When my MS symptoms first became detrimental enough that I had to notice something was going on that would not go away on its own, I was a single working Mom about to be 40. I taught 3 writing classes at the university, which meant I lugged 75 papers home and graded them every two weeks. I took my 9 year old to cub scouts and martial arts classes. When our cat Cindy who had traveled with us to Idaho all the way from California got hit by a car, I rushed her to the vet. I was chief cook and bottle washer. I went through a room bending and picking up toys and clothes as I went. I carried those 75 papers up and down stairs at home and on campus. I was, in short, the things I did all day long.
Then, quite noticeably, I could not do these things. I could not open the heavy doors to the large halls where the classrooms I taught in were. My legs would buckle unexpectedly under me. I could not move off the couch once I got home. I was too tired to bend over, or remember what I was going to say. But I pressed on until I basically collapsed. I could not see any other way to do it. It felt like I was on a train that was going to wreck, and I had no way to stop it. I was just destined to experience the wreck.
The night I began to see this was inevitable, I was so tired after driving home from Spokane to pick my son up after a trip to California to visit his Dad that I left the car door open on the driveway far into the night. I only knew this was the case because a lone police officer patrolling the neighborhood gingerly knocked on the kitchen door, since he had seen the car door open with its light on. Was I alright? That was a complicated question indeed, but of course I answered yes.
Strangely, that “wreck,” when it came a couple of days after that incident, as with all wrecks, brought me some unexpected and resisted wisdom. For a few months, I could not hold the phone up to my ear for longer than a minute, or lift the frying pan, or write a check without my hand going strangely weak. Whenever things seemed to be improving, in my efforts to keep going, I would martial myself to try and scrub the floor or the tub. I had to learn to recognize the point at which my arms continued to move, because I forced them to, but no cleaning whatsoever took place. So I would have to stop. After a while, I referred to this as “the death of the functional self.” That woman who could walk through a room picking it up as she went was gone. But another woman was still there inside me, who, though less physically versatile, was stronger than I ever could have imagined from the perspective of the one who “functioned” throughout the day. She began to show me things my functional self simply missed.
One of those things was to be able to notice when I was completely out of energy to exert myself. This might be when something was halfway wiped, or not wiped at all, but I had somehow managed to put some things away. She would know to say that’s enough for now. And she was very clever about what would satisfy my functional self, who would never have been satisfied with that’s enough. It sobered that functional self to learn when the diagnosis of MS finally came that the “forcing” she had habituated herself to was the worst thing to do if she wanted to preserve her physical abilities. But as the saying goes, it’s really true that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. So my deeper wiser identity came up with something even more ingenious than this looming threat:
Better Than It Was.
Or, (depending on the context): Cleaner Than It Was.
These two statements became my mottos. And they still are. They allowed me to learn to pace myself while still satisfying that Functional Self that I was making what she considered progress through the daily requirements of life, even if many of them were slowed to a crawl or a downright standstill. Better Than It Was.
Now, though, after 5 years of eating this way, I can also say better than I was. A lot better. All the posts in the category “Little Victories Over Multiple Sclerosis” on this blog, the three whole pages of entries like “The Toaster Oven,” “The Spirit of Thanksgiving Past,” “I Want to Live, ” “Return to Elk Creek,” “Wonder Woman at the Window,” and many others are testament to how I have literally internalized this motto and made it real in my cells as a result of eating low fat, whole food and plant-based.
Though it’s nearly two decades since I was first inspired to say it, it always makes me smile to say better than it was, and helps me let go. I don’t know why it works so well with keeping me on task, but maybe it has something to do with the notions explored in this very interesting article by Doug Lisle on the Forks Over Knives site. It’s about some fascinating findings research has turned up when analyzing self-talk about improving bad habits:
“When we ‘use our willpower’ toward a goal, we can quickly feel guilty and embarrassed if we start to fall short. If, on the other hand, we keep an open mind about what we might accomplish, we feel like any positive moves we make are getting us ahead of expectations and thus are “wins.”
This makes the process of doing things better (diet, exercise, saving money) a source of pride. We are ’getting ahead…better than we thought.’ ”
Those are my italics and my bold print, but there it is. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks better than it was is more effective self-talk than I better do it (or else). I think of this article often, especially when I am having trouble making a decision about what to do next. It gives me the wiggle room I need to be patient enough to honor my process and keep the improvements coming.
Last Summer when I was journaling on the McDougall discussion board, I shared that this was my motto. I was delighted one Fall evening when a dear friend on the board who is a magnificent middle school teacher posted a photo of my motto she had placed above the door to her classroom. She wrote:” This is the last thing that the students see on their way out the door and I now ask them, “How is what you were working on or learning today?” They point to the sign and read it. If they cannot say that, I tell them to work on improvement next time.”
And I wrote back:
“Oh, THANK YOU, for this wonderful photo of “Better than it was”!! You made my day. (I just spent an hour trying to return a box of defective biodegradable dog waste bags to Amazon, so you see how this puts everything into the proper perspective.) Bless wonderful you and your wonderful students, many times over.”
And so today I share that wonderful photo with you, and invite you to celebrate whatever in your life is better than it was. It really does put everything into such lovely perspective. Even defective biodegradable dog poop bags.