surrendering-control

Surrendering Control

As a child, I heard about the importance of surrendering control, especially how it pertained to a higher power. While I spoke a bit on Monday about the importance of giving up control, this post is for those of us who cannot stand the idea of giving up control. When I heard the words “surrender control” growing up, I found that I would internally shudder at the thought. The word “surrender” in this particular context still irritates me years later.

I still haven’t quite identified why I hated the thought of surrendering control, even as a child. I suspect it has something to do with the abject vulnerability that comes from giving up control. I saw that the moments I was most vulnerable, I was also treated as though I was weak. So any display of vulnerability was a display of weakness. Surrendering was the ultimate sign of weakness.

Additionally, growing up, you are beginning to assert your independence. Being told to give up control, just as you are starting to come into control of your own life, feels like so many steps backward. I learned to associate giving up control as infantilizing. I could not differentiate between the “positive” forms of giving up control like going with the flow, and the “negative,” which was micromanaging all aspects of my life.

And so I became a control freak.

How to Give Up Control when You Can’t

It’s all well and good to be told to give up control. It’s one of those “easier said than done” situations.

But when it comes time actually to try and give up control, it can be difficult. I think for those of us who need to be in control are keenly aware of how out of control the world is, so we cling to whatever means to maintain a sense of order. We find areas in our lives we can manage, and even if we manage it poorly, there is some stability in the belief we are in control. 

Humans are masters of deception. Especially self-deception.

So, how do you surrender control?

Not easily, and I wish I were joking about that. This would be one of those areas where, if we could snap our fingers and fix everything, we would do it. I thought if I reflected on it hard enough, it would happen.

But it doesn’t work that way. Giving up control isn’t just a thought-based exercise. It requires active participation. I was seeking for something else to take control from me, even though it wasn’t for it to take, nor was I willing actually to give it. I couldn’t expect anyone, or thing, to take control. 

I, and I alone, could give up the control in my life. But I am like an addict, and to be sure, control is addictive, and addicts struggle to give up their drug of choice. While micromanaging my life brought on only stress, frustration, and health problems, I was unwilling to give up my “drug.”

Once I realized that I was responsible for my own burden, that the only way I would regain control in my life is to let it go, was I able to make a choice needed in the situation.

Now, if you have a higher power, you might say this: my teachings tell me to give up control. Many allegories teach to give to your higher power. Yes, but make sure you are actively giving up control and not expecting your higher power to take control from you. This is the trap I fell into. Make them your focal point, but remember that only you can say “I am going to give up control in this area of my life.”

Often, meditating or praying to that higher power or the universe can give you the strength you need to do so, so keep that in mind as well.

But it really has to be your decision to let go. Acknowledge that you are not in complete control of your life, that you are going to go with the flow, and accept whatever life hands you as graciously as possible.

Clear Head; Healthy Decisions

Control freaks: do you find that your head gets so cluttered with all that you have to do? All that you have to remember? All that you didn’t do, and now you feel frustrated?

The advantage of surrendering control is that it gives you a clearer head. No longer do you have to think about all the parts of your life you need to manage. You get a chance to prioritize what you can control and what you can’t. It allows you to reflect on your life more objectively.

Remember when I talked about not having expectations and accepting everything? No longer do you place expectations on your higher power or life to take control from you (you’ve given it over freely), and therefore, you can accept anything that comes your way. Often we get so wrapped up in controlling everything that we miss out. We might miss an answer we were waiting for, or an opportunity we’ve been wanting because it does not fit into the framework we’ve set up for ourselves.

We can make healthier decisions when we are in an objective head space. We can see what we need when we need it, and why we need it when we aren’t so focused on the minutiae.

Deeper Connections

Seeking a deeper spiritual connection with your higher power, the universe, or life? I found that once I gave up control in my life, truly gave it up, I had a deeper spiritual connection to those around me and the world at large.

I used to get so focused on the minutiae, but each time I slowed down, took the time to relax and go with the flow, I felt more at ease with myself and my placement in the world.

I also find that my compassion deepens for others and myself. My resiliency increases, and I am more accepting of what happens to me and around me. I am more willing to stand up for myself where I never could before, and be selfish in healthy ways.

Once I gave up control, I felt freer and in control, rather than out of control like I assumed I would feel.

Taking the Right Amount of Responsibility

Just as a reminder, when you give up control, you are still responsible for what happens in your life. You might be waiting for an answer, so what happens between asking the question and receiving that answer is your responsibility. We sometimes use giving up control as an excuse to sit around and be inactive. Instead, we should continue to be proactive in our lives. Seek other answers while waiting for a specific one.

Sometimes we don’t get an answer, or it’s not the one we want, and that’s okay. Consider the timing wrong, and ask again later. Look at it as a roadblock, and find a way to adapt around it.

Whatever you do, when you surrender control, view it as a chance to be more free and active in your life.


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Practicing Mindfulness with a Chronic Illness

I’ve mentioned mindfulness often in passing on the blog throughout the year, but I haven’t devoted a full post to it. For August, I want to celebrate all the small victories we have in our lives and one way to recognize them is through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an easy practice for someone with a chronic illness. Mainly because we are mindful without realizing it: daily we observe our bodies, how the body reacts (or does not react), where our moods are, and what we need to do to make the day manageable.

If you’ve engaged in mindfulness practice without realizing it, let’s take some time to focus it towards our emotional health. You’ll find it will help you manage your mental and physical health along the way, which complements any care your healthcare team recommends.

What is Mindfulness?

What do you think of when someone says “let’s practice mindfulness”?

You might envision a person in yoga class, or a Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged with their eyes close. Yes, these are classic examples of mindfulness, but it’s not limited to a form of Eastern philosophy. If you hold to a particular set of beliefs, you might be afraid that practicing mindfulness comes into conflict with them. I can assure you that mindfulness does not conflict, especially if you strip it down to the very basics.

If you’ve sat in a quiet moment, speaking to your Higher Power, that’s mindfulness. If you’ve ever visited a therapist and they wanted you to focus on the moment, that’s mindfulness. If you sit back and observe the world moving around you with no other thoughts than the present, that’s mindfulness.

Mindfulness, very simply, is inhabiting the current space you are in mentally, emotionally, and physically. It does not need to be attached to yoga or meditation. It is observing the moment.

What are you doing right now? Are you reading this post on a phone/tablet or your computer? Are you sitting down or standing? Are you fully engaged with this post or are you multi-tasking? Sit for a moment and think about what is going on right now while you read this.

Mindfulness observes the physical actions you take, the thoughts you think, and the emotions you feel. Often we get frustrated because we might try to sit for a session in mindfulness and our minds wander; something itches; or if you are in the middle of an exacerbation, you focus on that.

All of those “frustrations” are happening at the moment, and therefore they are a part of it. Ultimately, there is no right way to practice mindfulness. If you are not focusing on the past or the future, you are being mindful of your moment.

The goal in mindfulness practice is to keep ourselves grounded in our current moments as much as possible. It is meant to release us from any stress we feel about a future project or the shame of a previous social encounter. We often get caught up in things we cannot control (the future) and things we cannot change (our past), that we forget the current moment.

Nothing goes away when we engage in our mindful practice, but we do get a chance to give our mind a bit of a vacation and re-prioritize. It helps us appreciate what we do have, rather than what we don’t.

Mindfulness and the Chronic Illness

I spoke about the importance of gratitude in last Monday’s post. If you are struggling to get into a space of gratitude, mindfulness will help you get there. When we practice mindfulness, we are unconsciously appreciating the current moment. When we re-wire our brains to engage in gratitude more often, we can help manage our chronic illnesses in a healthy manner.

Mindfulness opens us to looking at the moments when we aren’t experiencing an exacerbation or feeling pain. Sometimes we forget the moments when our illness is leaving us alone, and mindfulness refocuses us to appreciate those moments.

Even when experiencing an exacerbation or pain, we can use mindfulness to refocus the pain or discomfort of the exacerbation. It’s not a cure-all, nor will it make the exacerbation/pain go away, but it can help manage both. Many of our exacerbations are brought on by stress, or made worse by it, and mindfulness is a great stress-reducer.

Even if the practice of mindfulness proves to be nothing but a placebo, the placebo effect is genuine , and mindfulness practice is one of those scenarios of “if it works, or doesn’t cause any harm, why not do it anyway?” It may be helping you better manage your pain, it may have you appreciating each day a little more, or it may help you get into space to begin your own wellness journey.

Silver Linings Abound

Through mindfulness can we take a few moments to recognize life’s silver linings.

While dealing with a chronic illness, we must collect all the bright spots we have in our lives. If we focus too much on the illness itself, it can crush our resolve, our ability not to allow it to control us. We experience pain, physical and emotional, so much more when we let our illness overwhelm us.

However, when we are mindful of the present moment, we can see that not everything is grim. Our thoughts may drift to the negative, but if we refocus on the current moment: the current lack of exacerbation, the current lack of pain, the current lack of drama or stress; do we see that we might be in the middle of a bright spot.

We may be more receptive to trying something new in our lives if we become more present. That may be trying a new medication, taking on a healthy endeavor, or allowing ourselves to begin the process of grieving that might be previously repressed.

It’s a chance for us to no longer view ourselves as victims of our illness, but our illness as just one more thing to overcome in our lives. To be clear, our illness can victimize us by taking things away, but we do not have to act like victims. There is a healthy way to cope with our darker emotions and thoughts relating to the illness, but being unwilling to make healthy changes is not the way to go.

Mindfulness can show us the way that we can make changes. We can be healthy. We can control how we respond to our chronic illness.


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Gratitude for Yourself

For the past two Novembers, I’ve spent the month examining gratitude in different ways. I am going to shake things up a bit by talking about gratitude in July. Why? Because it’s important to be grateful for yourself no matter the time of year.

If you don’t know where to begin when trying to love yourself more, try starting with gratitude. I find it’s easier to acknowledge what we are grateful for than what we might like about ourselves. For instance, saying, “I am grateful I can walk today,” might be easier to acknowledge than, “I love how I feel when I buy a stranger coffee.”

It might just be me, but if you struggle to love yourself, give gratitude a try.

What are you Grateful For?

Do you have any ideas about what you might be grateful for in yourself?

If you don’t, that’s okay, we’ll start off simple. Consider that you are alive, it might not be quite what you want, chronic illness or pain, but you are breathing. For each breath you draw, you are given an opportunity. You have unrealized, untapped potential.

I understand it’s trite to start with that, but I think when dealing with a chronic illness, we often forget that life can be worth living and that we should be grateful that we can experience life at this moment, such that it is.

Imagine dealing with your illness fifty years ago. Try one hundred. Now five hundred years. Suddenly, those week-long hospital visits seem less awful because we’re lucky enough to have them. This isn’t minimizing your experience, it’s putting it into perspective.

We live in a time, with medicine being as advanced as it is, that we can be alive. While my MS may not have slowed me down fifty years ago, there’s a chance I’d be blind, lame, and possibly erratic from the brain damage brought on by untreated exacerbations any time earlier than 1919.

Sure, it would be nice to be alive when all chronic illness is cured, so I never had to deal with my MS, but I’ve grown so much because of my illness. I am grateful for my life and to be alive right now. When I say that, I can feel a sense of love flow within for myself.

If that’s too much for you, or you can’t get past the hokey-ness of it all, which I understand, consider something you can do. Maybe it’s a talent you hide from the world, like realistic cat doodles. Or maybe it’s something people know about, your ability to craft a beautiful project without a plan or pattern.

Find something special about yourself that you may overlook, and express a moment of gratitude for it.

Why Gratitude is so Important

Science backs up the importance of expressing gratitude.

In short: we become more open to others and opportunities; we can improve our physical health; it helps us with emotional regulation; it increases our empathy and lowers aggression; we can sleep better when we’re grateful; it improves our self-esteem; and it reduces stress while building up our mental fortitude.

Several of these points are significant in the daily management of a chronic illness: improving our physical, mental, and emotional health; increasing our empathy; helping with sleep; and lowering our stress.

It helps us accept what we cannot control, and give us peace in the face of the uncertain nature of chronic illness. Gratitude, no matter the form it takes, can ease our suffering.

While gratitude will not cure our illness, it might help us with managing it. It’s holistic in nature and complementary treatment to the prescribed drug regimen you have with your healthcare team.

Best part? It’s free.

Gratitude in a Chronic Illness

Practicing gratitude while coping with a chronic illness is a puzzler. How do we engage with a practice of appreciating life when we see others surpass us in health? So many times I feel passed by from peers who have heaps of energy and drive that I struggle with daily.

Knowing that my MS has no specific trajectory also adds to the stress. While it shouldn’t progress to SPMS any time soon, what if it does? And when it does, what then? It’s hard to be grateful when there is so much uncertainty.

As mentioned above, there is a chance to be grateful despite our illness. We are fortunate enough to be alive when medicine can help us, either in managing the illness or make us comfortable.

Another perspective to take is that our illnesses allow us to have a clearer perspective of the world. We are aware of our limitations in ways that others might not be, and we know how far we can push ourselves. We’ve had our dose of adversity, things that used to bother us, might not anymore.

We can view each day without an exacerbation as a gift, something to be celebrated because we know what it looks like when we can’t walk or get out of bed. When we have an exacerbation, we can look at it not as a setback, but as our body telling us we need to slow down and take care of ourselves.

Exacerbations can provide us with the opportunity to try something new, like painting or reading a book or binge-watching a show we’ve been meaning to view. It sucks, for sure, but our gratitude for the slowdown can allow us to see the silver lining while dealing with the symptoms.

It’s important to take this perspective when it comes to our chronic illness: I cannot control it beyond my management regimen. Everyone, healthy or ill, has uncertainty in their lives. Everyone. I have the added benefit of the chronic illness, but it does not differentiate me from others as much as I think. Finding gratitude is not ignoring the illness but accepting that it will not be going away any time soon.

Finally, ask yourself this: if I cannot change my life with the illness, what can I change? The answer is your perspective by being grateful for what you do have and what you can do.


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Being Honest with Yourself and Your Chronic Illness

Self-reflection is worthless if you can’t be honest with your self. Speaking from personal experience, both through observing others and myself, humans are good at over-inflating their sense of importance and perception, and that rarely matches with reality. Add in chronic illness and it widens the gap between perception and reality: it’s easy to not be honest with yourself and how your chronic illness impacts your life. This gap can prevent you from making important life changes.

How so?

There are two ways it will go if you aren’t honest with yourself: one, you set your sights on something without considering your illness and your symptoms will prevent you from achieving that goal; and two, you don’t think you can do something because of your illness and it stops you from trying.

Growing up I had a family member who leaned into their illnesses (some real, many manufactured) to keep themselves from ever achieving their goals. They would get so close and then self-sabotage. Often the excuse was, “I can’t do x because my illness is preventing me from doing so.” Yet, they would be outside pulling weeds for hours at a time with no physical complaints.

They may have been honest with themselves about what they were capable of and weren’t honest with us. That’s a separate issue altogether.

I sincerely believe this family member, if they weren’t honest with themselves, would have taken over a chunk New England with their business. They had so much ambition, energy, and drive that they were the only one preventing themselves from seeing personal success.

It’s important to sit down and be honest with what your abilities are, what they really are, to see what you can do. If you aren’t honest, you will only find yourself discouraged and get in the way of your own success.

Start with Honesty

In the late ’70s/early ’80s, singer Charlene sang about a woman lamenting about the decisions she made in her life. After experiencing life in ways we only dream of, the “speaker” realizes too late that she never experienced the life she truly wanted. “I’ve Never Been to Me,” is one of those sappy songs from a different era (and is rather problematic for a modern audience), but I think the message stands. It’s wonderful to have a “perfect” life on the outside but if you aren’t honest with what you want, you will never find meaningful success.

Admittedly, it’s one of those easy-listening ballads that is very much an emotional guilty pleasure.

We can fantasize about the perfect life because it’s what we think we want, but it may not be what we need. There are things that we think we want in our life, things we think will make us happy – they will be our paradise, and perhaps if we get them, we will be satisfied.

And for a lucky few, that may bring about satisfaction. Winning the lottery may solve our money problems, but there usually is a whole host of other issues that pop up we don’t think about that spoils our happiness. What if our paradise is something more ordinary that we aren’t willing to admit to ourselves? That’s where you have to get to a place of personal honesty with yourself.

The Problematic Lie

Have you ever tried to lose weight through counting calories?

How successful were you? If you found success immediately, you may not be able to identify with what I am about to tell you. If you weren’t successful, you already know where this is going.

Even to this day, I struggle to lose weight via rigorous calorie counting. The idea is this: I am given a set amount of calories I can consume in a day. That number can go up if I exercise or stay the same if I do not. This set of calories will be just enough to keep my body sustained and healthy but allow it to lose weight over a specific period of time.

Simple, right?

Well, if you are like me, no. It isn’t simple and this is why: I lie. I lie to my calorie counting apps and more importantly, I lie to myself.

I will fudge the numbers a bit. I may count one less strawberry or inaccurate “estimate” my food amounts. I may overestimate the exact amount of exercise I do. And what happens when I do this? I don’t lose weight.

Why? Because I am lying to myself about what I am doing. Sometimes it’s intentional and other times it was to justify that extra late night sweet. But when I actually became honest with myself and what I was doing, I found I lost the weight.

This is just a lengthy way of saying, if you are lying to yourself about what you can and can’t do, i.e. I can’t do something because of x, then you are only hurting yourself. Or if you think you can do something, but you haven’t really self-assessed, you’ll only get frustrated.

Lying to yourself is problematic and will lead to you not finding success in what you want to do for personal wellness.

Being Honest with Yourself and Your Chronic Illness

The short answer to this post is: be honest with yourself. Be frank with your chronic illness. Be straightforward with your abilities. And finally, be realistic with your personal goals.

Yes, your illness may have taken away your mobility. You may not be spry like you once were. But has it completely prevented you from trying something new? Have you had to learn how to adjust to manage the illness? So why not adjust to try some dream of yours.

I’ve said this at least one other time on the blog: I wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I wanted to write fiction novels like Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, so when Ash pointed out that I was writing for a living I didn’t believe him. I assumed my MS would prevent me from putting a cohesive novel together, but he was right. I’ve achieved my childhood dream, it just did not take the form I expected.

Who is to say that I don’t eventually write a fiction novel of sorts?

The point is, my MS did not prevent me from achieving my dreams. I had to be honest with what I was able to do and what I did to find success in some capacity.

If you’ve been easily discouraged in your goals or found that you never complete your resolutions, consider taking a few moments to ask yourself: have I been honest with myself and my abilities? Have the goals I created unreasonable for me to attain at this point (if ever)? Have I used my illness as an excuse to prevent me from making some type of change? Why is that?

Just take a few moments to sit down and see what answers you come up with, then loop back around to my self-reflection posts from last week. See what answers you come up with and where they might take you.


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Featured photo credit: Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash


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Self-Reflection with a Chronic Illness

My self-reflection journey had two significant steps: step one, reflecting on life immediately after receiving my diagnosis; and step two, reflecting on life after Jai’s birth. You could say that I am in the middle of step three because self-reflection with a chronic illness is a lifelong exercise. I am a firm believer that self-reflection should be a lifelong practice regardless of your health. It keeps us moving forward and prevents becoming stagnant.

Today’s post is about the answers I came up with when I looked at my life just after my diagnosis up until now. Like with Monday’s post, I will end with some questions to ask about your current situation.

Post-Diagnosis; Pre-Health Minded

I have discussed this period of my life a few times on the blog.

After my diagnosis, I was in not in a healthy emotional place. I grieved the loss of my “old life,” such that it was. I tried to process the physical betrayal I felt, the uncertainty of my future, and why I felt like life just hated me. Despite that, or perhaps to help cope with it, I did self-reflect a little bit about my life and MS.

A thought I kept coming back to was my mortality and what that might look like. While MS is unique to everyone, the only example I had in my life was Annette Funicello. I swore that my health trajectory would take me to a place where I would be trapped in my body like her. I told those close to me that I was convinced my RRMS would progress to SPMS by the time I was forty, just eight years away at the time.

I was in a weird space of fighting the progression of my disease, but also just accepting what was happening. Part of my anger and self-loathing I had at the time led me to just want to give in and let MS kill me. But I also wanted to fight MS and get healthier. Torn between the two extremes I got stuck in a holding pattern for several years.

I did make an effort, if you could call it that, by speaking with my neurologist about disease management through healthy living, but I didn’t make any of the changes I told him I would. Thankfully, he was patient with me to wait until I was ready to get onto a drug regimen to manage my MS.

Once on Copaxone and later Tecfidera, I managed my flare-ups. Any exacerbations I got tended to be mild compared to the ones I got off medication. I was still super stressed, not exercising, not eating well, and not feeling good. The medication worked overtime.

2014. Hampstead Heath, London, UK. I was on Copaxone at the time, but unmotivated to take care of myself. I tried several months before to live “healthy” for a while, but failed to actually do anything.
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