When I discovered I had multiple sclerosis, I set out to eliminate any and all stress from my life.
I was sitting in my office cubicle trying to focus on work, but I was distracted. Calling clients or even responding to a simple email seemed impossible because I was anxious about my recent spinal tap. I hadn’t heard anything from my doctor, which I thought was probably good news. A few weeks earlier, after my MRI results came in, I got a phone call insisting I come in right away, which was really bad news. I didn’t have the ear infection I thought I had. Instead I had lesions in my brain. What did that mean? I was terrified.
Let me back up for a minute. In the spring of 2006, I was training for the MS 150, a cycling event to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. I was also juggling several work deadlines, volunteering at my daughter’s school, wondering how in the world I’d get a healthy meal on the table for dinner, and trying to do it all with a smile on my face. What I thought was a little jet lag had turned into a lot of vertigo. Along with vertigo came extreme fatigue. One side of my face was numb and my hands were tingling. I wanted to know what was going on but at the same time, I didn’t want to know. It was probably nothing or maybe it was something. I finally stopped pushing paper around my desk and called the doctor.
It was something. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis over the phone, while I was at work. I left my cubicle (that seemed even smaller than usual that day) and cried all the way home. I thought my life was over. I was afraid that MS would take over and ruin my health, my family, my work, and everything I cared about.
It didn’t happen overnight but inch by inch, I took my life back. I researched MS and people who lived well with MS like it was my new job. If you have MS or another condition, our symptoms, treatments, and lifestyles may be different, but we can all benefit from a little less stress. After my diagnosis, I decided to eliminate as much stress as I could. It didn’t happen overnight (or even close), but there were some things I did that made a really big difference—things that allowed me to be healthier, happier, and more present. I simplified everything from my diet to my calendar to the way I spent my mornings, money, time and attention, but surprisingly, it was simplifying my wardrobe that made the biggest difference.
Opening my closet every day was a constant reminder of my debt and discontent. There were clothes that didn’t fit, items I didn’t like, and things that made me feel guilty for overspending. I was living paycheck to paycheck, and there were clothes in there I had never even worn. I was really curious about what it would be like to dress with less, so I created a challenge. In 2010, I promised myself (and the Internet) that I would dress with 33 items or less for three months including clothing, jewelry, accessories, and shoes. My minimalist fashion challenge, Project 333, was born.
I decided underwear and sleepwear wouldn’t count and neither would workout clothes…but workout clothes had to workout. In other words, if my yoga pants spent more time running errands than going to yoga class, I’d include them. At first glance, my empty closet felt a little too empty. I was afraid that I would miss shopping, that I wouldn’t have enough, or that people might notice. By the end of the first week, I felt better and much lighter. At the end of the three-month challenge, I was surprised about how much had changed. A simple closet didn’t just change my wardrobe, it changed my whole life.
There were some easy to identify outside changes. For instance, my mornings were easier. Prior to simplifying my closet, I’d try on several outfits, rarely satisfied with any of them and struggle to get out the door on time. With only a few items to choose from I felt grateful for what I had instead of focusing on what was missing.
And then there were the more meaningful changes. I felt lighter with less guilt and decision fatigue. Seeing all the money I spent on clothing I didn’t wear or enjoy every day wore me down. When the stuff went, the guilt went with it. I had more attention for things I really cared about. Now that my weekends weren’t consumed with shopping, and I wasn’t searching the Internet for the best sales and deals, I had time to consider what my real interests were. One of my favorite benefits is that I began to find confidence in who I was instead of what I wore. I always thought I needed something new to wear to be confident. I needed the right heels to feel powerful, or a new dress to feel sexy, or a new jacket to feel put together and prepared. I felt all of those things and more without anything new.
I have found that you can reduce a significant amount of stress simply by removing items from your wardrobe. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world have tried Project 333, and because of the amazing benefits I’ve experienced from the challenge, many years later, I still dress with 33 items or less every three months. And today, 12 years later, I am practically symptom free. I haven’t had a relapse in more than 10 years and recent MRIs show no new lesions or MS progression.
It took some time to move from the fear I felt in my tiny cubicle to the joy and peace I feel now when I look at my tiny wardrobe. Simplifying my closet and my life gave me the space I needed to take really good care of myself and to remember what really matters.
Carver is the author of the minimalism blog, Be More with Less, and the creator of the fashion challenge, Project 333. Her new book is Soulful Simplicity: How Living with Less Can Lead to So Much More ($12, amazon.com).