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.
I knew I was sick -- my sore throat, fever, and body aches made that clear. But I assumed some cold medicine and a few days' rest would take care of it. And even after the nurse called me that January morning to tell me I was more sick than I realized, that my tests showed I had strep throat and Mononucleosis, I still assumed my illness was temporary and curable. Given that I was 40 at the time, she warned me that it might take me longer to recover than younger people who contracted this virus, but the estimated timeframe was a few weeks, maybe a couple of months at the most. The reality was that over a year later, I was still sick.
Until this time I had been a "high achiever" type, attracted to demanding jobs and thriving on long, intense days. Work was exciting and fun. For the early part of my career, after finishing graduate school, I worked as a management consultant and spent most weeks on the road, traveling between client locations. Leaving home on Sunday night or Monday morning and not returning until Thursday or Friday evening was the norm, and I had healthy balances of frequent flyer miles and hotel club points to show for it. One year, at the peak of my consulting career, I even flew more miles than my husband -- an airline pilot.
After the birth of my sons, I accepted a program director job in the business school at a major university that I knew would give me the professional challenges I wanted, and would also allow me to be home every night. As before, my days were long and demanding, but I had a better work/life balance -- or at least the illusion of it anyway. Around the beginning of my second year at the university I began noticing that I felt increasingly tired at the end of the day and, instead of feeling the usual rush of excitement when new opportunities came my way, I felt a sense of heaviness and dread, like I was physically and mentally moving through mud.
To compensate, I did what I knew how to do: dig deeper for the energy I needed, drink more caffeine throughout the day, and continue pushing hard. My co-workers called me a "workhorse," and I was proud of that. The months flowed by, my boys got bigger, and I accepted a promotion to an even more demanding job. This was about the time when the university announced severe budget cutbacks, and I had to make the terrible decision to lay off several people on my team. My days became even longer (sometimes requiring fourteen hours at the office) because now I was doing the work that three people had done before. I figured I could handle it, and kept going.
Finally, around my three-year anniversary at the university, it became impossible for me to ignore how exhausted I felt during the day, and I couldn't understand why I was "buzzing" at night and had trouble sleeping. I had frequent headaches, which often affected my vision, and my memory and thinking had become fuzzy. Work was now just a series of annoying obstacles, and I was achingly aware of how much time I was missing with my family. In January, I hit the wall.
Waking up that first morning of my vacation, my throat felt like I had swallowed a bunch of needles, and my body felt like I was wearing lead armor. We had plans to go out that day, though, so I took some cold medicine, got dressed, and joined my family for a full day of activities. Back at home that night was the first time I knew I was really sick -- my throat was so swollen and raw I could barely swallow, and every sound and every light felt like they were piercing my brain. I ate soup for dinner and went to bed early, but my fever was so high I thoroughly drenched the sheets and had to get up to change them -- twice.
I barely made it to the doctor's office the next day, even though my husband was the one driving. I was shivering with fever and could not get comfortable. The nurse did a throat swab and a blood test and sent me home. The next morning I received the call with the diagnoses of Strep and Mono. All I could do for weeks after that was move from the bed to the couch, and back again. My husband had to take over all household duties, including the many daily tasks required to take care of our two young sons. Life as I had known it had truly changed, and I was disoriented and miserable.
It wasn't obvious to me right away, but there was a silver lining to all of that time spent resting over the next few weeks, and that was that I had a lot of time to think. I'm not a religious person, but I am spiritual, and I took this illness as a sign that it was time for some introspection. How had I gotten myself into this mess? It took some time, but with some help, I finally recognized the set of false beliefs (many unconscious) that had informed the choices that led me to this place of physical and emotional illness:
My value was based on my accomplishments. The more I did, the better I was as a person.
People would like me more and consider me a good team player if I always said "yes."
My physical health depended only on a minimum amount of sleep and food.
Even with these clear insights, I was still reluctant to make any significant changes -- the rut I was in was unhealthy, but at least it was familiar. Thank goodness, my husband stepped in at this point and invoked the "deathbed scenario." He challenged me to visualize myself on my death bed, reflecting on my life, and think about what I would be glad I had done, and what I would regret. It didn't take long for the clouds to part and my priorities to become clear. So, with my husband's support, I decided:
I would quit my job and take a year off from working.
We would sell our house (which would help finance my time off) and move closer to our extended family in Oregon.
Now we have been in Oregon for almost three years, and I am pursuing my passion for research and writing. I have revived my meditation practice, which I had basically abandoned for several years, and am much happier and healthier. It took more than a year for me to regain my energy, and I still have to monitor myself and make conscious attempts to slow down when I feel the familiar revving of my engines, but it's well worth the effort. I am more present for my kids, and am a better role model for them as well.
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.