• A Very Personal Journey Toward Slow

    There are five stages of grief and I went through all of them when I was diagnosed with MS in 2002: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and (finally) acceptance. I remember lying in bed in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, hooked up to the corticosteroid drip treating my flare-up, wishing MS was fatal so I wouldn’t have to suffer so long. The thought of carrying this heavy burden through everything I had hoped and planned to do was terrible. Eventually, with the help of some anti-depressants, I realized that my life is going to be long and I would have to find another way through to avoid being miserable.

    In another phase I thought I could fix myself through nutrition, acupuncture, vitamins and herbal remedies. I tried everything because the doctors didn’t have much in their toolkit for me at the time and the pain was not responding to medicine. But even these things didn’t work. I had hoped they would be quick fixes, things done to me, while I remained passive and steadfast in my beliefs about how I was going to live my life.

    I remained passive and steadfast in my beliefs about how I was going to live my life.

    Andrew and I were living in New York at the time and were realizing that the hassle factor of living in the city was not helping me. Things like getting groceries and doing laundry were a hassle and I was struggling with not having enough energy. And we were getting married so it seemed like a good time to move back to Massachusetts. We bought a house, renovated it, moved and got married. And by the time we were through with that I was a wreck.

    I was desperate the day I walked into this new-agey yoga studio. They advertised healing, and although I was skeptical, that was exactly what I needed. I started practicing regularly and for the first time I could actually feel my body before it was outright screaming at me for attention. I realized that I had been living as though I were just a head on a stick, internalizing all of my emotions until I finally got sick. Once that mind-body connection was made I started to trust my intuition and see how if I changed my mindset I could change the way my body felt as well. Instead of trying to fix my body to match my life, I started to fix my life to match my body. Finally I had achieved the last stage of grief: acceptance.

    I was just a head on a stick.

    One of the problems with having MS is that I don’t look sick, and for a long time I didn’t tell anyone that I had MS because I was afraid of how it would affect my career (denial). And since the dominant culture is work-work-work, more-more-more, fast-fast-fast, I didn’t think I had an excuse to slow down, at least not one I could tell people. When our daughter was born I used that as my excuse to cut back one day at work, even though she went to daycare 5 days a week. I had lost my time to rest on the weekends and I really needed it, but still I felt guilty.

    On the 10 year anniversary of my diagnosis I announced to the world, via Facebook, that I had MS. It was such a relief! Finally I didn’t have to carry a secret in addition to the discomfort every day. Now I give MS (and our 2 kids) as a reason for cutting back on work and saying no to things. But what is it about me that I even feel like I need a legitimate reason to slow down? And why do I feel guilty? A psychologist once told me that guilt is overrated. In this case that is so true.

    What are we missing as we race through life?

    I don’t actually believe you need an excuse to slow down. It’s just in my case I am still struggling with whether this was a choice I made or a choice I was forced into. On a good day I am thankful to MS for teaching me very positive lessons that I may not have come to on my own. My life is proof that the fast pace can lead to sickness, both mental and physical, and I believe that many people will come to realize this the hard way over the course of their lives. Not only that, but what are we missing as we race through life?

  • Why I Slowed Down

    My life took an unexpected turn when I was diagnosed with MS in 2002. I had just completed 4 years at the Harvard Graduate School of Design getting my Masters of Architecture. I went blind in my right eye while finishing up my final thesis project. I couldn’t hold the exacto knife anymore to cut the tiny pieces for my model. I chalked it up to burnout and Andrew and my friends helped me finish. After graduation I saw a Neurologist who gave me the bad news. That day Andrew was back at our apartment loading up the moving truck for New York City. I walked out of Health Services, sat on a curb in the middle of Harvard Square and cried. I was 28 years old.

    I spent some time in the fast lane in New York City during college. As a student at Barnard I worked hard and played hard, taking advantage of everything the city had to offer. As an Urban Studies major New York was the subject of all my classes. The possibilities of the city were endless and it sparked my curiosity and ambition. I wanted to experience everything, not just in New York but elsewhere. I studied abroad in Paris, lived in Oslo for a year after graduating and another year in Japan on a research fellowship. Then I landed back in Cambridge at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

    I was hardworking and ambitious – typical type A personality – but the workload and pressure were too much for me. By then end of my second year I was experiencing pain that would leave me breathless. By then end of my fourth year I had my diagnosis.

    The silver lining was that I met Andrew Plumb at the GSD and we have been together ever since. We started our lives as architects together, both embracing the diagnosis, unsure of what it would mean for our lives. Our ambition was unchanged but we had to explore different ways of pursuing it. We did not follow in the footsteps of our classmates going to work for Starchitects at 80 hours a week. We chose firms where we could learn and grow and still lead a calm and quiet life necessary for my health.

    In architecture, long hours are synonymous with hard work. But I couldn’t put in long hours anymore, so I had to find ways to work smarter, not harder. But my type A brain wouldn’t quit so it took more than a decade to reprogram myself. My default had become more, more, more, reinforced by pretty much everything around me. All I had was trial and error and I made plenty of mistakes along the way. You can read more about that in another post.

    You can do anything you want, but not everything you want.

    David Allen has this great quote that has become part of my new life philosophy. He says “You can do anything you want, but not everything you want.” I initially read his book, “Getting Things Done,” to learn how to do more in less time. In my pre-MS years I was all about doing everything and I thought that was the definition of success. I was still in the mindset of more. Instead, the lesson here is about less. It is about learning to focus on what truly matters and doing those things really well. This is the slow approach and it has become my new definition of success.