Life with MS

Reaching Your Own Summit

By Wendy Booker

While speaking at an MS event a few weeks ago, I asked for questions from the audience. Many 3 by 5 inch cards came to the podium, but the one that struck me as the most profound and difficult to answer was, “What does it mean to set a goal? And how do you go about doing it?”
I was unable to answer the question at that moment. It would require a lot more thought.
We so loosely throw around that term: goal setting, achieving one’s goal, setting a goal. Is a goal something we have to succeed at in order to be successful? Fulfilled? Accomplished? Is a goal necessary?
It all depends on how you choose to look at it. The key word here being “choose.”
That’s the beauty of a goal. It’s all yours and you get to be in control and define it. You get to be the master of your own destiny. You get to shape it, refine it, change it, and alter it at any time to suit your needs and what you ultimately want to accomplish.
Goals can be as short-term as “I’m going to give the dog a bath before noon today!” Or you can have long-term goals such as “I’m going to save enough money to go on a trip by next year!” Goals can be fun and exciting or loom large over our heads as a “have to.” 
Sometimes it’s necessary to set a “have to” goal for our health and well-being, but if you sprinkle in some fun and rewarding goals, then the “have to” goals aren’t quite so hard to work on. For instance, “I’m going to lose five pounds," which by the way, is one of my least favorite and most difficult goals, “And when I do, I’m buying that new skirt!” Aha! Good goal makes difficult goal more palatable. I love a good win-win!
So how do we set about and achieve goals when living and dealing with MS?
One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamont, wrote a book called Bird By Bird.
The book’s title was captured from an incident she recalled from her childhood. Her brother had to write a report on birds. He was sitting at the kitchen table lamenting that he had waited until the last minute to write the report and now the challenge seemed overwhelming. In despair he asked his father, “What do I do?”  His Dad’s classic answer, “Bird by bird, buddy, just take it bird by bird.”
So that is the approach I have taken with my MS and setting a goal. I take it “bird by bird” or one step at a time. With MS, we can’t always charge ahead once we have set a goal. We need to start by taking small steps, which will become bigger steps. Ultimately we will get there and achieve success. The finish line is of our own choice. We can add to a goal, take away from a goal, or totally change our minds and find another goal or purpose. 
Agreed, I set some lofty goals, many of which most people see as beyond the scope of what anyone should even contemplate. My own mother is at the top of that list. But just as goals are unique to the person who set them, our goals are all ours to shape and define, and our reasons as unique as we are as individuals.
So how do you start? Often it is through curiosity or competition within ourselves. Sometimes, as was the case for me, it just fell in my lap. That serendipitous moment when something comes zinging at you and you grab it. Starting is always the hardest part. How do we start to pick up that paint brush or guitar? How do we start to write or take a yoga class, attend a support group, or tie on those running shoes? Something within us sparks that moment.
Next is what I call the “discovery” stage: finding out all we can about our prospective goal. I had no clue what climbing a major peak entailed; I just knew it was a lofty goal and I was going to try it. I weighed my options, asked questions, educated myself, and planned out how I was going to go about it. My only exposure to Denali was a poster hanging in the office of the physical therapist who had initially treated me as I was just finding out I had MS. I looked at that poster a lot.
I called the physical therapist, Rick, and asked why he had a picture of Denali in his office? Climbing Denali was a long-term goal of his, too. I told him I had been offered this incredible opportunity to climb Denali, but I was clueless as to whether I could or should consider this enormous undertaking.
Rick told me to head about three hours north to the International Mountain Climbing School. For the next two years, I spent every weekend in the mountains. The more I learned, the more successful I was, the closer I came to my goal of Denali – and the more the enormity of my goal become apparent. I knew there was so much riding on this.
At times, I was filled with doubts. Other times, just experiencing something I had never tried before spurred me on and kept the goal looming large in front of me. Reminders of my goal were pasted all over my house: on the refrigerator, my desk; my screen saver all had a picture of Denali. It was becoming more tangible, more real.
When we didn’t summit the first time, I had to re-evaluate. I didn’t achieve my goal. I was soon to learn that it’s okay, we can’t always attain our initial goal. My personal mantra came back to me, “We have to try a little harder, dig a little deeper, and take a little longer.” I did just that, and in June of 2004, I reached the top of North America, 20,320 feet atop Denali (Mt. McKinley at the time).
Goal achieved?
It was at that moment with my arms overhead celebrating my success that suddenly the goal changed. I didn’t set out to climb Denali to claim the title of the first woman with MS to do so – that wasn’t even part of my initial goal. But now I realized that the top of Denali was only the beginning, and really a very small part, of what now clearly was and still is my ultimate goal.
My goal became even larger; it became bigger than just me and a mountain. It is multiple sclerosis: to become the voice and face of MS. To educate, motivate, and challenge others living with MS to go out and take on their mountain - the mountain called multiple sclerosis. To light the path, clear the trail, show the way to finding a goal and setting out to achieve it. To know that it is okay to have to turn back or change your mind. It’s okay to recognize that MS might have made your goal out of your reach. So we find another goal. MS turned me back from a summit on Mount Everest twice. Yet I made my way to the top of the world, to the North Pole instead.  I didn’t give up on my goal; I just changed how I got there!
The joy and fulfillment of achieving one’s goal is what keeps us going. When we rub the sleep from our eyes every morning, it’s those steps to the goal we contemplate and plan. The hard work and dedication is our fuel, the commitment makes us push past the MS diagnosis and forge on ahead.
It’s all about you. It’s all about choices. It’s all about doing it with multiple sclerosis, which only makes reaching the goal that much sweeter.
Because once you reach your goal, not only did you ‘do it’ – but you also did it with multiple sclerosis. And the view from the top is incredible.