Friday, May 31, 2013

Don’t worry, be happy.

Jennifer LaRue Huget

Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble. – George Washington
Don’t worry, be happy. – Bobby McFerrin

I had just turned 40 when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That was a dozen years ago. Looking back on the way I reacted to my diagnosis, I see a few things I would have done differently.

My diagnosis came a few months after I decided I needed a well-patient checkup upon turning 40. I wasn’t aware of any symptoms at that time; I just figured getting a checkup is what responsible grownups do when they arrive at that milestone age.

My regular primary-care doctor was so much in demand, I ended up not being able to schedule an appointment with her. Instead, I saw a young associate who had just joined the practice.

Everything went pretty well; the doctor found nothing amiss. I mentioned that sometimes a few of the fingers on my left hand felt numb, as though they had fallen asleep. She asked whether shaking my hand a few times made the numbness go away. I said, yeah, I guess so; I had never really noticed. I also mentioned that I was tired all the time. All the time. She pointed out that mothers with young kids (mine were 7 and 4 at the time) are generally tired all the time.

At the end of my checkup, I uttered what I now recognize as fateful words. “So, I have a clean bill of health?” She hedged, saying so far as she could tell everything looked fine.

I now understand that “clean bill of health” question was a major jinx. Why on earth did I ask? It was like tempting fate.

Six months later, on April Fool’s Day, my neurologist told me that it looked as though I had MS. (Clean bill of health, indeed.) My mind immediately moved into full-on worry mode, and my already overactive imagination leapt to a future in which I was in a wheelchair, unable to see or move my limbs.

If I had it to do over, I would:

  • Insist on getting that physical from my regular doctor, who has known me since I was a young adult and would, I feel certain, have figured things out more quickly than her associate did. Even if I it meant postponing my checkup for a few months, I think things would have gone more smoothly had I waited.
  • Never have asked whether my bill of health is clean! In fact, nowadays I am very careful to avoid jinxing things.

But the most important thing I would do differently if I had a do-over would be to not assume the worst about my prognosis. All that time spent worrying did me no good. And so far, thank goodness, none of what I worried about has happened – and I’ve learned to stop worrying that it will.

To paraphrase George Washington, worrying is a pointless waste of time. I wish I could take back the countless hours I spent worrying after I was diagnosed. I would do something really fun with them instead. These days, I’ve borrowed Bobby McFerrin’s sage advice as my personal motto: Don’t worry, be happy. I hope you will, too.

Jennifer LaRue Huget was diagnosed with MS in 2001. A freelance writer and children's book author, she lives in Connecticut with her husband, two teenage kids, and two brown dogs. Her website is


  1. I'm not sure why this is in an MS bolg. It should be in Bobby McFarren blog. It is nice to hear, however, that the author has a benign course.

  2. I too, had just turned 40 when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That was 20 years ago almost to the day. Looking back on the way I reacted to my diagnosis, I do not see the things I did wrong.

    My diagnosis came on a weekend after taking our daughter to college her 2nd year. Just as Jennifer, I wasn’t aware of any symptoms at that time.

    On our way back from Ft. Collins to Littleton, I noticed the left side of my face and head had an odd – and disturbing – numbness-like feeling. I worried for two days until I was able to see my regular primary-care doctor. I imagined all sorts of reasons for the numbness: was it because I had sprayed weed killer that Friday? Or perhaps it was because as a kid in Indiana, we would run through the fog of the mosquito killing chemical being sprayed by a truck. I wracked my brain with worry and concern.

    On Monday, when I saw the doctor he made what seemed to be a cursory examination then said, it could be one of many things. He thing rattled of some potentials and then curiously said “I would not say this to most of my patients, but you are the kind that wants to know and can handle it: you might have multiple sclerosis.”

    My doctor was right: I did not freak me out. I definitely did not panic or fret. Besides, one of my sisters had MS and she was active and working.

    He referred me to a neurologist, who only reiterated that I might have MS and determined “no conclusive diagnosis or apparent reason for temporary condition.” It took him more than 6 years to finally state “. . . there has been some progression of abnormalities since the original [MRI] scan. I think this makes a diagnosis of MS seem most likely.” And THAT was in a letter!

    We immediately began looking for a new neurologist and found a world-class one with whom I’ve been with ever since.

    If I had it to do over, I would do nothing different. I did NOT assume the worst about my prognosis, but was frustrated my first neurologist took so long to finally say I most likely had MS! I realized worrying did me no good. I also realized that my family doctor had done the right thing by not holding back. For that, I am thankful to this day.

    I have always confronted my fears head-on. As Dirty Harry said, “a man’s got to know his limitations,” but I also have no time for fear. Life gave me some lemons and I made it into an Arnold Palmer. Que sera sera.