The last thing I expected last Tuesday was to be leaving my office in a stretcher begging paramedics to help me make it home to my daughter, but thankfully I walked away from the situation with my life and a loud and clear lesson that balance is the best defense against work burnout. For weeks, my body hadn't felt quite right. Anything I ate led to bloating and just a general feeling of discomfort when it came to digestion. For weeks, I had been exhausted, barely able to get myself energized to write and edit on the weekends.
I was often pushing through sleep deprivation, but fatigue is something you gradually get accustomed to when you're parenting a four-year-old who isn't the best sleeper. Because my nights were filled with interrupted sleep for the past several years, it was easy to neglect that my moderate asthma probably wasn't being well-maintained. Most nights, I was popping up from my pillow at 3 a.m. in response to my daughter's cries to sleep in my bed, have another cup of water or disappointment from wetting her "big girl draws". While parenting through partially closed eyelids, I'd take a few puffs off of my inhaler before comforting my daughter, so much that I didn't notice I was way more dependent on my asthma inhaler than I probably should be.
Working seven days a week on minimal sleep had become a normalized part of my life.
I was no stranger to hard work and had often worked more than one job at a time since undergrad. But what wasn't normal was the stress I had taken on at work. My colleagues and I were involved in an HR issue at work which involved an abusive boss, restructures in the organizations and adjusting to new supervisor. When I wasn't at work navigating transition, I was elbows deep in the search for private school with my spouse for our future pre-schooler. The month has been filled with coordinating work schedules so we could meet up for school tours and Pre-K assessments. With every meeting and appointment that was slowly holding my life hostage, my anxiety was growing and there were days when I definitely felt like my brain was on auto-pilot and my body was damn near being left behind as the responsibilities of adulting were running full speed. However, this particular work day there was no catching up in the rat race and I literally could not catch my breath.
I went to lunch that day walking about ten minutes from my desk job to treat myself to some ridiculously unhealthy McDonalds. I returned to the office that day after walking ten minutes in 32 degree wind, talking to my sister and living my best life with a gut full of Big Mac. As I was getting myself together to return to my work, my lungs felt slightly irritated, but like most asthmatics I figured a few puffs on my inhaler and sitting the hell down and breathing slowly would have me right back at it. But after a few puffs, I realized the medication wasn't working and my chest was growing tighter and tighter. I was sweating and in what seemed like minutes could barely call out my colleague to call 911. It seemed like I was waiting for an hour for the paramedics to arrive but in all actuality it was probably only about ten minutes and the rest of the scene I only remember as a big blur of breathing masks, me begging for help and being sped past my coworkers on a stretcher in tears.
Every breath felt like my last as I struggled to breathe.
I didn't care about my purse, my day planner or even my open Facebook direct message on my desktop computer. I could barely muster the strength to unlock my phone so HR could call my husband. And to be completely real, I felt like that day I was going to die. I was going to die in that damn cubicle surrounded by people who the deepest conversation I ever had with was mainly office gossip and our dreams of flipping the finger to senior leadership the day we walked off the job. One minute, I was scheduling conference calls and doing data entry and the next, I was begging for my life while being wheeled past the boardroom. In that moment, I knew that none of those things mattered if I wasn't healthy, making work/life balance a priority and choosing self-care.
The whole ordeal was hella embarrassing but a glaring reminder that although mentally you may be booked, busy, breaking necks and cashing checks, your body is not invincible and may have other plans.
By the end of the work day, I was sitting in the ER on a breathing mask. My co-worker had brought my personal items from work and, while I fiddled for my insurance card, a doctor casually informed me that I was one intervention from being intubated and that the asthma flare-up was probably due to the cold weather. I was more embarrassed than anything and medical providers determined that I should stay overnight in the hospital for observation. This would be the second stay I had in the past ten years for asthma complications. My parents lectured me about burning the candle at both ends, and while I knew their criticism came from a place of fear and concern, I couldn't help but think about how many women like myself repeatedly put their health last under the heavy burdens of career, motherhood, and personal relationships. For me, it was asthma, but so many other women are putting off that pap smear for the parent/teacher conference.
In a survey discussed on HealthyWomen.org, it was found that when it comes to the health needs of their families and themselves, women often put themselves last and prioritize healthcare in the following order: Children, Pets, Spouse or Significant Others, and Themselves. In our household, the dog only gets her needs met when she has a health scare and my husband forces time into his busy schedule. However, when it comes to flu shots, fillings and eyeglass exam, I am typically the one armed with my day planner and cell phone coordinating my family's care, navigating insurance and hoping I'll remember to schedule my annual exam at some point when the weather is warm and I have enough PTO left over at work after all of my daughter's appointments.
In addition, many women are often too exhausted to get around to their own health after filling out internet forms, double-checking insurance coverage and making appointments for their family members. The survey revealed that many women have just plain checked out of maintaining their own health:
"A shocking 78 percent said they often put off taking care of themselves or getting their health appointments made because they are so busy taking care of other family members' health.
It's not surprising women feel busy. Approximately 82 percent of women do most of the health-related research for their kids, 86 percent of women schedule the majority of the health care appointments for their kids, and 72 percent arrange for the payment of the majority of the bills for their kids health care. And, unfortunately, navigating insurance and health care bills can take lots of time because the process can be incredibly confusing."
But more than a missed pap smear, falling completely apart at work was an epiphany to me that staying committed to small moments of self-care matters much more than we think. I also recognized that self-care is about more than Taco Tuesdays and Lush bath bomb binges. My soul was tired.
Every day seemed like an uphill battle to search for the energy to do the bare minimum while overwhelmed with thoughts of the struggles of the world around me.
A few months later and I'm dedicating each month since to a detox of some sort, whether it's been not reading work emails at home or removing the social media apps from my phone. As much as we'd like to think it's the big misfortunes in life that make it more difficult, it's actually the slightest imbalances, anxiety triggers and repeated reminders that adulting is difficult that can slowly suffocate us if we don't keep them in check.
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