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Taming My Inner Drill Sergeant

By Lisa Doggett, MD

Get up now and exercise! Lying in bed is lazy. . . . And how did this room get to be such a disaster? It’s shameful. That plant over there in the corner looks terrible. When was the last time you watered it? You’ve got to get your act together this weekend.

My inner drill sergeant begins her tirade early in the morning. She won’t shut up, even as I pick up my phone and scroll through new messages.

Speaking of messes, your e-mail situation is out of control. Your inbox is going to explode. I mean, get it together!

On and on she goes. To escape her lecture, I’ll get up and work out, usually by heading outside for a morning run or pounding away on the second-hand Stairmaster in my laundry room.

Believe it or not, my inner drill sergeant has chilled out over the years. In 2009, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). A self-proclaimed health nut and busy family doctor, I was shocked to learn that, at 36, I had developed a chronic neurologic disease, known to be a leading cause of disability in young adults.

Suddenly, I had to take better care of myself. To lessen my dizziness and other MS symptoms, I had to reduce stress, get enough sleep, and reconcile my ambition and drive for perfection with the reality of having a chronic disease. Many of us with MS or other chronic conditions have to make peace with uncertainty because we don’t know how or when our disease will evolve.

Over time, having MS has helped me to suppress the drill sergeant and sometimes have a little self-compassion. But I'm still a work-in-progress.

I reviewed a section of my upcoming memoir, Up the Down Escalator, with a writing partner recently. I had written about how my return to work after my MS diagnosis helped me stop my "self-absorbed wallowing."

"What? 'Self-absorbed wallowing?' You're being way too hard on yourself," my writing buddy said. "You had just been diagnosed with MS. . . . You wouldn't treat a patient that way—or a friend."

Of course not. I hadn't even realized I was being harsh. But she was right. After my MS diagnosis, I should have allowed myself to feel disappointment, despair, even to "wallow" without this hypercritical inner judge telling me to hurry up and get over it.

I'm not going to psychoanalyze myself to get at the root of my commandant mentality. My drive to work hard has helped me achieve important goals and feel a sense of purpose. But I am learning to gently push back against regular self-criticism. MS is an extra good reason to cut myself some slack. I can befriend and cheer myself on with a more congenial tone: I'm doing enough, I have enough, I am enough.

So many of us live in a state of constantly being overwhelmed. We are juggling family needs, work, social obligations, and a society that never seems to slow down. Like me, you may have serious health issues. Nearly all of us have something to deal with that feels like it is Too Much. Most of the time, we are doing the best we can.

So I have embraced a new mantra: I can only do what I can do.

Self-compassion does not need to mean self-indulgence. Even when I want to, I don't skip my workouts or binge on Ben and Jerry's. But it's a new mindset, and it's helped me create small rituals that brighten my day: I light a candle at my desk. I take short walks around the block between conference calls. On Wednesdays after my run, I go to Caffe Medici for a chai latte, and I pick up tacos for my kids. On afternoons packed with meetings, I treat myself to dark chocolate. With rare

exceptions, I don't work on weekends. On infusion days, when I get the MS medicine that keeps me healthy, I pack snacks, listen to good music, and wear fuzzy socks.

I still spend too much time in my home office, on video calls, reviewing reports and spreadsheets, or plowing through e-mail. I feel guilty that I'm not working hard enough and then guilty that I'm not spending enough time with my family. But like everyone, I'm stuck with a 24-hour day.

So, I’ve decided I’ll be a little less conscientious. I will lounge in bed for an extra ten minutes in the morning. I’ll do a short meditation practice. I’ll ignore some e-mails. I will take my dog to the garden in the morning and start work 15 minutes late.

And in rare moments, I may even be grateful I have Too Much, to live a life that is stuffed with activities and projects and even interruptions.

It is OK. I'm doing enough, I have enough, I am enough.

About Lisa Doggett, MD

Lisa Doggett, MD, MPH is a family physician and author of a new memoir, Up the Down Escalator: Medicine, Motherhood, and Multiple Sclerosis. A seventh-generation Texan, Lisa grew up in Austin, where she developed a strong commitment to public service under the influence of her father, U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, and her mother, Libby Doggett, a nationally known advocate for children and families. She attended Amherst College, Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of Texas School of Public Health. She completed her residency in family medicine at the University of Cincinnati. Returning to Austin in 2002 with her pediatrician husband, Lisa practiced medicine for several years at People's Community Clinic. Then, at the age of thirty-four, with virtually no administrative experience, she leaped at the opportunity to direct a new clinic for Central Texas residents without insurance.

Days after her younger daughter turned two, Lisa was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Shocked and scared, Lisa faced a bleak future, plagued by chronic dizziness and the specter of disability hovering nearby. She didn't know if she would ever be able to work again or serve as an effective parent. But she has done both. Lisa now works as the senior medical director for a national care management company - a job which allows for creativity, continued work with vulnerable populations, and improved stress management. Her daughters - now 15 and 18 - are thriving, and her husband provides support through the challenges of her illness. Since her diagnosis in 2009, despite several relapses, she has hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, traveled throughout the U.S. and internationally, run two marathons, completed a half Ironman triathlon, and biked the MS150 four times: over 160 miles from Houston to Austin and, more recently, Austin to College Station. A co-founder of Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility, she remains active on the board, currently serving as president. She has loosened her grip on perfectionism and accepts uncertainty. MS is now a reason to seize opportunities and rejoice in each day.


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