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Two steps to stay optimistic in the face of MS

By Dan Digmann

Which of these best describes you?
A) The glass is half-full.
B) The glass is half-empty.
C) Take the glass back. This isn’t the drink I ordered.

My loving wife, Jennifer, will forever tell me that I very much am a glass-is-half-full guy. What a sincere thing to say about me, my love.

Yes, I’m overly optimistic – almost to a fault. How much so? After I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 21 years ago, I truly started feeling as though the glass is overflowing. Yeah, I often roll my eyes at myself and ask what the heck I’m not seeing.

The reality is that my optimism isn’t rooted in what I don’t see. It has everything to do with what I am seeing. It’s all about looking beyond myself and focusing on the bigger picture. 

This isn’t always easy to do, especially when you’re living with a chronic, progressive disease of the central nervous system. What helps is to remember I am not the only person among my immediate family and friends who is dealing with MS. There are nearly 1 million other people in the United States who understand what it’s like to live with it.

See? Just like that, I feel better because I realized I’m not in this alone. Here are two steps I’ve taken to change how I see my life with MS and continue filling the proverbial glass to the brim.

1. Take the time to feel angry, sad and helpless.

Even an eternal optimist like me has all the bad feelings that come with facing MS 24/7. That’s right. Be frustrated. Take the time to let the feelings out rather than keep them inside. Be angry. Hate your MS world because there’s nothing pessimistic about having negative feelings. They’re real – especially when you’re living with MS – and they deserve our attention. You owe it to yourself to acknowledge those feelings.

But feel angry, sad, you name it, for a moment or two. As Jennifer often says, “It’s a nice place to visit. You just don't live there.” Visit, but move on to discover happier places beyond MS. After all, the disease isn’t who you are. We all know you’re better than that.

Remember you aren’t in this alone. And there’s no shame in asking your family, friends, healthcare providers, and support system for help in moving beyond this disease. If you were moving from one house or apartment to another one, nobody would expect you do the entire move by yourself. Why should it be any different with MS? Let’s face it: sometimes dealing with this disease requires a heavier emotional lift than the physical weight of any refrigerator or sofa bed. Ask the friends and family you’re closest to, and bring in the professionals when needed.

2. Appreciate and embrace everything you have and all that is good about today.

I had a hard time falling asleep a few weeks ago. A huge project at work that was under deadline weighed heavily on my mind. Looking over at the alarm clock, again, it was 1:42 a.m. I kept asking myself, “Do I get up and work on it now?” No, Dan. Shut your mind off and get to sleep. I finally did shortly after I saw the digital numbers on the nightstand flip over to 2:17 and I concluded that at best I was going to get about four hours of sleep before I had to give my best at the office.

The alarm woke Jennifer and me up at 6:30 in the morning. We were up and quickly got ready. I turned my computer on in my home office – I’ve worked remotely the past three years – just before 8 a.m., only to find that the remote server was down, and I couldn’t access any of my files. What? All that had kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning, and I can’t do anything to complete my project? Seriously?

Everything now was out of my control. All of my worrying was for naught and what I wouldn’t give to have the opportunity to master the mountain of copy I needed to write.

And this is why I rarely worry about my MS. Oh, sure, I think about it a lot and strategize my next moves and plan my offense to attack and stay ahead of it. But I’ve found that worrying about it will do me no good. Beyond the tactics I employ to keep MS at bay, a lot of it is out of my control. 

Instead, I choose to focus on what I have and can do in spite of the disease. Things such as see the sun rise and Jennifer smile. Smell coffee brewing and a neighbor mowing his yard. Stand on the soft bedroom carpet and walk across the cold bathroom floor. 

These seem like such simple things, but they are among the moments I’d miss the most if MS took away my ability to do any of them. Sure, I’d adjust and find new ways to appreciate them in different ways. Still, this is what I have right now, and I won’t take for granted all that I have today by longing for what I’ve lost. 

As you can see, I’m not trying to sugarcoat my MS realities or say living with this disease isn’t difficult. It’s challenging every day. I’ve just found that by giving myself the latitude to have negative feelings, seek the help of loved ones to move forward and embrace all that I still have going for me, I can stay perpetually optimistic and watch my glass overflow daily.