When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.
It was April 2008. I was driving down a winding California highway unable to turn my neck in order to drive, my head was pounding, and tears loosely streamed down my face. I'd just ended a client assignment that included the main contact stepping up to me toe-to-toe and screaming down at my face. The software I was helping him implement wasn't working the way he needed it to be working. As a 5-foot-3 female, he appeared to me as Godzilla.
At first I wasn't sure if I'd tripped on something, or slept wrong on my cheap start-up funded hotel pillow. I had no choice but to see a doctor. My neck was entirely locked up and sleeping was nearly impossible. While asked to "describe the activities of the last 48 hours that could have caused this pain, Ms. Webb," I looked up, looked at my Blackberry, went numb for a moment, and replied, "I've been working for the last 48 hours." At least it felt that way.
In early 2008, I was a "road warrior," dating "Mr. Big" inbox, as in, I fell asleep at night responding to email, and worked most weekends, too. Resources were scarce. I'd witnessed up to 75 percent of our software clients slash their budgets, and I dodged several furloughs in years prior, too. I was not sure if working harder was the right thing to do to keep food on the table and the bills paid--I'm a recovering over-achiever. Sometimes you can't tell the difference between good intentions or survival mode.
It just so happens that a few fender bender whiplash accidents and years of waiting tables were rearing their ugly head in this critical situation. The Emergency Room doctor diagnosed my situation as a "stress injury" and said that "stress attacks the weakest area of the body." Thinking back to how this could have happened, I recalled skipping my physical therapy sessions to pick up shifts to pay my college bills! I'd abandoned the rehab my neck and shoulders needed simply out of a troubled economy, and even more personal budget mismanagement. Did I mention that I graduated from business school in 2000? Those first "dot-com crash" years were fun with that degree, working three jobs to stay afloat. Everyone faces challenges and compromises at several points in their lives; no one is immune.
Blank-faced, I listened to the absurdities that came next from the ER doctor: "drink some water, walk on the beach, call-in sick for the next two weeks, take these pills for anxiety." These were my doctor's orders. Yeah right, I thought, the boss is going to LOVE this one. I was the heavy hitter helping to close the sales gap with add-on sales in my region, I was a client satisfaction super star, and I had to sit on the bench for two weeks? Oh, but I had to consider the cost of the alternative. Could I keep going at that pace, and when would my body show signs of shutting down again?
Funny enough, when my insurance provider processed that ER claim, it got kicked back and went under investigation. It was "recommended" that I pursue a worker's compensation claim. I didn't get the logic at the time. In fact, I wasn't about to make that call because tough times were imminent at work. This squeaky wheel needed no oil. I proceeded to walk on the beach like the doc said on occasion and smile and nod as much as I could to save face in front of a demanding clientele.
The moment I knew stress was taking over my life, I was present to the fact that I had been responding to years of scarcity and desperation instead of my own health and wellness. I'd gained over 25 pounds. On a weekly basis, I lived out of a suitcase and my car on Interstate 5 in road warrior mode. I mismanaged myself for years by treading through meaningless dialogue via email. I was too exhausted to have meaningful phone or face-to-face conversations in order to get my work projects accomplished. It was hard to tell my friends and family in Texas that "life in beautiful California was awesome" when I had only managed to go the beach around four times in the one year I lived in San Diego. Life, as I knew it, was a mirage of work.
The rock-bottom moment after the visit to the ER propelled me to choose that the insanity had to end. I talked to my doctor about doing more to rehab my body. She recommended and administered a whole body detoxification cleanse, and I connected with a great sports rehab chiropractor. I pursued regular yoga and fitness training at my gym and dropped the 25 pounds soon after. I prioritized these commitments and drank a TON of water (something I avoided when I had three hours of sitting on the freeway to look forward to)!! The acute pain in my neck subsided, and has been dormant for quite some time. Sleep came easier, as did clarity around my role at work.
I took action on my work routines, like closing my home office door at a decent hour, and leaving my laptop there. I backed off when saying 'yes' would have been a win-lose situation, like obvious scenarios when my time and energy would have been bankrupted. My clients at the time were not going to get a quality experience from working with a shell of a person. When my layoff came in October 2008, I was stronger. I chose to move back to Austin, my hometown.
I walked confidently into an interview with a company knowing what I was NOT willing to sign up for. It just so happens that the firm specialized in individual productivity and team effectiveness, or "soft skills" methodology. In many ways, these approaches were what I needed all along. I wanted to take my personal experience to apply it to the business of people, and less about software and cutthroat VC funding rounds.
I am one of the lucky ones, and have been employed ever since. I have tools to manage my agreements and understand when I've said "yes" too many times. Don't get me wrong: it still happens, but I can renegotiate or call myself out when I've hit my limit. Not only do I get to teach professionals around the world about these tools and methodology, I get to live it. When I leave for vacation, I can disconnect from email. My team backs me up. It is quite empowering, and my customer satisfaction ratings are higher than ever. In 2008, work-related stress erased my semblance of a life. Today, I have the tools and experience to create harmony between work and life.
Is there a moment you hit a stress breaking point and knew you needed to change your life? If you'd like to share your story, please send personal essays under 1200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration in this series.