What Multiple Sclerosis Has Taught Me About Life and Managing Myself
The things that have worked for me will work for you, whatever is going on in your life.
It was 10 years ago this summer that I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That first year or two was really scary. My thinking was frequently foggy. Most days my brain felt like a wet sponge inside my head. One way that showed up was that I was constantly letting our dog roam through the neighborhood because I thought I was pressing the button to close the garage door after walking him when I was really opening it.
My body was betraying me too. In a few months, I went from regularly going on 8- or 9-mile runs on the weekend to barely being able to walk around the block without leaning on my wife, Diane. There was one afternoon in Washington that I’ll never forget. I was coming out of a meeting and a huge thunderstorm opened up out of nowhere as I was walking the three blocks back to the parking garage. I started to run to get to the garage and literally couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. I had to steady myself against buildings as I walked, getting soaked in the storm.
Today, things are very different. This is the fifth year in a row I’ve flown 100,000 plus miles on United by the middle of the summer. I’m not particularly proud of that stat, it’s just one way of making the point that MS isn’t slowing me down. Diane tells me that people ask her all the time how I do what I do and keep the schedule I keep. My first thought is I just do it. Then when I stop and think about it, I recognize that what’s working for me is what I’m always telling leaders will work for them.
It’s all about the routines—physical, mental, relational and spiritual—that will help you live and lead at your best. For me, my core routines have become such a normal part of my life rhythm that I don’t really think about them anymore. You know how you can end up doing stuff so automatically that you just assume everyone else does all of that? Of course, that’s not true but it is true that routines can cut both ways—there are helpful ones and ones that aren’t so helpful.
The early effects of MS really caused me to step back and reassess the pros and cons of what I was routinely doing and open myself up to new routines that could help me get my life back on track. One thing I learned early on was that when you have a chronic illness you have to manage your stress. You can’t afford to live in a state of chronic fight or flight. Doing that makes you less productive in the short run, feel worse in the short to medium run and reduces your life expectancy in the long run.
So, in the hope that this might be of help to some of you who are reading this post, here’s what I’ve learned about life and managing myself in these past 10 years with multiple sclerosis. I’ve organized what I’ve learned and do by the four domains of routines that I share with readers and clients when I teach them how to create and use their own Life GPS®.
Keep moving. Rhythmic, repetitive motion activates your nervous system’s parasympathetic response. Pretty much every positive outcome in your body flows from that activation. I am constantly moving throughout the day and doubling down on that with regular yoga classes, long walks and lifting weights. All of that has increased my strength, range of motion, flexibility and sense of balance. Those are super important factors in living a healthy and confident life whether you have MS or not.
Eat cool. Over the years, I’ve adjusted what I eat and drink to reduce inflammation in my body. There’s a lot of research that demonstrates that chronic inflammation is a big source of disease. My anti-inflammation diet approach is no gluten, very little dairy, lots of plants, no red meat, lots of hydration, and limiting the alcohol to red wine and the occasional gluten-free beer or small glass of really good single malt scotch (Those last two are cheats but I also believe in doing things you enjoy in moderation even if they’re not on the “approved” list.)
Sleep. Research demonstrates that 95% of human beings need at least seven hours of sleep a night to be fully functional in the short run and reach their full life expectancy in the long run. When I learned this, I got serious about my sleep. When I get seven to eight hours a night I feel and perform a lot better the next day, both physically and mentally.
Keep breathing. In 2013, I did a 200-hour yoga teacher training program with a wonderful, highly experienced instructor named Birgitte Kristen. I quickly realized that a lot of what she was teaching us also applied to my work with leaders. I asked her to lunch to get her input on what I should share with my corporate clients. She immediately said, “Breathing. Ambitious people don’t know how to breathe.” She explained that the right way to breathe is deeply from the belly. About the same time, I learned of Nobel prize winning research from Elizabeth Blackburn and her team at the University of California at San Francisco that shows that as little as 12 minutes a day of meditative breathing improves genetic expression. When I heard that I thought, “As someone with MS, why would I not spend 12 minutes a day on breathing in that deep meditative way?” Since then, the meditation app on my phone tells me I’ve spent about 450 hours breathing deeply and intentionally. I’ve found that has lengthened my gap between stimulus and response. It’s made me less reactive and more responsive. There are way fewer things that trigger me than there used to be. I think more clearly and it feels like I make better decisions. All of that breathing has slowed things down in a way that sometimes makes me feel like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. That’s super helpful in maintaining a productive perspective on the ups and downs of life.
Remember: Almost everything is temporary. If there is anything MS has taught me it’s that almost every condition in life is temporary. In my early years with the disease I would feel completely crappy for a few hours and then suddenly feel OK if not pretty good for a few hours. Everything was subject to change. Since then, I’ve learned how to manage myself so I have way more feel-good moments than bad but I haven’t forgotten the lesson that most everything is temporary. It doesn’t really matter whether you like it or not because it’s going to change pretty soon anyway. Accepting that has made life in general much easier.
Enjoy the now. Once I literally got my feet back under me, Diane and I decided that whenever we could, we were going to enjoy and take advantage of the “Aren’t we lucky to be alive?” moments that life presents. My MS diagnosis made us realize that we don’t have any guarantees about how life is going to play out so let’s not wait. We don’t wait to connect. We don’t wait to have that experience or create that memory or touch that life.
Share your secrets. In the first five years after I was diagnosed, we only shared my condition with immediate family and close friends. We were so scared by what MS did to me early on and all of the terrible stories we had heard that we didn’t want people to know what I was dealing with out of fear that my clients might think I couldn’t perform or show up for my commitments. Then, in 2014, I wrote my second book, Overworked and Overwhelmed. I couldn’t have written it without the experience I had had learning how to deal with MS so I felt like I had to share my secret if I was going to be authentic in putting that book out into the world. What was shocking to me was how supportive people were and how much they appreciated me sharing what was going on and what I was learning from dealing with it. It was a huge stress reducer for me (which made me feel even healthier) and also a huge source of connection. One thing about being a human is we all have something going on. I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to deal with your something when you share it. The bonus is that other people sometimes benefit from your story and what you’ve learned along the way.
Read for purpose. This last lesson is one that I learned a long time ago, kind of forgot about and have recently returned to. The volume and availability of news in 2019 makes it way too easy to overdose on the latest headline, tweet or outrage. A recent trip out of the country for business and pleasure made me aware of what I’ve been doing the past couple of years. In two weeks abroad, I didn’t see a single flat screen TV with a “Breaking News” headline in a public space. Here, in the United States, you can’t escape them. For me at least, the news culture was causing me to spend more and more time reading the same story in five different places. Thanks to the trip abroad, I’ve been on a cable news fast for the past month and, boy, do I feel better. I’m reading more books and fewer articles. I’ve found that my new reading habits are generating less stress (always good when you have MS) and providing more impetus and space to reflect on questions of purpose like why am I here and how do I want to contribute. That feels great and I intend to keep doing it.
So, this post has turned out to be way longer than I originally intended. I guess it takes about 2,000 words to process 10 years of life lessons and experience. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for hanging in there and I hope you’ve found something useful. If you did, I’d love to hear what landed with you. In the meantime, remember we all have something going on so, whatever it is for you, know you’re not alone and continue to rock on.