Friday, March 25, 2016

Happiness is a Choice

Easter is a time for rebirth, reminder and renewal. This week (Holy Week, no less) I was reminded of a very important lesson. My work as a freelance writer brings me into contact with a lot of inspiring people. This week I was assigned an article about people with Parkinon's Disease. I've written many tories about people with chronic, debilitating illnesses, and I am always — without exception — humbled by the experience.

The ability for people to transcend their physical and emotional challenges is quite impressive. Of course, the people who are chosen to be interviewed for these magazine articles are highly-functioning, inspirational people, or they wouldn't be selected. And I'm sure there are a lot of people with chronic illnesses who are bitter, angry and miserable. I don't fault them. But to find the good in a really crappy diagnosis, is a lesson I need to be reminded of time and again, because I could find myself in a similar situation at any moment. None of these people set out in life with the knowledge that they would develop Parkinson's Disease. They were ambitious, young, hopeful, strong people who wanted everything that I want out of life. And for some reason that is beyond all scientific comprehension, at some point  in their lives, their brains began to conspire against them.

This week I interviewed a woman who was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkison's at age 27. At that time, she was newly married, pregnant and had just realized her life's dream by completing her medical training. Although she knew the prognosis was unavoidable, for the first ten years after her diagnosis, she lived in denial of her disease. "It wasn’t a conscious decision," she told me. "It was a defense mechanism and avoiding the subject, of not thinking too much about it."

She had two more children and continued to work full time. But as time went on and her symptoms became more severe, she had to face the hard, cruel reality of her condition. She was angry at the situation. At first, she felt that Parkinson's was robbing her of her career and vision of her life. She started to become bitter and pessimistic.

And then, something wonderful happened: Awareness. She saw herself becoming a person she didn't want to be and who she didn't even like. She made a conscious shift in perspective. She could not control her Parkinson's and its symptoms. "Between stimulus and reaction there’s a moment in time when you decide how to react," she said. "That could be applied to life itself. I had no choice about having Parkinson's. I wouldn’t wake up one moment with my symptoms gone. I wouldn’t wake up with the lack of tremor and pain. But it was up to me to how I faced this diagnosis. Denying it was my choice and looking at how to optimizing my life despite the disease and embrace optimism again was also my choice."

This lovely mother of three and highly skilled physician chose optimism. She chose to control the one thing that she could: the way she thought about her disease. Rather than see it as the enemy, this amazing woman began to see all the gifts she'd been given by Parkinson's. "I could focus on the fact that I had to leave a career I loved and that there will be difficult times ahead," she said. "Or I could focus on the fact that now I have more time with my husband and my children and as an patient advocate. I honestly believe this is where I’m supposed to be right now. My purpose is defined and I’m willing to take it on."


It's never easy to accept the difficulties in life. When I whine because my son loses a tennis match, or an editor asks for a rewrite, or I have to have a tooth ache, none of these things seem inherently "positive." But understanding without a doubt that no event is ever 100% "bad" does invite me to find the "good" in any circumstance. I honestly think the difference between happy, successful people and unhappy, unsuccessful ones is the ability to accept both sides of any given equation and not reject the side that doesn't seem to benefit them. In fact, it's the side that seemingly is a detriment where I often find the most value. Loss leads to greater determination. The re-write leads to greater skill. Physical pain and discomfort lends itself to heightening compassion for those who experience persistent pain. And the more I practice seeking an optimistic viewpoint, the easier it gets. I build up my "find the good" muscle. The momentary disappointment will pass, but how I react to it and experience that moment can live on as I transform more and more negative experiences into valuable opportunities.

If that mom with Parkinson's can do it, surely I can try.


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