A couple of decades ago I had an experience that has become something I reference to keep myself moving forward when times get tough.  It was a defining experience for me because I handled a difficult set of circumstances mostly on my own for the first time in my life.  I had moved many miles away from home to a new place with my husband of a couple years and we had no income.

Over 30 years ago I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).  When it happened, I was clueless about the disease.  I had been physically active my whole life and was suddenly knocked down by something mysterious.  I started to notice it on my first day of orientation in graduate school.  A headache accompanied by small blinking lights marred my vision as I watched the business school deans outline the challenges we were to face in the 2-year program.

Shortly afterward I went to the student health center to see if they could help me with my symptoms.  They ended up referring me to a private physician who ultimately diagnosed me with Multiple Sclerosis.  It was in the time between my initial symptoms and recovering from the actual disease and the diagnostic tests that I experienced my most impactful thinking.

One of the tests they used to isolate the problem was a spinal tap.  The test itself wasn’t so bad, but the after effects were unbearable.  I ended up with a spinal headache because the hole where they took the spinal fluid for the tests didn’t seal as expected.  The pain was excruciating if my head was elevated even a quarter inch.  No pillow, no support, but lots of pain while I waited for the hole to heal.   I laid on my back for a week to minimize the pain.   Anything that required elevating my head for any period was difficult to do.  Eating, bathing, studying, anything.

I remember the dirty, scratchy green shag rug on the living room floor where I rested on my back for a week.  It was my only alternative to laying in bed, 24/7.  I had the ceiling memorized in both the bedroom and living room.  While I experienced many different emotions as I lay on my back, there was an overwhelming sense of peace that seemed to pervade the many feelings I sorted through.  My feelings ranged from anger and frustration to sadness and despair.  I was just starting out my adult life, yet I found myself debilitated in ways I’d never experienced before.

It was during that week I made a promise to myself to somehow move past whatever was incapacitating me.   I wouldn’t call it a prayer or pleading, but more of a statement.  Defiance maybe.  I didn’t want the illness, whatever it turned out to be, to define me.

I dreamed of getting back out on my bicycle.  I spent many days riding in the mountains of Colorado where I grew up.  I even raced for a period. Energetic and healthy again, I imagined myself racing up the mountain and gliding down the other side, the air chilling my face the faster I rode.   It became my vision for myself.  The confinement and inability to do much of anything forced me to get outside via my thoughts.

Thirty years later I can see a theme of defiance or quiet non-compliance winding through many of my life experiences.  It is in stepping up, stepping forward and stepping through that’s kept me from wilting in the most difficult times.  Today I can now see how my thoughts have had a significant impact on the life I’ve led and the life I choose to have today.  The diagnosis of MS and living with the disease has become an important part of who I am today, but it does not define me.  I define me.

It seems simple to think about what you’re thinking, but I’ve learned and continue to learn – my thoughts matter.  I’ve spent many hours thinking about why I ended up with MS and now realize the more relevant question is, ‘What does it mean to me to have MS?’  In answering that question for myself, I can see how the disease has helped me grow up, value what I can do to help myself and most importantly, know I can succeed at whatever I choose to do.

What do you think about?  Are they thoughts that empower and enable you or are they thoughts that limit you?  Take some time to listen to yourself.