2017 - The Reckoning
The first half of 2017 welcomed travel, relationships, and new beginnings into my life. I ventured to Cuba alone, and had a relaxing and refreshing experience. I brought my mum to Italy and drank all the wine (and ate all the food). I moderated a panel at a conference in San Francisco. I met a guy from NYC, and got to call Brooklyn home for a bit. I grew my team at work, feeling confident if not a bit unsteady. And I built deeper friendships with those close to me.
As it always does when I'm distracted by new experiences and new people - my physical and mental health took a backseat to everything else in my life. And then, two days after my 26th birthday, this behaviour caught up with me.
I walked into work on the brink of tears, not understanding why. It was unhappiness, sure, but it was more than that. I felt powerless and trapped in a story that felt like someone else's. I had been feeling this way for months – and coming off of several months of distraction, the feeling caught up with me in a big way.
I took a two week mental health break off work. Having never faced challenges with my mental health, even saying those words to friends and family felt overwhelming. I had some heavy emotional work to do, but without the tools to do it, the pressure to 'fix' myself felt insurmountable.
The purpose of this time was to, “learn how to be happy again”. I felt quips of happiness – little fleeting moments. But it all felt impermanent. There was this big looming cloud above me that I couldn’t shake. When I tried to wrangle with it, I was faced with my concerns and anxiety about my career. The thing that held me back the most was my fear that facing my emotions head-on would propel me into a place I wasn't ready to be, and change me into someone I didn't recognize.
So, instead of doing the emotional work, I told myself a story. I told myself I just needed to push my emotions down inside me, and focus on the professional work to be done. By focusing on the professional work, I wouldn't have to wrangle with my gut. I told myself that by the end of August (it was June) I would know if it was my 'emotions' that were preventing my search for meaning, or if it was the work I was doing (a false dichotomy in itself).
And, as it turns out, it was both. I spent the summer doing what felt like self-care to me - working out, meditating, spending all my time outdoors. Still, the second week of August I developed a severe, unrelenting headache. I thought it was normal stress, or dehydration - but secretly, I thought it was a brain tumour (thanks WebMD). I went to the doctor, and by the fourth day with no diagnosis and no relief, I went to the hospital back home.
The doctor at the ER hooked me up to an IV, and sat me down to tell me he was going to do a CT Scan and an EKG, because he had concerns about my brain and he was worried about my heart.
I tried not to let on how nervous I was as he started to ask about how stressful my life was. What type of job did I have? Did I like it? I nodded “yes” as tears ran down my face. He looked at me and said “no job is worth your health, are you sure it’s worth it?” Again, I nodded “yes”. A glance over at my mum, and a gut check with myself, told me this was not the right answer.
In retrospect, I was answering honestly. The issue was that I didn't yet see the depth of the connection between my work and my health.
After the tests came back OK, the doctor chalked it up to stress, and suggested I take a vacation. I was a bit taken aback by that - I knew I was too far down the rabbit hole of physical symptoms for a quick jaunt to the beach to cure me.
So, to another doctor we went. This time, a diagnosis. Shingles, brought on by chronic stress. I spent the next few days laying in bed, taking medication, and trying to de-stress.
During this time, I started to come to terms with what I knew to be true - that what I had done and built for the past three years was no longer bringing my life meaning. What I was doing everyday felt incongruent with who I was as a person. And it was that lack of meaning that lead to my chronic stress. I was stressed about my career choices as they related to my life on a bigger scale, and I felt trapped.
With my stomach scarred, my brain drained, and my spirit exhausted, I went back to work. With a decision this time. I let my boss know I would no longer be able to continue in my current role. Fortunately, because I work at the best company in the world, I was given the opportunity to find a new role that would be a better fit.
Walking away from leadership meant walking away from legitimate power, from legitimate influence, and from the expectations of others. It felt liberating, and it also felt like I was giving up at times. Telling your ego to take a seat is a tough practice, one I'm slowly getting better at.
While leaving my role can be seen as a strategic decision in hindsight, I can tell you that at the time it felt like failure. It felt like failure because making a big decision doesn't change all of the things you're not loving about your life - it only starts the process to better understand how to rise above your fears and close the gap between who you are, and who you want to be. It's like signing up for an emotional bootcamp, bookended by a scary life decision. One you can only walk towards, and not away from.
In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown discusses the concept of 'walking into our story' as 'The Reckoning'. The reckoning is messy, emotionally charged, and at times, feels like an unnecessary struggle. But it's essential to owning up to our emotions, and better understanding who we are and who we want to be. 2017 started my journey – it was my reckoning.
I'm still recovering from my chronic stress – and I consider myself lucky I recognized it and acted it on it before it took a further toll on my health. Check out my other post about burnout and recognizing chronic stress for more insight into the impact it can have.