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 4 p.m. on a Wednesday in October when I realized I needed to go to the emergency room. I was six months pregnant and had been having symptoms -- severe lower back and leg pain, fever, nausea, since 2 a.m. the night before -- but like any woman with a job, home and family to take care of, I ranked my own self-care below that of everyone else's. I simply had too much to do that day to waste hours sitting uncomfortably in the ER waiting room.
But by late afternoon the pain had become unremitting and the pain management techniques I'd been employing had long since failed to offer even momentary relief. My four-year-old was patting my hair and offering me band-aids. Even that didn't help.
I was 3,000 miles away from my family, recently relocated to San Diego because my husband serves in the U.S. Navy, alone with a pre-schooler who I'd terrified with my groans. I'd also terrified myself of delivering my baby before term. When I checked into the hospital I had a fever of 104. My husband was in an area where he did not have regular phone access. I called friends first, and when that failed, near-strangers looking for someone to come and take care of my son. I signed my name to dozens of hospital-required releases including one preparing for the emergency pre-term delivery of my second son.
The diagnosis? An advanced kidney infection turned septic. Countless bags of forced hydration, many courses of antibiotics and six days later, I was recovered. The baby, who is now a plump and perfect five months old, recovered fully too.
You might think this was the incident that let me know I was overworked, overextended and stressed. Sadly, it wasn't. What got me was a revelation that happened a few weeks later, in the days before my son's on-schedule delivery just before Christmas. In those quiet, calm-before-the-storm days leading up to his birth I thought a lot about the time I spent in the hospital and about one incident in particular.
While I crawled around the house in the minutes before driving to the ER, collecting coloring books, snacks and insurance cards, I brought for myself only one thing, my computer. I work via telecommuting for a major research institution, and I was very concerned about falling behind at work if I was stuck at the hospital. At the time this seemed a rational concern. The second morning of my hospitalization, after a feverish night when the baby started experiencing heart decelerations, I was up and out of bed, frantically trying to hold my computer, my cell phone and my open-backed hospital gown all at once. I was trying to find a free outlet (impossible in a hospital room by the way) so that I could take notes for a conference call. I remember the look on the immunologist's face when he walked in the door to see me balancing my computer on my knee while frantically typing and holding the phone between my chin and shoulder. When he informed me I needed to lie down to be examined, I asked if I could keep the phone on mute.
To be clear, no one explicitly demanded this of me. And while many may think I was crazy, many others might concede that the expectations of our professional culture would make them feel obligated to do something similar. I did receive a beautiful basket of lotions and candles from my boss as I convalesced, along with an email saying how impressed she was by my dedication. My husband, doctors, nurses and family were less exalting.
Even when I went home with enough medication to open a pharmacy (I took nearly 3,000 mg of medication a day until I gave birth to ward off repeat infections) I still refused to see that I was working myself into illness. It wasn't until those final days before giving birth, as I chewed my nails over the prospect of all of that time lost during my eight-week maternity leave and whether or not I should sneak my computer onto the neo-natal ward that I realized just how stressed I had become. And harder still, how normalized such a high level of stress had become for me.
It took me another five months and many stomach-knotting discussions with my husband, family and employer before I accepted that like any racehorse, I'd pushed myself to the point of consequence. Soon I'd be so sick and injured and tired as to be of no use to anyone, including myself. In May this year, I made the complicated decision to reduce my work efforts to part time. Not all of my stress came from my job, but when I weighed the importance of my other responsibilities -- my children, my marriage and my church involvement -- I found my job to be the simplest to change. I realize having this option makes me one of the privileged few, but I can almost guarantee that upon honest reflection and with some thoughtful planning, most everyone has something they can give a little on in order to minimize their stress. As the verse goes, "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
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.