My beyond two decades long marriage was ending while my career took a completely unexpected and welcome turn. I moved to a new place, and I had a few surgeries. Valued in-person friendships were no longer nearby, and they shifted to Facebook interactions. All of my daily routines I had in place no longer fit into my new life, and I spent a lot of time redesigning them. Often it felt like my entire life was tossed in the air and landed scattered on the ground. Picking up the pieces and deciding how to arrange them again took up a lot of my time and mental energy.
Any of these changes would have been big for me, but juggling them all at once took a lot of effort. MS was a factor in this because I strived to maintain my health throughout these changes. My biggest goal was to avoid an MS exacerbation, and fortunately I succeeded.
Experiencing change can alter how I view the world, myself, my past, my future, and the people around me. It’s a mental shift from what I thought I could count on to knowing how vulnerable and impermanent everything can be. Diagnosis of MS made me question my body’s abilities and health. I thought my body was strong and healthy. Being diagnosed led me to realize that a healthy and mobile future isn’t necessarily in my control. I can eat right, exercise, and get checkups, and still have no guarantee for good health or the ability to walk in my elder years.
Adjusting to change is a skill I’ve cultivated to save my sanity and bring myself mental peace. Some years ago, my New Year’s Resolution was to, “embrace the things that I resist.” It was a great experience acknowledging when I was resisting things and actively shedding the internal resistance I had to doing them. When I was nervous about running a public meeting, I decided to dive in and just do my best. When I liked a fashion choice that I thought might be too flashy, I decided to try it anyway. When the group sang karaoke, I got up in front of the group with my not great singing voice and sang my heart out. I knew I might sound terrible or look silly, but I let myself have fun doing it.
My personal challenge that year allowed me to think about and recognize why I resisted things, and it helps to think about it when dealing with change. Most of the time my resistance stemmed from the following:
- Uncertainty for what the next step was or how to decide
- Being afraid that following that step would lead to an outcome I feared
- Being overwhelmed from the quantity of things to deal with at that moment
- Fear of making a mistake, making what I would later judge as a wrong decision, failing, or being judged negatively by others
- Holding on to a belief that I have control over the future, others, or anything other than what I do, say or believe.
With MS, a lot of change stems from the domino effect of losing mobility, cognition and physical abilities. Focusing on these losses can lead to depression and a sense of doom. When an exacerbation hits, it’s natural to worry about where it will lead and how it will affect the future. It’s all understandable and natural, but it’s also incredibly unsettling, frustrating and just plain hard. I try to embrace changes I’m resisting by doing the following:
- Recognize that feeling unsettled, nervous or fearful is natural. Accept it will be stressful but try to do what I can to minimize the stress.
- Think about why the change is stressful. Does it require changing my life, my relationships, or just my attitude?
- Seek inspiration and motivation from people who have lived through a similar change. What insight can they lend?
- Pace myself. Take on only a few extra tasks each week or month, and reduce some of the things that aren’t necessary for my physical or mental health. Know that my regular life still requires a lot of energy, and something needs to give temporarily.
- Know the deadlines and what’s at risk if they aren’t met. Give myself enough time to do things, but not too much so that it feels never-ending.
- Break down the steps to dealing with change into smaller doable tasks to avoid getting overwhelmed.
- Prioritize based on importance, deadlines and energy level. If my energy is low, I’ll do the easy tasks for now and the more involved tasks at a time of day when I have more energy. Certain things may also be able to wait months.
- Wait to start until I’m ready to commit. I keep a list of things to do, but I don’t start until I’m ready to do them and complete them.
- Set realistic expectations and ambitious dreams.
- Look forward to something. Whether it’s seeing kids or grandkids grow up and being a part of their lives, traveling, dancing, watching the sun set, or anything else small or large that brings joy.
- Enjoy the path I’m on even when portions of it are difficult. Give myself credit for all of the things I do that aren’t hard because I’ve put so much effort in the past into getting better at them.
- Trust that I’ll do what I think is right for me each step of the way and that it’s enough.