I am fast approaching 40, an age when people often become reflective, take stock of what they have achieved, perhaps even have a midlife crisis and buy a Porsche. I was diagnosed with MS when I was 25 – I was barely an adult. We had just bought our first flat, we were the proud owners of a cat and a mortgage, we had just started a business – it felt like we were playing at being grown-ups (a feeling that has never quite left me).
Two years after my diagnosis I decided to go part time at work. I think people thought I was weird for going part time at such an early age. Most women don’t choose to work part time until they have a “proper” reason, such as child rearing. However I had an illness to hide behind. I enjoyed my job but not as much as I enjoyed being at home. Interestingly though, if anyone asked me at the time why I had gone part time I would justify it on the basis that I was working hard to set up a business with my husband; I was in effect replacing work with work. This was partly true, I was working hard, but the main reason I reduced my hours is that I felt that life had dealt me a horrible hand and I wanted something in return… a less stressful life.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that stress has an adverse effect on MS. This has certainly been my own experience with some of my worst relapses occurring during or shortly after highly stressful life events. It makes sense to me that extreme mental anxiety makes me vulnerable – it leaves my body exposed and unprotected and my MS can take hold. Last summer I had two massive relapses and stress was definitely the underlying cause. Bereavement, family illness and confrontation took their toll. I could literally feel the stress physically manifest itself in my body. My legs would start by tingling, followed by numbness and they became weaker and weaker until I got to the point where I couldn’t walk. I knew I was stressed and I knew that the stress was making me ill and the symptoms only served to make me more stressed – it was a vicious circle.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do about stress. To quote the lyrics of Ronan Keating (something which I am not particularly proud of doing) “Life is a Rollercoaster”. Life sometimes throws things at you over which you have little or no control – the death of someone you love, the breakdown of a relationship. This is why it is so important to reduce stress in those areas of our life where we do have some control. I try (and sometimes fail miserably) to not worry about the little things – whether I should thinner, more successful, have better hair, wishing I had more money. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my decision all those years ago to work part-time indirectly helped to reduce stress in that aspect of my life. Inadvertently I had stumbled across the concept of quality work / life balance long before Red magazine had started writing columns about it.
The downside of all this stress reduction and downsizing is that sometimes I can feel that my life is small. Small in the sense that I don’t have the high-flying career that my law degree had set me up for; small in the sense that I now live in the same town where I grew up; small in the sense that I am not changing the world in any big way. But is this necessarily a bad thing?
I live in a lovely house in a beautiful part of the world, in a town where you can say hello to people you don’t know on the street without them thinking you have severe mental health problems. My family live close by, I have a wonderful circle of friends. I have travelled all over the world. I can see mountains, lakes and the sea within five minutes of leaving my house. I have a brilliant husband and three gorgeous, healthy and very loud children. I work from home and can choose my hours. I love cooking, cycling, reading, gossiping and growing my own vegetables and I have time to do all of these things.
If I sound a little bit smug then I apologise but I believe it is important to recognise all the good things about your life and celebrate them. My life is a long way from being a Boden advert, the sun isn’t always shining and I don’t have 36” legs but my small life is pretty good and I can recommend downsizing to everyone regardless of whether you suffer from MS or not.