By: Jeri Burtchell
I was just 11 when our family lived through a flood that filled our house with mud. When the water subsided we came home to survey the damage. Instead of lamenting over all we had lost, my dad laughed and pointed out that the cat box was still in perfect condition because it had floated all around the house. That was my first lesson in optimism.
His positive attitude was contagious and taught me to find the humor in things no matter how grim the situation.
But when I was diagnosed with MS in 1999 and then we lost my dad to cancer two years later, my eternal flame of optimism started to flicker.
It was hard dealing with the disease, but even harder to find the bright side when my heart was filled with sorrow. Eventually, my dark cloud lifted. I realized that even though I can’t change the fact that he was gone or undo my diagnosis, my happiness is a choice I can control. As Sheryl Jacobson Skutelsky wrote in a great article, “Gratitude equals a positive MS attitude.”
My need to see the bright side of every situation became my coping mechanism. Positive thinking has forced me to step outside my comfort zone to explore new things in life. If you let all of the “what-ifs” hold you back, you will live in darkness where the landslide into sorrow and pity are only one negative thought away.
So every day I try new things. And every day I try to find the humor in something. The two often combine as, (more often than I like to admit), humor winds up being the salve I put on some of my not-so-great ideas when I go trying new things.
Which came in handy when I thought I could walk a cat on a leash despite having never seen it done before.
Tweak is my oldest son’s Flame Point Siamese cat. One day he disappeared and was gone without a trace. Two weeks later he reappeared in my son’s back yard, having spent at least one of his nine lives while he was gone. Tweak was missing fur and skin from his hips to his tail. The vet said it looked like he’d gotten trapped in a fence and ripped his way out. He came home with me so I could nurse him back to health.
Tweak is the most loving, good-natured cat you’ll ever meet. He’d rather sit on your lap and purr than do anything else. Even in pain, he never displayed so much as a fang. He just purred, thankful to be alive.
But Tweak is a former indoor-outdoor cat, and despite his sunny disposition, after a few weeks of being cooped up inside, he started to get cabin fever.
I thought to myself that there must be some way to let Tweak get some sunshine and fresh air. As so often is the case with my “brilliant ideas,” if I listen hard, I can almost hear my dad laugh.
I got a harness made for extra small dogs because, for some reason, they don’t make them for cats. And I got a leash.
Tweak willingly let me strap the harness around him. But once outside, he stood frozen, not knowing what to make of his new surroundings.
You’re probably thinking he made a mad dash and escaped right away. You’re wrong.
No, I was proud that my idea was working as planned. Tweak let me lead him right down the walkway to the yard out front as if he’d been on a leash all his life. He rolled in the grass and soaked up the sun. He purred while I scratched him behind the ears.
We had a moment of pure Zen.
Then the neighbor started his car.
In an instant, Tweak began channeling Houdini. He flopped around at the end of his leash like a trout on a fishing line before one quick duck-tuck-and-back-up move gave him the freedom he craved.
He only got about ten yards closer to the house, when I walked right up to him and picked him up. He was purring, my heart was pounding. I was relieved I hadn’t let my son’s cat escape.
And even though it didn’t go as planned, I can look back and laugh.
My dad taught me lessons in finding humor, and now Tweak is teaching me about being happy no matter what my physical circumstances. The takeaway from both is that attitude is a choice, and I choose to be optimistic.
Even if I have to learn the hard way why you never see cats on leashes.
*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.