How a Life-Changing Diagnosis Brought Me to Mindfulness
“The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ
I’m a planner. I always have been, even as a kid. I like to know what is going to happen, when it’s going to happen, who will be involved, and how it’s going to get done.
It’s a blessing and a curse – I get things done and keep things organized, but I also can get caught up in thinking so much about the future that I miss what’s happening right in front of me.
And, needless to say, the unexpected often catches me off guard as I watch my best-laid plans unravel in front of me.
At 27, something incredibly unexpected happened. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – an unpredictable autoimmune disease with no cure or one-size-fits-all treatment. At the time, I felt better prepared to handle a diagnosis of an inoperable, yet treatable, brain tumor.
Because I could make a plan. I could hold on to some semblance of control, prepare for the future, and know what to expect.
Instead, I was told I would have to live in the unexpected. Forever.
How was I supposed to hold a job if I never knew how I’d feel – or what body parts may or may not work – when I woke up in the morning?
How would I know the difference between just a headache and a bigger, life-interrupting flare?
How would I ever train for a race if “chronic” exercise increased inflammation and might make me feel worse?
How could I continue to work, train, and do all the things I love if stress might trigger a flare?
What is the point in having relationships or a family if one day I’ll likely be disabled and they’ll just be taking care of me?
I would have to live each day, moment-by-moment, not knowing what to expect. How was I ever going to plan?
My way of life had been ripped out from underneath me. I didn’t know what to do or how to begin to cope with this way of living in the unknown.
My doctor told me I would have to take one day at a time, trusting, accepting, and being patient with my mind, body, and disease – a way of living completely foreign to me and, quite honestly, one that did NOT play to my strengths.
At my one-year checkup, I received a call from my neurologist that my brain scan looked clean. No active lesions. No new lesions. Things were looking good!
After I hung up with him, I cried. Not tears of joy. Tears of frustration and anger. This time, my MRI was clean. What about next time? All I could think about was this continuous cycle of getting an MRI every 6 months, waiting for a report, and either breathing a sigh of relief or finding things are going in the wrong direction. It seemed exhausting, scary, and simply not fair.
I didn’t want to live this way, never knowing, and I was too easily consumed with what ‘might happen.’
I remember my now husband looking me straight in the eye and saying “Let’s just appreciate this moment and we’ll deal with the next MRI when it gets here.” Honestly, I had never thought about that before. Taking each moment as it is, accepting what is there, focusing on what is right in front of me.
One year after my diagnosis, I started to shift my mindset. I began to live in a state of acceptance regarding my diagnosis and “new normal.”
I wasn’t only accepting my diagnosis. I was accepting a new lifestyle, a new mindset, a new way of being.
I had to let go of the way I’d lived for 27 years – let go of the striving and adopt an attitude of non-striving. Being forced to face the unexpected helped me realize pushing myself to the max in all areas of life didn’t really serve me. I began to look for ways to slow down, set boundaries, and enjoy what I was doing rather than always looking to the next thing.
I began to let go of self-judgment and take on a nonjudgmental attitude towards myself and the world around me.
I let go of the ‘me’ I thought I knew and look at myself with a beginner’s mind. The reality was every aspect of my life had changed – from how my body functioned to what I ate to how I lived my life. This unexpected diagnosis forced me to let go of what I used to be able to do or ‘should’ do and examine curiously what I can do and am doing in each moment.
I let go of taking my body and mind for granted and became grateful that I have a body. One month of decreased cognitive function and numb limbs helped me realize my ability to think, speak, write, and move are gifts – ones I wanted to embrace and soak up in every moment.
I had to stop planning, stop focusing on the future, stop missing the moment and begin trusting the universe, trusting myself, trusting the moment, trusting that by focusing on the present the future will be taken care of.
I didn’t have a plan and I didn’t know what the next day might hold, but I was slowly becoming more aware of each moment as it happened.
I was slowly experiencing life more fully and learning to accept each experience for what it is – whether unpleasant, pleasant, unexpected, or expected.
I was slowly learning to live a life of mindfulness – the greatest lesson life has ever unexpectedly thrown my way.