Keeping secrets is often a bad idea. And in the fall of 2009, family physician Lisa Doggett had a big one: a new diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Immediately, she wondered, “Who should I tell? I am close with my family, and I told them right away. But who else should know?”
Her mother said it is considered a disability. “People may see you differently. Do you really want to tell everyone?”
Doggett rarely disagrees with her mom, but in this case, she opted for a widespread broadcast. She called her colleagues at the clinic where she worked as a family doctor. She emailed friends and cousins. She announced, “I have MS. I thought you should know.”
She then provided more details: the dizziness and visual changes that led to her MRI that led to her diagnosis, the concerns about future disability, the potential impact on her career, her husband, and their daughters (aged two and four at the time).
“Was I being bold? Was I foolish?” Doggett wondered.
She realized the answer was neither. If anything, she was, perhaps, selfish. She was lessening her burden by sharing it and asking for help. She was relieving herself of the pain of carrying around a secret, of building more barriers to protect it when it didn’t need to be protected. She couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but most importantly, she was activating her support circle.
Like a magnetic force suddenly unleashed, her news brought well wishes and offers of help from all over: home-delivered meals, cards of support, offers of playdates for her kids. She was overwhelmed with the generosity that bolstered her and her husband Don during those frightening days as they faced tremendous uncertainty.
She went from knowing no one with MS, to finding connections with half a dozen fellow MS patients who offered her – a stranger with nothing to give in return – encouragement, advice, and proof that her life wasn’t over.
It was still a risk. Not everyone can share such news freely. People have lost jobs and friends when revealing illness. Even Lisa hasn’t been consistent over the years in sharing her MS diagnosis, especially with new bosses and colleagues. But over time, she says she usually has opened up to them as well. And she has been lucky; No one’s reaction has ever disappointed her.
Doggett was reminded of the importance of a support circle during her father-in-law’s recent hospitalization for a sudden and unexpected illness. Twenty-four hours after hearing the news, Don was on the plane flying across the country. He had to go. It’s just what you do when you are at the top of the unwritten list of support circle members for someone, as he was for his dad.
While Don – also a physician – was with his parents, he met his dad’s doctors. He discussed treatment strategies and options for care upon hospital discharge. He also identified more people in his dad’s support circle. Two aunts and an uncle would be there to help his parents when he had to return home. “We got this,” they assured him.
Over Lisa’s years of patient care, she has seen many people without a support circle. In some cases, she has felt that she, alone, was their support circle. Some of them have suffered terrible losses, leaving them alone. Others have moved frequently, losing connections with each relocation. New immigrants may be especially vulnerable, uprooted from family, isolated by culture and language differences. Lisa searches for their strength – a bright personality, resilience, hidden talents and skills. Many have demonstrated great courage and fortitude. Over time, they will find their support circle, and Lisa says she has been honored, at times, to help in that process.
Here are some ideas from Lisa Doggett, MD., on how to build and strengthen your support circle.
1) Get involved in groups you care about: your kid’s school, a place of worship, a nonprofit fighting for a good cause. This is a way to meet people with common interests and shared values.
2) Volunteer! I recently met many of my neighbors at It’s My Park Day here in Austin as we pitched in to clean up our community garden. Local newspapers, radio stations, and websites advertise upcoming volunteer events.
3) Reconnect with long-lost friends and family: Track down those with whom you once were close but have lost touch. Reach out to more distant family members who you may not have seen in a while. Social media can help you reconnect, but a phone call or even meeting in person is better!
4) Join a support group: This idea may seem obvious, but it can be daunting to reach out to a group of strangers to discuss a painful topic. However, support groups can be extremely beneficial. While I believe getting together face-to-face can be more healing, even online support groups and chat rooms can offer a certain level of camaraderie and advice.
5) Take a class: Schools, colleges, art and athletic organizations offer classes for adults on a myriad of topics. Some classes are free, or scholarships may be available. I met one of my now-best friends in a mountain biking class 15 years ago, offered by the local community college. I rarely get to mountain bike these days, but I still see my friend regularly.
6) Start a meet-up group: Pick an activity you love and invite others to join you. Find friends to exercise with you. Invite other parents to meet up for a regular playdate for your kids. Start a book club, a supper club, or a movie group.
7) Meet your neighbors: Getting to know the people who live nearby can be fun and beneficial. Offer to pet-sit or water the plants when your neighbors are out of town. Double the recipe if you bake cookies, and take a plate next door.
Remember, the best way to develop and maintain a strong support circle is to be part of the support circle for others. The reciprocity principle is alive and well in our culture. If you reach out to help others, they will likely be there for you when you need support.
LISA DOGGETT, a family physician, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009. She is passionate about improving care for vulnerable populations and helping people with MS and other chronic conditions live their best lives. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, Motherwell, the Austin American-Statesman, and more. Her new book is titled Up the Down Escalator: Medicine, Motherhood, and Multiple Sclerosis
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