Yesterday was my birthday. My children covertly contacted some of the people who they know are important to me and invited them to send the kids videotapes of themselves wishing me a happy birthday. One of my daughters then edited the clips all together into one long videotape. The kids expected everybody to basically just say “Happy Birthday” but everybody said much more than that, and it was spectacular. I’ll admit it without shame … several of them made me cry a little bit. There were also a lot of well-wishes and birthday greetings facilitated by social media. I read every one of those with a smile.
It wasn’t a fancy birthday party. No lavish gifts, no over-the-top decor and fancy details. It was just the kids and I, a couple of important family members, and a very close family friend. Long gone are my days of parties filled with lots of friends and laughter, cocktails and carousing. I haven’t really lost those things because of age. A certain percentage of it all vanished when my husband died. The overwhelming majority of it all evaporated as my disability became increasingly significant.
Illnesses, conditions and disabilities can change everything
It’s a straightforward concept; You can’t socialize when you can’t go out and be sociable. MS and many other chronic illnesses or conditions negatively affect the physicality of your being, and consequently the way you can interact with the world. In addition to the physical symptoms and impairments, these changed realities can have profound emotional consequences. I’m going to write the rest of this blog post specifically referencing MS, but I’m including all other types of chronic or debilitating conditions. It would just be very awkward to keep writing that out!
At first, it’s rough adjusting to or accepting a diagnosis of a disorder that’s unpredictable about how it’s going to play out in your life, and how bad it’s probably or potentially going to get. The answers often don’t exist because it’s different for everybody. That crazy uncertainty adds to the waves of anxiety and emotion that start flooding daily life.
Many people with MS experience more symptoms during stressful times. Simply living with the uncertainty and unpredictability of a chronic or debilitating illness is its own source of stress. The shock and stress of my husband’s death, and then that of my father, both had a dramatic and terrible impact on my level of disability. MS itself can lead to some major life changes because of loss of function, impaired mobility, and interference with work. Chronic stress is known to weaken the immune system and increase the risk for a whole array of other illnesses. It can all snowball it’s being a huge mess.
Joining the caravan of emotion along with stress can come anxiety, anger, irritability, moodiness, frustration, and depression. Self-esteem can also take a big hit as the negative effects of illness change all different aspects of your life, and impact the way you perceive your place in the world. It’s an ugly parade of possible problems.
I want to be sure and point out that professional counseling and support groups can be helpful in dealing with the anxiety and distress that can go along with chronic illness. In some cases, it’s been determined that supplements or prescription medication may also be helpful for coping.
Seasons and Chapters
I remember in the Bible it’s written about how there is a season for everything in life. There’s an old song I heard occasionally in my life by a group called The Byrds called ‘Turn, Turn, Turn, To Everything There Is A Season’ and even if you never heard it anywhere I’m sure you can guess from the title that it’s about the same thing. A year or two ago a country artist named Brett Young released a song called ‘Chapters’ about the different directions chapters in our life go off into unpredictably, and how “every page you turn is a lesson learned.” The uncertainty and change in life is the subject of so many songs in many genres, in poems and in books. It’s definitely a universal concept. Yet, the universality of it doesn’t make it any easier to cope with sometimes.
I coped with the MS pretty well for years. My husband and I were high school sweethearts, so our relationship was solid and tested by time. MS was not something we expected but, as he frequently pointed out, there were a lot of things that would have been worse. We dealt with it.
The widow chapters that was thrust upon me were not something I ever expected to experience as young and as suddenly as I did. And I certainly never expected the terrible acceleration of my disability as a result of the overwhelming grief and stress. I must maintain an attitude of resilience in order to thrive where I’ve been planted in life.
Here and Now
Much as I wish this chapter of my life had been written very differently, it wasn’t. But there’s really nothing I can do about it. We get to live this life once. I can’t bring my husband back to life. I can’t turn back time and prevent myself from getting a disease whose cause still baffles medical science.
I can either be bitter about it, or grateful that I’m here at all. I can be angry at all that I’ve lost, or appreciate all I still have. I can agitate over what I can’t do, or exult in what I can do. I can be sad about the friends who have moved on from me, or extra appreciative of those who manage to keep me in their lives. I can live in a way that shows my kids defeat, or be an example of determination.
I don’t make any of the positive choices 100% of the time. Sometimes my resolve weakens. Sometimes anger, sadness, and frustration win the day. How could they not? After all, there’s an overwhelming pile of ugly stuff to deal with every day. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there are times I want to just completely freak out and then give up.
Over the years I’ve discovered that those times pass. I just have to get passed them when they pop up.
I wish my birthday had been different in some ways – that my husband was here, and that we celebrated and danced with friends and family, maybe went out of town for a couple of days. Wishing it could have been different is not a bad thing, because doesn’t everybody sometimes wish things were different than what they are? That’s only human.
Happiness doesn’t require perfection or ideal circumstances. What matters most, here and now, is that I’m happy and satisfied about what my birthday was … and I’m already looking forward to the next one!