Close your eyes for a few seconds, and imagine the type of person I will describe to you.
It’s someone who has Samuel Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” personality. Trying to bend negatives into positives. Seeing cause and effect in an ever expanding circle. Someone who 95% of the time, will not throw in the towel or run away because it’s the easiest solution. Perhaps a “mens sana in corpore sano” person, Latin for someone with a sound mind in a sound body. A non-drama queen (or king). It’s not someone who wants to be one tough cookie, it’s about being a whole tin of tough cookies.
Perhaps you are that tin of tough cookies, or you strive to be one of the cookies within the tin.
You could call Beckett’s quote the prequel to the famous Alexandre Dumas quote, “Nothing succeeds like success”. Done wisely, aspiring to be the best person you can be every day is not a dirty sin. It’s what makes you work harder, study more, meet more new people, or just live better. It’s also what presidents and Olympic athletes are made of, or how ingenious artists created wonders of the ancient Greco-Roman, medieval and modern world.
Still, ambitious people sometimes get tagged negatively for reaching for more, as if having faith in their own abilities, promoting and wanting to enhance them is a sin. It’s anything but sinful however, as having faith in yourself creates that kind of poise that makes you see positivity where others might see negativity only.
You see, the human mind is an incredible force of nature and nurture, and has developmental, evolutionary, psychological, physiological and many other imprints. When Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC–ca. 370 BC) thought that “sorrows, pains, griefs and tears, thinking and our senses” were “located in the brain, and in the brain alone”, he believed that the brain was the interpreter of the consciousness.
Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC) was the first to suggest that “Man is born with a blank slate” (devoid of knowledge, e.g. tabula rasa) on which experiences and perceptions are written to form the mind (concept traditionally attributed to John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689). Since then, many have tried identifying the mind, its location and what it stands for, as well as trying to define its relationship to the brain.
Whilst an enormous amount of new understanding and research has happened since Hippocrates, Plato or Aristotle, and a lot of new research fields have been created, we are often still stuck within our own mind, wondering what the hell is going on. We love, grow, heal and discover things about ourselves and others, but many times we are still none the wiser.
Just think of these three ideas for a few seconds. Nature or nurture? Not being able to love others before you love yourself? Having a successful mind before you can be successful? The (possible) answers are not formed in your big toe, or in your spleen. It all happens in the top department of your physical body, your brain.
In other words, your brain wants you to have your mental files somewhat in order if you want/need to function. If you put your mind to it, with the right set of moral rules, you really can be or do anything you want to.
Because we don’t see things as they are – we see them as we are – when it comes to the mind and the brain, I’m a strong believer in the power of the un- and conscious mind. Our conscious mind can kick-start the unconscious into action as it can influence negative thinking patterns, change bad habits and/or improve your emotional and physical health. You can be the chief of your unconscious mind, and tell it that it cannot control you. Even though the unconscious mind has the power to dominate, and it may think it knows anything, your conscious mind is smarter.
Eventually, the conscious mind has the will, and the unconscious mind has the power. Willpower can be just one of many positive results of a harmonic relationship between both. When it doesn’t, you feel out of balance. When need be, so, you can change your life by being in charge of your own mind.
While I know it will never cure a purely physical illness like MS, it’s quite important to mentally take charge of your chronic illness. Some days, it can be part of the battle won when pain, fatigue, people or other issues drag you down. Anyone who lives with a chronic illness will tell you it’s not an easy ride, and that it sometimes feel like a rough, never-ending battle. There are many ways of coping, like building yourself up in such a way that a new outlook on life partly diminishes physical issues.
I apologise for the poor subject choice, now, but that case study happens to be me.
I just turned 42 physically, but currently there is no physical energy left in me, so I’m dragging a rundown body around everywhere I go. Mentally I also feel 42 years old at the moment, when I usually feel like an eternal 25 year old in my mind. Because of MS-related Uhthoff’s Phenomenon, and living with a vast amount of stress as well as chronic pain, it now has me down at the age of a physical 72 y/o. Seventy-two is in my recollection a near-Wimbledon-title, and absolutely not an exaggeration of the facts.
With all this in mind, I needed to weatherproof myself against flare ups because my already upset sleep patterns have turned savage. I am physically so tired that after changing bedsheets and a shower, I am literally too tired to dry myself after the shower. No matter how hard I try, picking up the towel, lifting it to shoulder-height to dry my pixie haircut is physically too hard to do, and anything but funny.
The first time it happened, I was angry at my illness.
The second time at myself.
The third time, my usual happy disposition kicked in. I thought, “Mind you, standing here, letting my body air-dry during the summer isn’t a bad idea at all because it sure saves me doing all that bathroom laundry, but my skin does take rather long to dry, especially between my toes!” And in the meantime, a continuous mantra goes on in my mind, “I’m strong, I’m capable, I deserve the least amount of negativity.”
Point being, whatever needs to be done to return to a 55 to 60% state of being, is done at super-snail-mail-speed. Or not done at all. Dishes have to wait, and sleeping in my current pillow and bed sheets a few days longer will not kill me, especially since they’re changed and near boiled in my weekly laundry as is.
Scientific evidence clearly shows that stress plays a major role in MS relapses, so I’ve also been trying to avoid such situations the last few months, as my body reacts aggressively to stress. My worst MS symptoms kick in first, i.e. trigeminal neuralgia (facial pain; experts say trigeminal neuralgia is the most unbearably painful human condition), followed by other left side chronic pain, so I’ve been locked in my bedroom trying to sleep it away as much as possible. No wonder my top-floor facility is having continuous fights… “No can do,” says the brain. “Yes you can,” says the mind… “Oh yes you can!”
Is there is a big difference between mind and brain, so? Absolutely, and it cannot be told in an easier to understand manner when my own affliction is an illness of the central nervous system, i.e. brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. You can take it quite literally so. Regardless of any illness, though, bending some negatives into positives doesn’t always require a psychologist or pills. One of the easiest ways might still be the old pen and paper trick.
Sit down with a piece of paper, your tablet or smartphone, and write down your goals in present-tense and in as much detail as possible. Then, list your qualities, even the ones you feel aren’t really qualities. It can be your ability to always bounce back after a relapse, walk to the pharmacy, not really minding the noise your children make or even the cake that came out of the oven a little black, but still tasted well… Examples are legion.
Because of the severity of your diagnosis, you likely have more empathy for other people’s bad tidings also. In 2015, with financial crises, families breaking up, loss of jobs and whatnot, that empathy is more than needed. Multiple that by how long you’ve been living with your illness. Result? You are a very capable, strong person, and so much more than you give yourself credit for.
Every morning and every night, read your list a few times, as eventually it will all add up. Your conscious mind gives your unconscious the task to change your outlook on life, and it is slowly being bent into thinking you’re a champion within your own league, Superman/Superwoman if need be, tights absolutely optional.
The beauty is this: the brain in fact doesn’t really know the difference between your mind’s visualisation and reality. And therein lies the power, not the slightly negative connotation of wanting-to-be/do-something, but the positivity of having or being it already. If need be, fake it ’til you make it!
Of course, I’m not claiming a new get-fighting-fit-in-less-than-a-day-strategy. You also need a healthy dose of facts and understanding of your own abilities to see if your goals are reachable. Don’t put yourself through the same anguish as some have before, or lead to believe by well-meaning people that goals are quite reachable.
Conclusion of my own case study subject? Samuel Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” still stands, as I am not a superstar, and I can’t, don’t or won’t turn things into gold. More than often things fail to turn silver or bronze. I make mistakes, and like Beckett I’m always prepared to fail better.
In the end, the brain may have your MS, but your mind has you.
All of you.
Neurologically challenged by MS and personally by her will to succeed, Willeke is a disability awareness advocate seeking to improve neurological services in Ireland. By highlighting difficult issues that come with a MS diagnosis, she hopes her words and tenacity can bring justice to people most in need of a modern, inclusive healthcare system that looks after every aspect of life.
©Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me, 2011-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.