What My Mother's MS Has Taught Me About Emotional Intelligence

Jordan Gross

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For most, New Years is a celebration of new beginnings. For most, it is a positive, fun-filled day with family and friends. But, for us, January 1st, 2004 did not provide for this type of experience.

“It’s probably just a pinched nerve. Mommy will be back to her normal self in no time.”

I remember my grandma telling me this years ago when her and my grandfather came over for an impromptu babysitting visit on a frigid New York winter day.

There was much speculation that day, more phrases like the one above.

“Maybe she tweaked something in her sleep, maybe she is just exhausted, maybe she is dehydrated.”

Friends and family were coming in and out of the house to ensure my brother and I were well taken care of while mom and dad were at the hospital, and people wanted to presume the best-case scenario.

Nobody mentioned Multiple Sclerosis as even a possibility for what ma was going through.

But, after dozens of tests, countless needles, and trips back and forth to the hospital and neurologist, the diagnosis was clear.

Mommy was diagnosed with MS, and she would not be “back to her normal self” ever again.

The fact of the matter was however, to a young child at the time, she did seem like she was her normal self. She talked the same, acted the same, cooked the same, and did all the same things, except her walking seemed a little funny. She now walked on a bit of a diagonal, was slower, and had to take a few more rest breaks. Other than that, mommy was to me, her normal self.

Put simply, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, often debilitating disease of the Central Nervous System that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and the body.

In non-science terms, as much as ma wants to feel and act a certain way, her brain is often unable to relay that information to her body, so her motor functions are impaired, her thoughts are often impaired, and this can take a huge toll on not only her physical health, but also her mental health.

I didn’t understand any of this at the time of her diagnosis, but as I got older and matured, as I watched this disease impact her day-to-day life, I became more aware that although on the surface she seemed like she was the same mom, there were inexplicable and incurable happenings going on inside her body that prohibited “normal” daily function.

But, if there is a positive takeaway from seeing my mother battle this crippling disease every single day of her life, it is the mindset, emotional intelligence, persistence, and genuine appreciation for this fragile life with which I have become much more aware.

The lessons I have learned from my mom are infinite, but I have broken them down into 9 of the most important ones.

1. Do Not Take Basic Pleasures for Granted

My mom loves to go shopping. I do not. But, I often accompany her on a shopping extravaganza through the local mall, sifting through tops, trying on shoes, and oohing and aahing at jewelry.

We were walking down one of the never-ending aisles at Bloomingdale’s and I foolishly was a few paces ahead. To the sound of a ghastly shriek, I whipped my head around, looked back, and saw my mom on the ground, grasping at her ankle.

The toe of her right shoe hit the ground before her heel, and she tripped. She got away from this one unscathed, but this is sadly not a rare occurrence. She has suffered twisted ankles, sprained feet, and broken ribs due to falls just like this.

Although she knows exactly how she should be walking, and she fights to do it every day, sometimes her body does not cooperate with what her brain is telling her.

We must be grateful for and actively appreciate the little things in life.Walking, such a simple act 99% of the world does mindlessly, is a daily obstacle for my mom.

Take a moment to realize and understand just how lucky you are. There are thousands of things we overlook each day that may be more difficult for others. Being mindful and aware of these simple tasks is tremendously important in living a gratifying life.

2. Patience Is More Than a Virtue

My family and I just took a trip out of the country. Flying is a common anxiety-inducing experience for many, but for my mother, the complexity of the airport experience adds a whole new beast to her already eager mental state.

In particular, the security line is not an enjoyable place for somebody who does not move quickly, whose legs do not work as well as others, and whose instinct is to not agitate others.

After carefully taking her shoes off, getting her electronics out of her bag, and removing her jewelry, I looked back at the eye rolls of the people behind us in line.

By just looking at her, you would never know my mom had MS. But, that is why we cannot judge another person until we have walked a mile in her shoes. The people on the line were unaware of her condition, so she was met with head shakes and dirty looks from impatient onlookers.

But, this is when I realized how important it is to be patient with people.There was no possible way for my mother to expedite her process on the security line. It was out of her control, out of my control, so I just had to let it be.

People who are patient, people who take things as they come, people who enjoy being in the moment rather than those who are immediately looking at what is next, are so much more pleasant to be around. My mom’s pace has taught me to control my own life, take it one step at a time, and be wary of other’s tempo as well.

3. Do Not Confuse Persistence with Stubbornness

“Mom, can I just open that jar for you?”
“Mom, can I just clean up the rest of the table for you?”
“Mom, can I just walk the dog for you?”

The answer is always a resounding,

“No.”

My grandma always tells me that my mom is stubborn as an ox, much like her father was. I thought this was the case, but now I see it differently. The majority of the time, my mom is not refusing help because she is being stubborn, but rather, she is refusing help because she wants to do and complete things on her own. She still wants her sense of independence, she still wants to prove to herself that she can persist and get things done.

Unless efforts are absolutely futile, the way we can help others grow best is by allowing them to do things on their own. One of the greatest gifts we can give others is to make them think better, work harder, and discover for themselves what we know they can learn.

The next time you believe somebody is being stubborn, ask yourself if they are being stubborn or if they are genuinely trying to persevere and accomplish something that truly matters. If the answer is the latter, let them be.

4. Then Again, Do Not Be Embarrassed to Ask for Help

When physical health is in jeopardy, asking for help is a necessary and mandatory action.

We were participating in the MS Walk for charity, and on a hot day in a humid national park, it was not an ideal environment for walkers who actually had MS.

Ma’s resilience pushed her about a mile of the way through the trail, but that was all her legs could handle. She stopped as hundreds passed her by, and she called the emergency tent, who sent a golf cart to pick her up and take her the rest of the way.

As gritty and determined as she is, it is still imperative for her to understand that she does have limits, and when those limits are reached, she needs others to assist her.

For me, it has given me the confidence to admit when I am at a standstill. I use her as an example to remember that as much as I want to figure things out on my own, other people are essential to my growth and development.

For you, it should be a reminder to be cautious about how far you can push your limits. Know your threshold, then use others to help push you beyond it.

5. Think Two Steps Ahead

After years of living with a woman with MS, I have subconsciously turned into a planner when it comes to her, rather than the spontaneous, spur of the moment kind of guy I can be when I am alone.

When making dinner reservations, I’ll call up the restaurant and see if there are any stairs. If so, how many? Are there any tables that allow her to not have to encounter the steps?

Because I make it my duty to understand what my mom experiences, I am able to connect more with her needs and help make things as easy as they can possibly be.

When interacting with anybody, planning something with any other person, empathy and adaptability are of utmost importance.

What can you do to make their lives easier?

The other person will always remember you if you think this way.

6. Own Your Differences

On family trips in the past that included hills, mountains, and bumpy terrain, I have had to wheel ma around in a wheelchair. Not only does ma embrace being in a wheelchair, she owns being in that wheelchair.

Obviously, she puts up a fight before having to spend her entire day sitting and being wheeled around, but once she accepts that her physical health is her number one priority, she shifts her mindset. She is now content with her situation and begins to think about how she can maximize the experience.

Always thinking about the people around her, she used the wheelchair to help my dad, brother, and me with carrying things throughout the trip! She made sure the wheelchair had space to hold necessities, and she was the first person to offer to hold things on her lap when we no longer wished to carry them.

Acceptance and awareness are the key attributes here. It becomes much easier to enjoy the present moment if we accept the current situation, are aware of our surroundings, and take full ownership of the experience.

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Laugh at Yourself

We pulled up to the MS Walk parking lot one year and were disappointed to not only see no spots close by, but also, no spots really at all! As we slowly and cautiously drove through the parking lot, my brother saw a security guard and said,

“Hey, maybe if we tell them you have MS, they’ll give us a good spot!”

My family burst into laughter, especially my mom. You see, MS is a very serious disease, but that does not mean my mom is always going to act as so. She knows how to not take herself so seriously and approach the situation with a sense of humor.

Laughter and smiles can truly transform the mood around any circumstance.Understand your audience, analyze the scenario, and if it lends itself to a good joke, do not be afraid to emphasize your comedic side.

8. Not One Day Can Be Overlooked

In the middle of each day, anywhere between 3pm and 7pm, I ask my mom the same question:

“How are you feeling today?”

Then, at the end of her night, before going to bed, my mom asks herself,

“How did I feel today?”

Each day, she is constantly aware of exactly how she is doing and how she is feeling. She has to because there are updates she has to provide for her doctor, daily regimens she must adhere to, and medications she must administer if her health deviates from her norm.

As individuals, this can be tremendously beneficial. If we set out to maximize each day, to be better today than we were yesterday, there is so much more we can achieve. And in guiding other people, if we are holding them to this same standard, keeping them accountable to compete against themselves, we will make them that much better as well.

9. Don’t Argue, Understand

In my opinion, the most important book ever written was Dale Carnegie’s,How to Win Friends and Influence People. I incessantly apply his teachings in my life, but with a mother-son relationship especially, there is one lesson that trumps all others.

As much as my first reaction may be to argue, I always first attempt to understand. I never try to “win” disagreements because those efforts are futile. Rather, my goal with any sort of discord in opinion is to give both sides a fair chance.

With MS, ma’s mood changes from day-to-day. Sometimes she wakes up and is feeling great, sometimes not so much. If on those not so much days she wishes to project some of her frustrations onto me, this is when I deploy this don’t argue, understand principle.

Arguments only lead to tension, hurt, and worst of all, grudge. I tend to avoid conflict, as healthy as it may be, by understanding and internalizing before reacting. This will aid in the “walk a thousand miles in her shoes” mindset we must have to best evaluate every situation.

Final Thoughts

On the 15th anniversary of her diagnosis, my mom was up and out of her lounge chair in Aruba, asking me to go for a walk rather than lay around and do nothing. That is just the person she is, pushing her boundaries, testing the limits of her physicality and her willpower.

From what I have learned from her, I was quick to agree to that walk. I know it is something that will make her feel good, feel proud, and triumph over her disease. This walk is a daily luxury that I will never again take for granted.

And although our path may be slightly diagonal and slower than once before, it is a walk with immeasurable meaning, a walk I will never forget.

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Reimagining Personal Development

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