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.
At 31, I thought I was living the dream. After four years, I had rebuilt my life after a divorce. I was raising two kids, dating a wonderful man I met while obtaining another Bachelors degree (this time in nursing) and had secured one of the dream jobs for a new grad RN: a spot in an emergency department. For a few years, I was unstoppable. I leveraged my first year experiences in a strong residency program and my professional contacts to land me in one of America's most notorious Level I trauma centers, the holy grail of emergency nursing.
From there, I maneuvered my way into the right classes and the toughest assignments on the unit. My skills and knowledge base grew tremendously. I made sure that whenever the opportunity arose, I looked up diseases and drugs. Eventually, I challenged the Certification in Emergency Nursing exam just to prove what a badass ER nurse I was.
Looking back, I knew there was trouble on the horizon. The ER is known for its notoriously high burnout rates among nurses and physicians. I always told myself that I was too good to get burnout. I thought I was so smart: I would ask longtimers how they managed to keep at it so long and try to emulate their behaviors.
At the trauma center, the stress was at all-time high. It wasn't lost on me that following the birth of my new baby with my now husband, I couldn't lose weight and seemed to eat and eat and eat all the time. At the same time, I would go to the gym to work off my frustrations or spend hours complaining to friends and an increasingly frustrated husband who complained that all I did was complain about my job. I had trouble sleeping all the way through the night when I had been at work all day. I started to look beyond working at the bedside as an ER nurse even though I was completely in love with my job. I considered graduate school. I considered a cushy job in an outpatient surgical center.
Nonetheless, a breaking point had to come and it did. One morning on the way to work, I sat at a traffic light blocks from the hospital surrounded by urban decay. I thought, "Boy, did I really let the car get this stuffy?" so I turned on the air. Suddenly, I felt irritated. I panicked and felt like I couldn't breathe. I knew I was having a panic attack.
A few weeks before that, an armed gunmen had sprinted through the ER before being tackled by police. The ER was locked down, creating an incredibly stressful environment. A few hours after his arrest, a patient tried to hang himself and damaged a pipe, causing the entire ER to be urgently evacuated. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. I was certain I was never going to see my lovely husband and children again. I felt so empty, hollowed out. I asked myself, "But who will feed my baby when I die?" I was still breastfeeding her. The experience was so surreal that I did not care when I found that someone had hit my car in the parking lot of the hospital and taken my mirror off. I drove home in silence.
Sitting at the traffic light, I realized that the incident had weighed on my mind since then. Staring at the hospital, it was catching up with me again. I switched my gaze to the traffic light in the early dawn and knew it was over. I knew it was time to move on to something else. My family deserves something better than a grouchy, fat, stressed wife and mother. I refuse to let stress eat me alive from the inside out. I told myself that I do deserve a peaceful life where guns, violence, and verbal threats are not a part of every day at work. I deserve happiness. I started to breathe again and the light turned green.
I finished the few shifts I had left at that job and actually resigned the new job I had already taken due to our planned move out of state. I took a part time job at a really mellow ER and enrolled in a graduate program that will allow me to become a nurse practitioner. I've started losing weight. I've stopped feeding my face with a never ending supply of sugar and caffeine. I've started to address other things that I had neglected in my life when I was so focused on building myself an amazing career. I will never be the same person again. I learned some amazing things working as a staff nurse in the ER. I am better person for having survived both that horrible day and my years as an ER nurse. I look forward to the rewards my career will bring me as I change roles now.
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.