I’ve had a lot of time to think this holiday season since I took some left-over vacation days at the end of the year to allow myself to actually rest instead of just “pretend resting” which is what happens when I am working. When I’m working, I never turn off even after actual work hours because I’m too afraid of falling behind. When I’m really and truly off work, my constantly churning brain allows itself to slow down a bit. This only happens on those rare occasions when I’m off and my entire company and most of my clients are off too. Our offices close the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It’s like the best gift anyone could give us. Time off when everyone else is off too! Brilliant.
It’s all over now, the holidays are past and life goes back to normal for normals and back to something else for us non-normals. But while I was in that holiday limbo, I got to thinking about lots of things. One of those things I thought about was putting some serious effort toward finding my lost joy.
You guys won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve had a hard time this year thinking about anything but how horrid this disease is and how it was more or less ruining my life. It crept into every corner of my life, every hidden nook and cranny, before I knew it, it had become everything. Everything in my life was tainted by MS. I let it happen, sure, but I think we all find ourselves there sometime when the lows get really low, lower than you thought they could go.
Your ever shrinking list of goals gets smaller and smaller. At one point, my only goal was pretty simple. REMAIN EMPLOYED. All efforts were focused on that goal because it is the foundation of everything else in my newly complicated life. My first goal was to function with limited travel (my HQ is in Atlanta, my job often requires in person meetings with clients not in Pittsburgh). I told myself it was no big deal and I could make things happen from my office in Pittsburgh no matter what it took. Then that stopped working – my new office created new problems. I had to cross the street (harder than one would think while dizzy). I had to get myself to the office but then once I was there I was good for nothing because I was so exhausted by the time I arrived, it felt sometimes like my brain stopped working (to say nothing of my body). That isn’t good. I get paid for my brain. I had to think of another plan. Again.
I decided to do my best to keep things moving, rolling and functioning but I would try to do that from my home office instead of my actual office. My body didn’t work so well but my brain still does! I could do what I do without putting my life at risk crossing the damn street. The only way this would work is for me to make 150% more effort to make sure I stay involved, relevant, impactful and useful. I had to build relationships over the phone – not as easy as actual face-to-face interaction. I had to support behind the scenes (direct, tweak, re-focus, support) to enable others to do what I couldn’t do. It works, it really works, but holy crap is it tiring. By the time I got to the extensive holiday time off I had planned (a little over two weeks off) I was depleted. I looked back at the last six months and felt very demoralized.
This didn’t leave much time for joy. I couldn’t remember what made me happy. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt actual happiness. I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I thought surely, this too, is normal and I just need to ride it out until happiness comes back some day! But maybe that wasn’t right. Maybe they were right.
“They” were two people, primarily, that I interacted with over holiday break.
The first was a woman on the internet. She read my Christmas blog and took the time to comment on the post. Her approach was new to me – I haven’t gotten much negative push back on my writing so far, mainly because I think I attract like-minded MS’ers. I try to find people who aren’t motivated by what I call the “sunshine and roses” blogs – “the MS-doesn’t-have-me” crowd. I know that whole thing works wonders for many people, but I think it’s obvious that this disease took me to some places where thinking on the bright side became impossible.
The woman commented on my blog and said (I’m paraphrasing here) that my real problem was that I always think negatively and I feel sorry for myself. She told me, with all good intentions I believe, to always remember that there is someone out there who has it worse than me. Huh. OK. I thought on that a minute or two, debating a few snappy come backs, and eventually decided to leave it be. Her intentions were good. I knew that. This is the price I pay for putting so much of my emotional baggage out there for the world to read! I let it go.
But it nagged at me. I wanted to explain to her that I knew what she said was probably true, and yet focusing on people much worse off than myself as a means to make myself feel more positive didn’t really work for me. It gives me no joy to think about how bad other people have it. In fact, it makes me even more sad. I want to fix things for all of those people. I want to make them better. And I can’t. So it’s just not that easy for me. Not yet anyway.
Later in the week, another interaction, this time a positive one, got me thinking about my approach to my lost joy again.
We had a post-Christmas get together with some dear, dear family friends. My mother’s friend Norma from childhood has two daughters and a son who have been part of my life for literally my entire life. As we got older we got closer and our moms remain dear friends to this day. We have an annual holiday get together that we call MMDDSS (or “mother mother daughter daughter sister sister) usually hosted at one of our homes, usually involving much laughter and a most excellent white elephant gift exchange. You may remember it as the night I stayed out past midnight! Of course I had to post that accomplishment on Facebook based on it’s sheer remarkable wonder.
My sister is a fan of tradition. She has always been the one that holds all of our family traditions together to the point where I jokingly refer to her as Tevya (Fiddler on the Roof? Anyone?). This year at MMDDSS, my sister wanted to start a new tradition. The thing is, we’ve all had some pretty shitty things go down in our lives this year. Our mothers both lost their husbands. We’ve all had relationship challenges, health challenges, challenges on challenges you could say and we all felt kind of over 2017.
My sister’s new tradition idea was inspired by the notion of people using sage to rid their environments and their lives of bad juju. Saging, or smudging, is a way to remove negative energy from your space and essentially your life. My sister’s plan was that each of us would write down the things that sucked about our 2017 on a sheet of paper. We would sprinkle our sheets with sage, fold them up and toss them in the raging fire in my sister’s living room. By doing this, we would ensure more positive energy for 2018.
I loved the idea but it stumped me too. My struggle was showing on my face…My mom’s friend looked at me and said, “You could probably write just two letters on your sheet to cover a whole lot of things, right?” And she was right. I was stumped because throwing my saged sheet into the fire couldn’t really change a goddamn thing about me having MS. I got a little twisted up trying to generate some actual positive thinking but I wrote my list and I sprinkled my list like everyone else. Actually, we sprinkled our lists with oregano since my sister didn’t have any sage, but as Italians we talked ourselves into the idea that oregano is probably good enough to erase our negative Italian juju. So oregano it would be!
I had a great night that night. Not physically. I felt like crap physically and I was worried I’d put a downer on the entire gathering by having to bust out early or sitting in a corner scowling like I usually do at holiday parties. But I did neither. I rode the wave of the laughter surrounded by people I love and I had a really good time. I felt happy. I thought I was just playing along, throwing my list into the fire, but it worked. I found myself vowing to try harder to feel happy more often. I vowed to try harder. I might not be able to rid my life of negative energy with a bit of oregano on a list thrown in the fire but I could try to change the way I think.
I’ve tried a couple of things to make it happen, some of them (photo above) are presents to me. Little things that make my life easier or that give me some kind of small happiness – whether big or small. I procured myself a little pile of happiness in the mail (presents for me! hooray!) and I remembered what it was that I used to love about my quiet, rather solitary life…
First, a new pillow. I am physically not able to resist advertising for the perfect pillow. I’ve tried them all. I’ve bought them, slept on them and subsequently stacked them in a closet when I eventually hated them. And yet, I still succumb to the idea of the perfect pillow that will lead to pain-free sleep.
This time, I bought myself a Talalay pillow. I would make 2018 the year of comfort, just like the ad said! You might think that I would be immune to outrageous claims in ads, what with being an advertising professional myself, but you would be wrong. I am the ideal target for these kinds of claims. I cannot resist them. The pile of supposed perfect pillows in my linen closet are proof of that! Talalay was going to be my ticket to a year of comfort delivered directly to my front porch.
Next…I might not dress fancy or work very hard on my “look” like I used to with glamorous makeup and high-effort fashion but I love to smell good. Smells make me happy. One in particular is as close to perfect to me as a smell can get. A small whiff makes me feel happy. People ask me all of the time what scent I’m wearing. Sometimes, in elevators, people tell me I smell like cookies. I mean, this might mean I use way too much perfume on the one hand but on the other hand, who doesn’t want to smell like cookies? Exactly.
Vanilla-based perfumes make me happy. I scour the web to find the best of the best. I use perfume every day – even when I don’t leave the house. It’s not for anyone else. It just makes me happy. I got myself two new ones to try, pictured above, at my favorite perfumery Lucky Scent. They sent me a bunch of little new vanilla perfume samples in the box, too, so it’s like a double dose of happy.
My next love to come in a box was from Barnes & Noble. You guys know I’m a huge reader. When I was dizzy all of the time late in 2017, watching TV made me nauseous. I was stuck in the house. A lot. But TV and computer work made my head swim so I dove into books even heavier than usual. In 2016, when I started to spend a lot more time at home after diagnosis, I challenged myself to see how many books I could read in a year. I read 30 books that year.
My goal in 2017 was to beat that total and with the health year I’ve had, it was pretty easy. I read a LOT. My grand total for 2017 was 35 books. I’m looking to beat that again in 2018. Since I’m a lover of actual books, a new stack like this gives me actual joy. Reading can go back to making me happy now, if I let it. It’s not going to be that thing I do because I can’t do anything else…it’s gonna be the thing I do because I freaking love to read. Thinking = changed. Boom.
The little item in the front, the magnetic mirror tag for my handicapped car placard was inspired by my friend Kara’s post on one of the MS Facebook pages I follow. I’m always worrying about ripping my placard. It’s crazy! I know. I pull it off and put it on a bunch of times in a day and it gives me actual anxiety. I can’t stop thinking about what I would have to do to get a new one should mine get destroyed. Yeah. This is a good example of my over-active brain over-thinking every little thing about every single action in every single day. A magnetic, plastic handi-capped placard holder? Why, yes, yes I will thank you. One less anxiety in my life for a mere $11.95! It totally counts. Not all joys are big joys. They still count.
Next, there is my begrudging acceptance of the Ugg boot. The poster-shoe of basic bitches everywhere (those pumpkin spice latte loving, velour sweat pants with a word across the ass wearing girls with bouncy pony tails in colorful scrunchies and big hoop earrings). The Ugg short boot, is an eternal and likely permanent force in my life. I have denigrated the Ugg boot every time I wear them. They’re so…ugly. They’re so…NOT fashiony. They are so…for people who’ve given up on life and don’t care enough about their footwear, thinks Old Me. (I also love sweat pants and hoop earrings so I’m a total hypocrite, too.)
Guess what? Uggs are horrid but they are also comfortable, flat, furry and freaking warm as hell during a bomb cyclone. My black Uggs have seen better days so I got myself a new pair. I still don’t have a slogan across my ass, but I wear the crap out of my Uggs so I got myself a pair with bows on them. Bows make me happy! Even if nobody ever sees them. I see them.
I know you can’t buy happiness. I know that joy cannot come in a box. What this is really about is me giving myself permission to stop being so judgemental about what and how I should be living my life. I’m going to try and stop beating the joy out of every aspect of my existence.
I will smell good. Be comfortable. Read many books and protect my placard. It’s not much. But it’s a start.
P.S. I didn’t love the damn pillow. My eternal quest for the perfect pillow goes on! I will not be thwarted.