Tag Archives: new life

Enough

Recently I was introduced to a book that changed my life. First I listened to the audio version, which is generally what I do. But I found the book so powerful on so many levels that I actually bought it. Now it’s full of notes and highlights because I have read it over and over, and no matter where I open it to, I find something useful. It’s called “I Heart Me (The Science of Self-Love)” by David Hamilton, PhD.

I am enough!

(Disclaimer: I have nothing to do with the publishing or creation of this book, nor do I receive anything for endorsing it!)

Basically, the book explains that self worth is about biology and is in our genes, yet somehow we lose sight of it as we navigate our way through life. We seek validation from others, but our worth is within us when we reprogram our brains to acknowledge it.  In essence, the book helps us understand ourselves, learning to be truly authentic and happy, with the goal being the ability to say “I am enough” and truly mean it.

The phrase “I am enough” has become part of my daily intentions (or mantra). Every single day when I write my intentions in my journal, I start off with that phrase, even if I didn’t mean it when I first started doing it. But part of reprogramming our brains, according to Dr. Hamilton, includes repetition of this phrase because eventually we become fully aware of it and we believe it.

Thinking about what my blog would be this week, my MS sister (who actually introduced me to this book) suggested talking about all the reasons that make me feel that “I am enough” even though people with chronic illnesses often can’t recognize these things in themselves for a multitude of reasons.

For example, many of us don’t work because we are on permanent disability. For someone who identified herself first and foremost as a teacher, when I stopped working it was hard to see that “I am enough” when the thing that most defined me was no longer a part of my life. But my legacy remains and because I am still surrounded by so many young adults who have been a part of my life since they were just teenagers, they remind me that I am enough.

This guy right here is just one of the many former students who remain constants in my life. #blessed

This book also taught me that I don’t need people to like me in order to be enough. I spent so many years putting other people before myself and I thought that doing more for them meant they would like me more, and therefore I would be validated. The truth is that validation comes from within and while I love doing for others, I don’t need to in order to be enough. Narrowing my circle of friends to those who truly love and appreciate me is so much more empowering, and no matter how much or how little I give them, I know that I am enough.

These friends never make me feel like I am not enough. #mssisters

As a perfectionist, I was never happy unless I achieved perfection.  This happened in all aspects of my life. Reading this book made me see that I need not be perfect in order to be enough. I learned that only I could see what I perceived as inadequacies and faults because I was the only one holding the microscope up to myself. As promised in this book, moving forward with self-love made the perfectionism fade. I’m not saying I have overcome it entirely but I’m a whole lot better than I used to be.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons that Dr. Hamilton taught me in this book is that I don’t have to look a certain way or be a certain size in order to be enough. Body image has long been an issue for me, and learning to love my body no matter what size or shape, without shame, comes slowly. I had to learn to think outside the stereotype I felt I needed to live up to, and instead focus on the many things I do to keep myself strong. Opinions are subjective and I might not fit anyone else’s ideal, but I am 100% me. Comparing to anyone but myself resulted in an unhealthy feeling that lead to never feeling I was enough, and I am.

It doesn’t matter what i look like. Whether heavier or thinner, I am loved. Sure, I like being thinner like I am now, but I face a lot of obstacles, and regardless of my size I am enough.

Allowing my vulnerability to show has also given me great strength. There is something very liberating about baring one’s soul, and other people appreciate it even if they can’t quite identify it. Vulnerability includes being honest and authentic with ourselves and others, and only then can a true connection be made. Even though we could get hurt in the process, it’s worth it because we learn that even though we are raw and sometimes flawed, we are still enough.

But by far the most valuable lesson this book taught me is that I need to be as compassionate, forgiving, and understanding with myself as I am with others in my life. We are always quick to comfort others when they feel they have made a mistake, but we don’t offer ourselves the same courtesy. I deserve compassion. I deserve forgiveness. I deserve understanding. I am human, too. And I am enough.

Bru always always assures me that I am enough.

This book was no ordinary book for me. What I learned is that it’s very liberating to go through the process of accepting that I am enough. In every way. If you are ready to learn how to accept yourself as enough, the minutia of daily life that normally makes you feel inferior, no longer weighs you down. The progress I have made has not been easy nor has it come quickly. But every day I am making steps to be the truly happy and authentic me that is just waiting to make her appearance. I am not sure the version of me that first listened to this book would even recognize me now, and I’m not even done yet. In the meantime, I can rest comfortably knowing that I am, indeed, enough.

Transformation

It’s that time of year again… the summer is drawing to a close, with everyone taking their last trips down the shore, enjoying the joys that summer always brings, while preparing excitedly for a brand new school year.

At this time every year, I like to reflect upon how insanely different my life (and my attitude) is since MS made the decision for me to retire on disability in May, 2014, after already being on sick leave for all but the first four weeks of the school year.

Back then, I couldn’t imagine my life without the career that had defined me in so many ways, and that I was so passionate about. I considered myself beyond lucky to have a job that I loved, because so many people are not as fortunate. People often told me that I was one of the few people they knew who actually liked her job. And I did. Every damn second of it.

Now that I am a few years removed from the feeling of such a devastating loss for me, I have clarity that I didn’t have before, and gratitude for everything, including the painful, emotional, difficult situation that started me on this part of my journey. I never dreamed that I could ever be in this beautiful place that I currently find myself in, happier than ever, which I could not have imagined when I was still working.

The other day, a Staples commercial came on TV advertising their usual 10 cent sale, and I was brought back to the days when I used to have lists of which retail establishment had things on sale that I needed for my classroom so that I could stock up for the year. I used to get so excited about these things, and now it hardly even phases me. I love that because it shows how much I have grown during the last couple of years.

I’m not saying that I got here without my share of growing pains, but I am saying that I understand it’s all a part of the process. Once I opened myself up to the possibilities of creating a new life, it changed my perception of everything I knew.

What I know now is that regardless of how much I loved my students (and still do!), my own family always needs to come first. I often lost sight of that as a teacher, but I don’t regret it because now I have all of these amazing young adults who make up such a big part of my life, and I love that. I love watching them venture out on their own, doing the adult thing, and spreading their wings to soar.

I also know that taking care of myself is vitally important. When I was working, I overlooked my own wellness in favor of my job and my students. Again, I don’t regret it because of the amount of love and gratitude they gave back to me (and still do), but I know that I am of no good use to anyone if I am not staying on top of my own health and wellness. This includes all the things I have incorporated into my post-teacher life: meditation, yoga, hardcore exercise, acupuncture, reiki, and healthy eating, all of which force me to put myself above all others so that I can stay strong for the long haul.

I remember the days when the weekends meant nothing more than time to grade, write lesson plans, and create dynamic presentations for my classes, leaving no time to actually enjoy spending time being fully present with my loved ones. Once again, I have no regrets about how I lived my career because it’s what the kids deserved and I don’t know how to do it any other way.

But now… now life is better than I ever thought possible. My circle of friends has changed, but in a good way because I am surrounded by other people who take nothing for granted and never waste an opportunity to laugh and smile because we are grateful for the life we are living, regardless of whether we chose it or not. I am more in love with my husband than ever because we have been given this incredible gift of time together. Hell, we even booked a vacation in September, something we have never, EVER done before. Some small part of me still feels like a rebel for doing it, but no matter how much time passes, I guess old habits do, indeed, die hard. But lucky for me, I have worked very hard to help these old habits go by the wayside.

The transformation from Mrs. Rankin to Rennie has not been an easy one, but it is ongoing and I’m getting better at it all the time. I have been transforming my entire world: physically, mentally, and spiritually for the last few years, and my progress has been slow but steady, and that’s ok. I know that as human beings, one of our biggest challenges is having the ability to change according to our life circumstances, good or bad. I’m not going to lie and say that the process has been an easy one, or that I don’t have my moments of weakness, but it does get easier with time and with the determination to live my very best life possible. Rather than crying about the fact that I am not going back to work this week, I am happily wishing my former colleagues the very best of luck as they begin the new school year. Life is, after all, what we make of it, and I am making mine everything I want it to be. So who wants to join me in a glass half full of lemonade?

The sunrise over the Raritan River by Rutgers University, a very symbolic photo at a place that will always hold an extra special place in my heart.

Partner

The other day, Bruce turned to me, and asked me why I always refer to him as my partner rather than my husband.  It’s not that he was upset or angry about it, it’s just that he was curious. And looking back at the many blog posts that include him in any way, I do always refer to him as my partner.

I looked at him and I almost didn’t even know where to start explaining. I mean partner encompasses so much more than saying husband or spouse. By being partners, Bruce and I share every single aspect of our life together.

This is the exact spot where Bruce first saw me walking across campus, and last summer we went back to the scene of the crime!

By simply calling him my husband, no one would know that he is my care partner. He is the one I lean on when I’m not feeling well, and he puts everything else aside for me during those times. He supports me physically when I’m not well by picking up my share of the slack around the house while still working full time. He does this without complaint, knowing that if the roles were reversed, I would do the very same for him.

Calling him my husband doesn’t reflect the depth of our friendship, that started when we were just 18 years old. He was my best bud for years before we started dating, and the history we shared during those years made our relationship much more special when we finally did get together. That’s how I knew it was for keeps because he’s still my best friend. He’s the first one I turn to when I need love and support. He makes me laugh so hard that I cry (and maybe even pee a little bit… but that could be MS too!?), and having him beside me, even if we are just sitting in silence, provides me with the kind peace of mind that calms me to my very core.

Saying that Bruce is my husband can’t possibly do justice to the guy who loved me even when my entire life revolved around my job… and even more when I added graduate school to the mix, taking away more time together from the already limited amount we had. Even when we were spending time together, I was always thinking about school or grad school. I was seldom fully present, but he supported me anyway because that’s what partners do.

Being my partner means that he has chosen to continue on our journey together despite the many obstacles we have faced. Being my partner means sharing the burden equally, and that burden can be pretty weighty at times. But when we each take half, it’s not so bad. Bruce wears many hats in our world… best friend, care partner, husband, fiancée, soul mate, and partner.

A reenactment of one of the very first pictures of us, taken in New Hope, PA.

I can’t even remember what it’s like to not have him as my partner, or when his title evolved to partner. What I do know is that having him as my partner in life has made everything better, including MS and breast cancer. Having him as my partner means I smile wider, love harder, and give thanks every damn day that he is there.

The truest sign of our partnership is that we complement each other so that each of us is better because of the other. With all that being said, it is true that Bruce is my husband. But he is my partner in this life, and being my partner entails way more than just being my husband. Plus, he’s the captain of #TeamRankin… and as we all know, #TeamRankin never loses!

Perspective

This past week I had a few rough patches. One day I found myself telling my MS family, and they all offered me comfort in the same loving way they always do. I thanked them and told them it was all good because tomorrow is a brand new day full of possibilities. Then another day, as we all checked in with each other via text, the norm on days when we don’t see each other, I found myself when asked how I was doing, responding that I could complain but I don’t. It’s not an act or something I put on in front of people, but rather absolutely the true and honest way I live my life.

(MS) Family is everything. My girls, my sisters, my angels. They saved me and showed me how to live as Rennie.

Every day when I sit with my journal and write my gratitude list, it seems to get longer and longer. Obviously I am grateful for the most amazing husband and partner, and the life we have built together. But beyond that, I’m grateful for things most  people don’t even think about… the perfect spring day photo field-tripping with my photog buddies, an awesome workout when my trainer says things like “MS? What MS?”, a body-encompassing hug from the ones I hold dear, doggy kisses (even when I’m frustrated about cleaning up another poop in the house), and even despite MS and breast cancer, I am so incredibly grateful for my health. It is precarious at times, but I have learned to slow down and nurture it, my relationships and how they have changed as a result, and the family I would never have found if I had perfect health!

My sneaky friend Marlene caught me thoroughly making the best of the photo field trip “barn tour” we took last week.

It’s so unfortunate that many people are never given this kind of eye-opening gift… one that comes from a difficult life circumstance but makes you see everything differently. I was that person until MS forced me to give up my beloved career. And even then, it has taken me years of processing and learning how to accept myself in this new light. I genuinely feel lucky for the gifts that I’ve been given through an experience that was the hardest thing I ever had to go through. I will never, ever regret the passion, energy, sleepless nights, and endless piles of work that made me Mrs. Rankin, the teacher, because I have so many beautiful people in my life because of her.

Mrs. Rankin with some of her all-time faves at their very last Walk MS before graduating.

But Rennie, the human being, has learned how to be satisfied with her best effort and she is not (quite as) obsessed with being perfect. She appreciates every moment of every day, whether she is spending time with former students, friends, and family, or spending the day cuddled on the couch with her pups. This girl knows how lucky she is that she has the opportunity to take care of herself how and when she needs without losing sight of that because she always took care of everyone and everything job-related before anything else, including her own wellness. She always sought work/life balance but she just couldn’t make it happen. Nothing could. Except MS.

Yoga has definitely been something I have leaned makes me feel better, and has also helped me get to know who Rennie is. I’m far from perfect, but it is called a practice for a reason!

Fighting a battle against MS is not easy, and certainly made harder when breast cancer was added to the mix. But again, I learned so much about who I could count on as part of my “ride or die” team, and also about myself and my own priorities. What I know for sure is that every single day is a clean slate and offers a whole new set of opportunities for each and every one of us. Instead of dwelling on what I miss about being Mrs. Rankin, I look at how much better it is to just be Rennie. I mean, my students are still growing up in front of me and doing some massively impressive stuff. And I get to experience it totally differently because I am Rennie. I don’t have to wake up at 4:45 in the morning and be within the confines of a classroom to continue my work as a teacher. I can really enjoy nights and weekends without the pressure of the job constantly weighing in the back of my mind.

New possibilities every single day…

Now I’m not saying I was miserable when I was Mrs. Rankin because that would devalue everything I did to be the teacher I was. I loved every second of it, but I just didn’t know how much more I could love life. And I do. I take nothing for granted because there are no guarantees ever.

Life with this guy since I stopped working just keeps getting better and better.

These days I’m smiling a whole lot more, laughing out loud (often boisterously and without fear of being stared at), and definitely loving those who have stayed the course with me much more deeply than ever. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a scare of epic proportions to gain the kind of perspective we all need to live a genuinely happy life. I’ve definitely had my share of these “scares” and oddly enough, I am happy that I have, because I am a better person, in a better place than I ever thought possible.

August

It’s that time of year again. As August comes to a close, the back-to-school photos are slowly creeping in to my various news feeds. This has never been an easy time for me, whether I was full of anxiety preparing for a new school year, or even now that I am no longer working and full of nostalgia for what used to drive me. My emotions are all over the place, and even though I have come to terms with how things have worked out for me, times like this still tug at my heart strings. 

Former students have always remained a huge part of my life, when I was still working, and even to this day.

Former students have always remained a huge part of my life, when I was still working, and even to this day.

This is going to be the third opening of school since I began my disability retirement. It does seem to get easier every year, but I don’t think I will ever be un-phased by it. The first year, I went running to my daddy’s house in Florida to escape, and took myself completely off of Facebook for two weeks. I am pretty sure that I just did not want to see the world (in which I proudly resided for 15 years) go on without me. But it does. Everyone is replaceable at work. EVERYONE. And even though I thought my world would come to a halt, it most certainly has not. Quite the opposite, actually. 

I no longer spend the summer, especially August, in back-to-school mode: decorating my classroom, lesson planning, PowerPointing, re-vamping past activities, creating seating charts, photocopying, and shopping for school supplies. Yet the other day I still couldn’t turn away from a commercial advertising a 12-pack of Sharpies for $3.00! (It wouldn’t have been so bad if Bruce didn’t catch me in the act. Old habits…)

I never imagined that I could exist in a world where I wasn’t Mrs. Rankin, the teacher. My whole life revolved around my “kids” and my job. I remember feeling such intense loss and emptiness, and I felt as if my whole identity was a question mark without that one thing that had always defined me. But in these last three years, I have worked incredibly hard on figuring out who I am without what I had always considered the characteristic that most described me. 

Having been a teacher will always be the one thing I am most proud of in my life, because I was lucky enough to meet and get to know a new crop of amazing students every single year. People don’t become teachers for the salary, but the rewards are priceless. Nothing makes me happier than visiting with former students who are growing up to do unbelievable things as they find their own ways to being productive members of society. 

Three years later, I still find this time of year bittersweet. But I no longer feel like that world goes on without me, because this new world that I have been exploring is fulfilling my soul in completely different ways. For every teacher “friend” (a term used very loosely since only about three of them have proven to truly be friends) that pushed me aside as part of their past, I have been blessed with new friends who have made it clear that they are committed to be by my side in the future. 

I will always miss my students, but I will never miss the way I sacrificed so much of my life (and my energy) for my job. Life is about the loving relationships we build and maintain, and memories we make along the way. Those memories should include the people we love most, and although I loved (and still do) the thousands of students who entered my classroom through the years, I am grateful that my focus is now squarely on me. It might sound selfish, but I spent too many years focusing on others that I lost sight of the most important thing of all: taking care of number one! 

For as much as MS has taken away from me, I have been given many gifts that I never would have been given otherwise. I now appreciate and am grateful for every minute I get to spend with my loved ones, and I never take it for granted. I recognize how fortunate I am to be able to listen to my body, resting when necessary, and making it stronger by dedicating the time (that I couldn’t spare when I was working) for proper exercise. And of course, I will be forever indebted to my MS family, including the best trainer ever, for walking (or hobbling or rolling) into my life and changing it forever, in all the best ways possible. 

So even though I’ll always feel a little pang of sadness at the beginning of the school year, it does, indeed, get just a tiny bit easier as time goes by. There is a reason why things worked out this way for me, even if it isn’t blatantly clear to me at the moment. But I believe that the universe works in powerful and mysterious ways, and things unfold exactly as they should. The only thing I know for sure is that I am a happier, more balanced person now, even despite the obstacles and the circumstances that brought me here. In fact, three years ago, I would have never been able to say, with 100% sincerity, that life is pretty damn good. Today I can tell you that it’s friggin’ awesome…as long as you open your eyes and take a good look around. 

If you open your eyes (which I was always too busy to do), you will see the world a whole lot differently!

If you open your eyes (which I was always too busy to do), you will see the world a whole lot differently!

Half Full

I love my volunteer job for so many reasons. In addition to the administrative tasks that I work on while I’m there, I also get to interact with the patients as they go through the intake and the exit procedures of the office. Though many times I serve mainly as a friendly face on the other side of the desk, there are occasions when I feel I serve a much greater, more important purpose, and often I feel that the patients affect me way more than I affect them. These are the moments that remind me of how far I’ve come, and they are the moments I never forget. 

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One such occasion happened a few weeks ago, when I had the pleasure of meeting a patient I had never met before. This woman has been a long time patient, always coming in with a smile on her face and a positive attitude. She’s also a workaholic and a perfectionist who defines herself by her job. To be honest, she quite reminds me of the old me: the Mrs. Rankin me. 

As a teacher, I was never done, and my work came with me everywhere.

As a teacher, I was never done, and my work came with me everywhere.

Unfortunately, after 23 years of steadfast dedication to her job (as a paralegal), my new friend arrived at the place that no MS patient wants to be. She suddenly finds herself in the position of having to choose between her passion, her livelihood, the one thing she feels truly defines her, and managing her MS on a daily basis. Not everyone gets to this point, but many of us do. For us, just living with Multiple Sclerosis becomes our full time job. 

I sat in my usual seat as I listened to her cry about how she wasn’t ready to stop working, and how much she loves her career. I couldn’t help but go to her, because I was getting emotional myself. In an instant, as the tears began to flow, I was immediately brought back to the moment when I was faced with the very same decision. My heart was breaking for her, and also a little for myself. It’s always frustrating to think that perhaps others won’t understand, because we “look so good”. It’s also scary wondering how will we find our self-worth if we are not contributing to society somehow through our work. Plus, there’s a fear more powerful than anything, that’s always in the background because MS can wreak havoc on us at any moment, without warning. All of that adds up to tears. 

I tried to comfort her as best I could, knowing that it probably wouldn’t help much, but also that I could definitely give her the benefit of my experience. I told her that I was in her exact position three years ago, and that I have no regrets. I told her that everyone is replaceable even if you’re the best at your job. Once you’re gone, there’s always someone else. I told her that she spent the last 23 years working at her job, so now she can spend the next 23 working on herself. I told her that she would eventually stop crying, even though it didn’t feel like it right then. I told her that it wasn’t her fault that her body was letting her down. I told her how much better she would feel physically, without the incredible amount of stress any job places on our bodies, causing symptoms to flare. I told her how amazing life can be when you look beyond your job because only then can you be completely content and at peace. We are, after all, human beings, not just work machines, and how lucky she is to be forced to learn this while still at a young enough age to really enjoy living for a long time to come. 

It really blows my mind how my life has changed in just three years. It’s a short time, yet I’ve come such a long way. I remember how defeated I felt…how utterly devastated. I felt worthless. Like a failure. Like my life was now meaningless. But you know what? I just had to find the true meaning and value without using my profession as a crutch. 

This was my home for many years, and now my world is so much larger than this one classroom.

This was my home for many years, and now my world is so much larger than this one classroom.

Three years later I can be proud of who I have become. I volunteer my time, and I love that I am able to give back in this small way to the medical team that has always taken such good care of me.  I work on my body in ways that make me stronger, even if my nerves are misfiring. I happily enjoy whatever time I get to spend with my loved ones because I am fully focused on them, without the work distraction. I have an entire MS family who loves and supports me 100% of the time. I have so much to be grateful for, and I am now, more than ever, a glass-half-full-kinda-girl. 

MS family love.

MS family love.

Diagnosiversary Redux

In preparation for my blog this week, I decided to read what I had written about my diagnosiversary last year, because I just can’t let June 2 slip by without acknowledging it. I read through the entry, and I realized that on this, the 13th anniversary of my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, I would have written the same exact thing I shared last year on the topic. The feelings I experienced on that day, and during the weeks and months that followed, are still as raw and as powerful as they were 13 years ago. It doesn’t matter how much time passes, telling the story immediately brings me back to that moment in time, so here’s what I wrote last year on year 12. Nothing has changed about that day, except year 13 has brought more challenges, but also many more rewards. 

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June 2 is a very special day for me. It’s a random day, and it probably means nothing to anyone but me (and possibly my husband). It’s an anniversary that does not celebrate a milestone or an accomplishment, but June 2, 2003 is a date that I will never forget. On that day, I was given a diagnosis that undoubtedly has changed the course of my life. 

Every year on June 2, I am brought back to that day, now twelve years ago. I relive the details of the day moment by moment. I remember what I ate for breakfast (oatmeal), and I remember what I was wearing (white and blue plaid capri pants, a blue button down shirt, and white and blue sneakers). I remember stopping at Dunkin Donuts for a large iced coffee (black) on the way to school. I remember the panic attacks. All. Day. Long. I remember that I had permission to leave after my last teaching period so that I could get to my appointment on time. I remember that my appointment was at 2:30, and I remember that Bruce took a half a day so that he could go with me. 

So we got in the car, not talking to each other at all. On the way to the neurologist appointment, we stopped at the radiology office to pick up a copy of the MRI results, just in case the doctor hadn’t yet received them. They kindly folded the paper and put it inside an envelope. In the elevator up to the doctor’s office, Bruce asked me if I was going to open the envelope. Without hesitation I said no way. I knew I wouldn’t understand what was written there, and why not just have these last moments together before the inevitable?

We sat in the doctor’s office, staring at each other, waiting for for him to deliver the news. We didn’t talk.  I was too busy having one panic attack after another to even attempt a conversation. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally heard his footsteps approaching. We heard him pause outside the door, and we heard him pull my chart out of the bin outside the room. Then, to our complete and utter shock, we heard him let out a huge sigh, before knocking once and entering the room. 

The doctor walked in, greeted us, and told us that I have Multiple Sclerosis. From that moment on, it was as if  I was watching someone else’s life unfold. I only heard bits and pieces because my mind began racing. To be fair, I was not yet educated on MS, but at that moment, it felt like I was given a death sentence. We know now that MS is fatal in only the rarest, most severe of cases, yet there was a part of me that did, indeed, die that day. The road ahead of me required a complicated detour that I was not sure I could even navigate. 

We left the doctor’s office in a total daze. Suddenly we were occupying space in a world that was completely different for us, yet for everyone else it was unchanged. In this drastically different world, what did we do? We went to Target. I guess we were searching for some sense of normalcy in this new, unknown world of ours.  We sat in the car afterwards and called our families to share the news. It wasn’t exactly the kind of news I looked forward to delivering, but at least I finally had an answer. After months of appointments, X-rays, MRIs, blood work, evoked potentials, and cognitive and neurological tests, I was done. It’s not what I wanted or expected, but it was something. The phone calls I made on June 2, 2003 were some of the most difficult conversations I have ever had in my entire life.

Following my diagnosis, Bruce and I holed up at home, and didn’t speak to many people other than each other. Some friends called to offer support, and others dropped off the face of the earth. All the relationships in my life were tested, and certainly the dynamic within them shifted. I learned a lot about my friends, and mourned the loss of many who did not know how to deal with my diagnosis. Sadly, this happens with every relapse, but 12 years later, my coping mechanism for that kind of loss has been fine-tuned, and I have built a support system that holds up. 

On this day every year, I take inventory of my life since diagnosis. It has not been an easy journey, but it has been amazingly rewarding in so many ways. Since my diagnosis, I have learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined I could be. Everyone has an inner strength, but not everyone realizes it because you don’t summon that strength until you need it. I have discovered my voice to educate and to raise awareness, and my passion for patient advocacy. These are integral parts of who I am, and without MS I don’t know who I’d be right now. One thing I know for sure is that on my diagnosiversary, I always give thanks to the powers that be for all of the parts of me that MS has made better, and for all the things I am still capable of doing despite the MonSter.  

For 12 years I have acknowledged the importance of my diagnosiversary, and this year is no different.  I’m still grateful for the many gifts I’ve been given, and even though my journey has not always been an easy one, I know that every bump in the road makes me a stronger, better version of myself. I don’t celebrate the anniversary that falls on this day. I celebrate all the things that I have managed to accomplish, all the things I can do, and all the things I am, MS and all. 

Winning

Please take three minutes to watch this VIDEO before reading today’s blog!

Years ago, while I was still working, my principal showed us this video at a faculty meeting. Even though the context in which it was presented escapes me, the power of this video never has. The message is clear, and it can be applied to anything at all. 

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is because lately I haven’t quite been myself. Physically I have been feeling off, which immediately affects my mental state. As if the MS (and the many joys it brings me in the way of obnoxious symptoms) isn’t enough, this allergy season is a brutal one for me. I end up in an endless cycle where coughing causes back spasms, disrupting my already troubled sleep patterns. This then causes me more pain, because less sleep/rest causes my pain to intensify. Spending days on the couch “resting” makes me feel like I’m being lazy, or that I should be doing other things. I know my body needs the rest and I allow it, but it doesn’t do much for the psyche. Even the girl with the perpetually half full glass of lemonade has her moments. As much as I am that girl, I do allow myself the occasional short-lived pity party

The thing is, everyone feels down in the dumps every once in a while. If you don’t, then I admire you, and I’d love to know what your secret is. It’s human nature to  experience all emotions, including sadness. If you don’t experience sadness every once in a while, the happy times wouldn’t be nearly as sweet. What I do know for sure is that the longer you wallow in your self-pity, the more you retreat from everything and everyone in your life. Once that happens, even the smallest of tasks seems impossible, then stress sets in, and all of a sudden you feel utterly overwhelmed. This is yet another endless cycle unless you are strong enough to pick yourself up. 

When I was still teaching, I never gave less than 110%, up until my (unexpected) last day of work. I was awarded "Teacher of the Year" just 2 years before MS ended my career.

When I was still teaching, I never gave less than 110%, up until my (unexpected) last day of work. I was awarded “Teacher of the Year” just 2 years before MS ended my career.

The girl in the video fell due to something outside of her control. Another runner “clipped” her heel, causing her to fall. As I see it, she had two options: lie there on the ground sulking in the fate handed to her, or else pick herself up and do something about it. Isn’t this how we should look at life? Once you pick yourself up from a fall, amazing things can happen. 

No matter what is happening in my life, I do my best to keep smiling. It's not always easy, but it always makes me feel better.

No matter what is happening in my life, I do my best to keep smiling. It’s not always easy, but it always makes me feel better.

In my life with MS now, the running part is just a metaphor. When I fall down (physically OR metaphorically), I know for sure that nothing good can come from it. But when I pick myself up, nothing bad can come from it. There is no such thing as failure when you’re trying your hardest, and you simply can’t compare yourself or your abilities to anyone else. You can’t judge yourself by comparing your own capabilities (or disabilities) to other people or you will never find peace with your station in life. 

Again, I am not saying that you don’t deserve the occasional pity party. But the quicker it’s over, the better your mental state will be, and as we know, stress and negativity will certainly affect MS symptoms. With MS, so many things are outside of your control, why not do your best to take advantage of what you can control? Ultimately, the choice is yours. Are you going to lie down and lose the race? Or are you going to get up and do what you can? You might not win… but then again, you might! 

I didn't win the race, but I gave it everything I had. I ran this 5K on my 9 year diagnosiversary in 2012. Things have changed for me, and I can't run anymore, but I still give my all to everything that I am still able to do.

I didn’t win the race, but I gave it everything I had. I ran this 5K on my 9 year diagnosiversary in 2012. Things have changed for me, and I can’t run anymore, but I still give my all to everything that I am still able to do.

Real Life

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

The quote above is a line from the John Lennon song “Beautiful Boy”, and while I’ve probably listened to the song a few hundred times, on a recent occasion that line hit me in a way that it never had before. I mean I always knew it was there, and I made a note of it and what it meant, but this time it was different. This time it really made me think about Ren’s MS, and how it has affected our lives…in both good and bad ways. The recognition of this song lyric as something more than just that, comes at a time in my life where I’ve been recollecting and reminiscing a lot about exactly how things turned out the way they have for me. I’ve been rehashing moments from my past over and over again for several months now, trying to figure out how I’ve arrived at the place where I currently am in my life. The reasons for the nostalgic period I find myself in are many, but hinge primarily on the worsening of Ren’s condition over the last five months or so, and how it has made me fear for her future. It has been an alternatingly exhilarating and frustrating exercise where I sometimes find myself reveling in my past exploits, and other times greatly regretting the way certain things played out. But the one thing that is abundantly clear to me is how important Ren’s MS diagnosis in June of 2003 was in making me the person that I am today.

This picture was taken when Ren was first having symptoms. She was in so much pain, and there were not yet any answers.

This picture was taken when Ren was first having symptoms. She was in so much pain, and there were not yet any answers.

Prior to the appearance of the first of Ren’s MS symptoms in the Spring of 2003 (that were noticeable enough to not be explained away as something else…since upon further review, Ren had been dealing with the disease for some time), things were very different for us…and not just because we were 13 years younger. Ren was just a few years into her teaching career, and in her first year teaching Spanish at Freehold Boro High School, while I was in pretty much a dead-end job at a failing company that was only about a year from declaring bankruptcy. Neither of us was making a whole lot of money, and while Ren had finally found a career she was passionate about, I was just floating along still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. As I always had been, I was well respected, responsible and very good at my job, but didn’t much care what I did or where I worked. I just didn’t have much motivation to better myself or my career. Work was just a necessity, and as long as I was employed and getting a paycheck I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. To be honest, I was still just wishing that I was back in college, with little responsibility and plenty of time for partying. I did not enjoy being a “grown up” at all, and the anxiety that adult responsibilities brought with them made me a pretty miserable person to be around most of the time. But when the months of doctor appointments finally culminated in Ren’s MS diagnosis on June 2nd, 2003, a switch seemed to go off inside of me. I almost instantaneously knew that it was time for me to grow up. This was not a conscious thing, or calculated in any way, but there simply was no other choice. And I was completely fine with that, because Rennie now absolutely needed me to be the best possible husband I could be…on all levels. At the age of 31, I’d finally found my motivation.

This picture was taken just 11 days after diagnosis.

This picture was taken just 11 days after diagnosis. The Devils’ Stanley Cup run that year helped keep our minds off of what we were dealing with.

I knew I had to better my career situation, but I needed to figure out how. I was working in an IT department as a Crystal Reports developer, but this was a very limited skill set, and from what I was seeing out on the job websites they were not skills that were in high demand. The initial answer was to move into teaching. Rennie had entered education as a 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) career by utilizing New Jersey’s Alternate Route program that allowed professionals without educational degrees to still become teachers by passing the Praxis exam, finding a school that would hire you as an Alternate Route teacher, and then attending and passing Alternate Route classes given by the state that were intended to make you into a “real teacher.” This sounded ideal, as at the time teaching was still a stable and secure profession in NJ, and with Ren showing me the ropes I’d have someone at home who could navigate me through the finer points of being a teacher. We determined that I had enough college credits to become a Social Studies teacher (which was perfect, because that was always my favorite subject when I was in school), and I signed up for the Praxis exam. I then did something that the Bruce of just a year before would never have done in a million years…I studied my ass off for that exam. Every night and weekend for 3 months, I read through the Praxis Social Studies study guide and took enough notes to fill up two three subject notebooks. The hard work paid off, as I aced it on the first try. Now to find a teaching job…but, as luck would have it I wouldn’t have to.

I’d had my resume up on all the job sites for months, hoping to find something that would get me out of the bad situation I was currently in. The company I was working for was at a point where they had scheduled monthly layoffs, and as my department shrank my chances of hanging on for much longer were getting worse. Out of nowhere, a position at a growing biotech company appeared that was an absolute perfect fit for my skills and experience. And it would include a huge pay increase from what I was making at “Titanic, Inc.” There really was no choice other than to take this job, and table the teaching idea for the time being. Everything about it was going to make our life easier, from the commute to the salary, and I could always revisit education if all else failed. But that never happened…it didn’t have to.

Because of how much money Ren and her MS Walk team raised, we attended the Tour of Champions, hosted by the MS Society, in Orlando, Florida.

Because of how much money Ren and her MS Walk team raised, in February of 2009 we attended the Tour of Champions, hosted by the MS Society, in Orlando, Florida.

At this new company I was able to expand my general IT knowledge, and took every opportunity to learn things that I wasn’t even sure I’d ever use again. And when a colleague left the company and I was asked to take on her responsibilities temporarily while they searched for a replacement, I knew what I had to do. She was in charge of financial systems, and being as I was a graduate of the Rutgers School of Business, and had a pretty strong technical background, I felt this was finally my chance to not just have a job but to have a career. I went into my boss’s office and told him outright that I wanted the opportunity to take on her responsibilities (in addition to my own), and to be her replacement. He gave it about five seconds thought, saw that I was dead serious, and agreed to give it a shot. Long story short…I killed it. I became an integral part of the IT and Finance departments, and was lauded for doing an even better job than my predecessor. And when the company was sold, and I had to look elsewhere, I had zero problems finding gainful employment at a large credit card processing company (and I had two other job offers on the table as well). And that’s where I still am almost eight years, two promotions, and a salary I still can’t comprehend that I make later. As Steve Martin said in The Jerk, “I’m somebody now.”

While it’s true that Ren’s diagnosis forced me to finally find the motivation to make something of myself from a career perspective, it also allowed me to reach my potential in other areas. Most importantly, it made me a much better husband. I don’t think I was a terrible spouse by any means, but romance and affection were not my strong suit (I’m still no Valentino, but I try). It also made me fully appreciate the life that Ren and I had built together, and crystalized for me that not only was I married to the most incredible wife I could have ever hoped for, but that she was without a doubt my best friend in the whole damn world. I’ve never been a religious or even a spiritual person at all, but something brought the two of us together all those years ago on the Rutgers campus, and for that I’m forever grateful.

Right after Ren's diagnosis, we tried to get back to what we thought was a "normal" life.

Right after Ren’s diagnosis, we tried to get back to what we thought was a “normal” life.

The moral of the story is simply that Ren’s diagnosis provided me with the perspective to realize my full potential in all aspects of my life. Whether it had to do with our marriage, my job, my attitude about life, or anything else, I simply have become a better person since the day in June of 2003 when both of our lives changed forever. I’m still not or ever will be perfect (no matter what my mother might say…Hi Mom!), but I’m trying my damnedest to get as close to perfection as possible. And I’d like to think that Ren feels the same way about things from her perspective. I think that as lucky as we both knew we were to have each other before MS, Ren’s uncertain future and the realization that we had a major battle with MS on our hands clarified so much for us. We’ve both improved as individuals, which has then improved our relationship even more.

In 2010 we finally took our honeymoon (like Ren says, "we don't do things the way other people do"), MS and all.

In 2010 we finally took our honeymoon (like Ren says, “we don’t do things the way other people do”), MS and all.

I’d do anything in the world I possibly could to make Ren’s MS go away, and for it to never have happened, but then we might not share the unbelievably incredible bond and life we do now. I don’t know that either of us could have possibly believed that our relationship (MS or not) could ever be as fulfilling as it has become, but that’s the way our life just happened to work out…while we were busy making other plans.

Strength

Last week, Bruce was home from work on Wednesday, so I asked him if he’d like to accompany me to my trainer to see what it’s all about. I was pleasantly surprised when he said yes, without even a moment of hesitation. The idea was multi-faceted in nature. I really wanted him to meet the woman who has helped me re-gain control of certain aspects of my life that I had lost after a bad relapse. I wanted him to see “the basement”, my happy place, and the place where so much magic has happened for me. My journey in the basement has been full of triumphs, but also has not been without its share of disappointments. I have laughed (and cried) in the basement, and I have opened up my body as well as my mind there, too.  I wanted him to have a visual of the space where I spend my time working to stay strong for us. Plus I wanted him to get an idea of just how hard I do work, despite my challenges. 

This is the basement. Diane is the boss of the basement and she will remind you of this if need be!

This is the basement. Diane is the boss of the basement and she will remind you of this if need be! It’s also one of my happy places.

I had warned Bru ahead of time that The Boss would not allow him to merely sit and watch, and that he would be expected to workout with us. He agreed, as long as she promised to “take it easy” on him, which she did. 

This is part of "inchworm", Starting from a plank position, walk the legs (without bending them) to your arms until your body is folded, and then walk your arms out until you are back to the plank position.

This is part of “inchworm”, Starting from a plank position, walk the legs (without bending them) to your arms until your body is folded, and then walk your arms out until you are back to the plank position.

As we entered the basement, we quietly said hello and moved over to the treadmill so as not to disrupt The Boss who was finishing up with the client before me. I got on the treadmill to warm up, and Bruce watched in wonder as I did my circles on the treadmill. The rule is that I’m not allowed to hold on with my hands at all. I start off walking forwards, then sideways, then backwards, etc., rotating first clockwise then counterclockwise. I have built up to this point, though. It didn’t happen on day one. I can see why this would impress Bruce, simply for the fact that I have very little feeling from my waist down, and zero feeling in my feet (thank you, MS for that lovely gift!).

IMG_1989.MOV      (click the link to see the video of my circles!)

As Diane finished with her other client, I was wrapping up my warmup and finally my guy got to meet this amazing woman who has helped make my life better in so many ways. We went through a workout where Bruce was challenged to train the way I have, week after week, for over three years now. For every move Bruce did, adjustments (or up-buttons) were added for me (the disabled one) because I work this hard every single week, and even though I’m sure he thought he knew how hard I was working, I was glad that not only could he see that, but also was now experiencing it for himself. 

The natural tummy tuck: pikes on the balance ball. I'm getting better all the time.

The natural tummy tuck: pikes on the balance ball. I’m getting better all the time.

In the end, Bru did great. The Boss was even quite impressed with how well he did, and so was I. But ultimately I like to think that Bruce gained a little perspective, not just on my life but also on his own. Despite the obstacles that MS places in my path, I do everything in my power to overcome them and I know that I am a stronger, more centered person for it. Nothing comes easily but I work my butt off because it’s very important for me to remain strong. Ultimately, the stronger I am, the more quickly I am able to bounce back from relapses, which is a huge quality of life issue. Plus it makes me feel more empowered, even though I know that working out can’t cure MS, it goes a long way towards helping me feel more in control of the things that are way beyond it. 

Superman!

Superman!

I don’t just do it for me though. I do it for Bruce. And for me. And for our future. And to make the most out of this wacky life we share, that definitely isn’t what we dreamed it would be, but that we wouldn’t trade for anything.  

Team Rankin. All in.

Team Rankin. All in.