  We can’t always spend enough time with the people we love, but we can shape our relationships to maximize our joy and connection.  A lot of our daily lives involve acquaintances who with a small amount of attention can become friends. Our friends and family won’t always have the skills or perspective to meet our needs, but we can find circles of friends who will fill the gaps.
People who drain me: If I can limit time with them, great.  If I can’t, I like to assume they’re doing the best they can, I’m not going to change them, and perhaps they shouldn’t change. I’m not perfect, and I likely have aspects of my personality that some would find irritating.  I’m not going to come up with a comprehensive list of personal flaws, because I think that would be extremely bad for my self-esteem.  I’d rather look at it as we all have our issues that are both good and bad.  Some find our quirks endearing, while others find them unbearable.  The aspects of others that drain me aren’t inherently bad. They just don’t mesh easily with me and my set of character traits and preferences.  For interactions that I find extremely difficult, I’ve spent time listening while repeating a mantra fitting to the challenge.  In the midst of having someone spout off at me at work, I’ll mentally repeat to myself, “They’re teaching me to be better at my job.”  For times when I get frustrated I’ll repeat, “They’re helping me practice being patient and kind.” I might even have to get clear with myself about how I’m contributing to the tension and repeat, “It’s not their fault I’m crabby today - get it together.”  
For the people I would love to spend more time with but am not able due to distance or schedules, I find ways to connect in hopes of enriching the relationship with limited interaction.  Certainly we can call, text and facetime, but simple things like playing online games keeps me feeling in touch with people I don’t talk to often. One friend plays one move of a Scrabble game each morning, and I play one back. When I saw her recently after many months, she verbalized what I felt too – we feel connected with just one play per day.  Random messages about things that make me think of them are easily shared via text, email or social media.They know I was thinking of them, and I feel good letting them know.  
We spend a lot of time with a lot of people in short spurts of time.  They may be our medical care providers, baristas, grocery store checkers, mechanics and neighbors.  These are the relationships that aren’t close, but they can be immensely helpful to living a high-quality life.  When we make them friends and contribute to quality interactions, our lives are richer for it.  Smiles that brighten our day help us be more likely to react with grace when encountering rudeness or frustration. If we expand the circle of people we consider to be part of our life, we recognize how much they contribute to our happiness and how much we may influence theirs.  
Online groups can be instrumental to meeting some of my emotional needs when I don’t personally know people similar to me.  Very few of my friends have a chronic health condition like I have. I know even fewer who are experiencing my health challenges and have an activity level similar to mine.  Social networks like My MSAA Community and closed Facebook groups have been excellent for me to connect with people similar to me in one or more ways. I belong to one group with women who do triathlons.  Another is for women with chronic illnesses who do triathlons.  I belong to a group for people interested in sharing research related to MS. Another is a personal share site for people with MS.  These sites feel like safe places to learn more about things that can be embarrassing from people who know what it’s like to live with chronic conditions.  These sites provide me with inspiration, motivation and helpful tips for my fitness goals. They also provide validation for the frustration I experience when my body holds me back and I’m sad that my life includes Multiple Sclerosis.  I get a lot from them.  And because I get so much, I’m compelled to share and support others in these groups. Receiving support from others helps, and so does giving.  
The people who surround me give me inspiration, motivation, comfort and strength. They validate my struggles and celebrate my accomplishments. Even the challenging relationships teach me where I have opportunities for personal growth.  Whether they are close friends, quick daily interactions or distant online acquaintances, they help me navigate my journey and contribute to a life I love. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Dating and MS: Loving and Risking Heartache

I used to feel such relief that I was married and didn’t need to be out in the dating world.  It sounded horrible, and I enjoyed having my relationship set with the expectation there’d be no divorce.  Then I started having health issues and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis after 15 years of marriage.  
When a married person is diagnosed with MS, the rate of divorce is about the same as the general population, but the gender disparity is enormous. A study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that women diagnosed with MS are six times more likely to get divorced than men diagnosed with MS.  Women tend to stay with their husbands when the man encounters cancer or chronic illness, and marriages tend to end when the woman is diagnosed.  This statistic doesn’t even address the situations where people stay in a marriage with a caregiver partner involving abuse.  People with MS are more likely to be victims of domestic violence including mental, verbal, financial, sexual, and physical abuse and neglect. The fear of being alone or the ability to live independently overrides the pain of living in an unhealthy relationship.
I know my health created issues in my marriage. I enjoyed being a strong, caretaking woman, and that worked in my marriage for many years.  Then MS entered my life, and the dynamics changed.  I changed.  My diagnosis not only added a level of fear for the future, it shifted my perspective on life.  It motivated me to do everything in my power to enjoy life, be as healthy as possible, and learn healthier relationship skills.  Improving my emotional and physical health made the cracks in our marriage glaring. Ultimately, we weren’t able to grow together, and we divorced.  
With years alone and working on improving my life, I recently delved into the dating world.  It was intimidating and made me feel vulnerable.  The landmines to navigate increase when dating and living with MS, and the potential heartache is scary.  
I’m learning that my emotional wellbeing is fragile and can be easily hurt with people who don’t have healthy relationship skills. While I don’t want to judge or demand perfection from people, I am trying to assess whether a relationship that will be good for both of us is possible.  It takes time to get to know someone to see beyond the chemistry, and I’m going to get attached before that point happens in any new relationship.
I’ve come to believe that learning how to recover from rejection is more my style than trying to protect myself from feeling heartache.  Protecting myself feels like withholding, and I’m not comfortable starting a relationship feeling like I’m hiding.  I want to enter a relationship with an open heart and provide full disclosure for possible deal-breakers. I know that some people may take advantage of that or judge me as foolish, but I don’t know of any other way to be genuine and true to myself. 
As such, I embraced dating as an opportunity to meet people and learn more about what matters to me in a relationship.  
I’ve consistently disclosed I have MS on the first date when the match looked promising.  I describe it as a fact of my life that may be a deal-breaker for them, and I let them know it’s okay if it is.  My logic is that I don’t want to waste time with someone who isn’t up for it. I’d rather they have the opportunity to decide early if they’re up for it rather than wait and learn later.  Waiting to disclose would feel like I’m hiding or feeling shame about the facts of my life and health.  I have more information about my possible declining health than others, but the fact is none of us knows what the future holds for us. 
I dated one person who ghosted me after three months of seeing each other.  It was surprising to me in the moment, but it’s not surprising in hindsight.  After a few days of feeling hurt, I shifted to being grateful that he’d ended it for us.  It helped me see which behaviors should be deal-breakers for me. I realized I’d put chemistry ahead of things that matter to me, and I’d dismissed things that won’t lead to a relationship that is good for me.  
Moving forward with a new relationship, I’m planning to review the list of relationship questions I’ll ask periodically.  These questions will be different for each person, and I’m working on feeling confident in mine as reasonable.  If my expectations are too much for someone, it means that person isn’t right for me.   If they end things with me, I’m working on seeing it as them doing me a favor rather than feeling rejected.  
I’m also working on not putting too much pressure on myself to figure out forever right now.  I think anticipating what the future holds and having discussions about how our lives might meld are necessary. These are the fun discussions about our bucket lists, careers, hopes and dreams.  These are also the vulnerable discussions about how my health affects me now and how it may lead to disability someday.  None of us have guarantees for the future, and I’m trying to plan my future with a range of health situations.  I may be exactly as I am now with continued common aging issues, or I may need to live in an assisted living facility with daily care.  For now, I anticipate my future will be somewhere in between. I’m likely to need a cane or walker someday, but I’m optimistic I’ll be able to work until early retirement age and live independently.  I could be completely right, or I may be completely wrong. I’ll know more as each year passes. 
We all have aspects of our lives and personalities that are deal-breakers for someone else.  We are also all worth loving.  The right person for me will acknowledge my health, will want to meet my needs, and will see my MS as a part of me that makes me the person I am. A rejection from someone is something to receive as a gift. They’ve let me know they aren’t right for me, and they’ve freed me to find someone who is. 

1.    Gender disparity in the rate of partner abandonment in patients with serious medical illness.
Study Source: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
November 10, 2009
Summary: A woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than if a man in the relationship is the patient, according to a study that examined the role gender played in so-called "partner abandonment." The study also found that the longer the marriage the more likely it would remain intact.

2.    Relationship Between Domestic Violence and Multiple Sclerosis
Margie O’Leary, MSN, RN, MSCN; Sherie Lammers; Anne Mageras, BSW; Marilyn Boyd, MSCN; Rose Constantino, PhD, RN; Rock Heyman, MD
International Journal of MS Care

3.     Caregiver Abuse and Neglect of People with Multiple Sclerosis(P06.198)
Elizabeth Morrison, Aileen Wiglesworth, Dara Sorkin, Laura Mosqueda
April 26, 2012; 78 (1 Supplement) 
First published February 8, 2016,

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Fresh Starts: Changing Self-Talk to Serve Me Better

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

Changing Family Traditions for the Better

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

After the Stress: The Arc of Relief Takes Time

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.
Things will get better and worse as long as we keep existing. That’s the cool part of getting to keep living and spending time on the planet.  Every experience is an opportunity to relish for the joy or feel pride for experiencing and getting through.  Rolling with the challenges and joys of life changes is easier when I grant myself the grace I’d grant others.