What happened to me? What happened to my health? What happened to my modeling? What happened to my job? What happened to my writing? What happened to my photography? What happened to the workaholic machine that could crank all these things out at once? I feel like I’ve asked and answered these questions in a variety of ways, strung out across numerous blog posts. I ‘ve asked these things of myself because others have asked them of me, but in being “my own worst critic,” I’ve asked myself these questions over and over again as if asking them one more time might bring me back into the downbeat of who I was.
There is a concept in psychology called “toxic stress,” wherein the body deals with so many traumatic events, or otherwise psychologically demanding circumstances, one after the next, that a chronic level of stress develops to the point that it eventually becomes debilitating. Psychological professionals will warn against self-diagnosis, but I do believe this is what finally did me in. Through my psychological onslaught of “survival of the fittest” as I’ve fondly called it, I never stopped or slowed down. Homeless? Whatever, I need to get straight A’s because that’s who I am and what I do. Psychological breakdown? Well, why should that stop me from going to college. Several sexual assaults in a year? Take a job and some summer classes and spend 4 hours a day commuting and make it a record 36 hours awake: get straight A’s and transfer to another state and take another 18 credit semester while working 2 jobs. Propel harder – spend every other semester afterwards taking a minimum of 20 credits, even in the midst of another psychological breakdown and three jobs. Graduate, move, and go into graduate school while working full-time (and sometimes basically the equivalent of two jobs) and experience the mental onslaught of studying trauma and mental health while working in those same fields. Try to find some time to carve out space for yourself.
Try to find some time to carve out space for yourself.
There is something to be said for how much the human spirit can take, can stand, and can fight back against. I’m sure, aside from the perfectionist in me, there was a part of me persisting in all these emotionally lofty goals despite the burn-out from stress if only to prove that I could – as if creating my own stressors was a neurotic one-up over being the recipient of random life stressors. Like hah, you think you can beat me – look what I can do to myself and still survive. Look at what you can do to me and I can still survive. It sounds pretty masochistic, doesn’t it?
The freakish part of it is that I know I’m not the only one who does it. I will repeatedly attest that growing up in NY, the suburbs of NYC, made me the feverishly hard worker I am. I see some of the same people I grew up with in high school still juggling work/personal loads I can’t even imagine – I will call some of them my heroes, my inspirations. If you can carry a heavy workload and juggle it successfully, you will have me impressed.
But it’s not healthy, I eventually learned.
I’m just going to let it sink in that the workload I listed above was something I had to learn as unhealthy. The worst part is that I didn’t even learn it voluntarily. Basic psychology is as basic psychology does and the lesson kept beating me over the head until it sunk in, and I finally got so sick that I lost my job.
I had just lost a promotion I was seriously gunning for, transferred out of the job, and finished off my second semester at graduate school, and all of a sudden, I got really intensely and randomly tired. This wasn’t the type of tired that could go away with a good night’s sleep. It was the type of tired where I’d say I was going to lay down for a nap and wake up 15 hours later (seriously, that happened). The type of tired that I would be working and the next thing I knew, I’d be waking up in my bed with no recollection of ever getting there (“blacking out” I called it, as it felt – “sleepwalking,” my doctor reframed). There were nights I only slept a few hours. My bills began spiraling out. Work got harder. Being known for my writing, you probably couldn’t imagine the fact that I actually couldn’t even string together a paragraph writing a simple interaction I had with a client. I existed in a constant low-grade panic, worried my bosses would walk into the office and see me staring at the same screen for 40 minutes, trying to write a paragraph. Thinking was straining, and words were hard. I became scattered. I began forgetting more things, and having more panic attacks as it felt like my body and mind were slipping. I kept trying to tell myself it was some temporary thing – some bug that’s going around, or emotional burnout, or a bad sleeping pattern I’d get out of. Until I made a serious error at work and got a written warning.
Me? Written warning? You must be mistaken. I don’t get written warnings. I get straight A’s while having psychological breakdowns and working 3 jobs. You must have me mistaken with a bad employee. I am not a bad employee.
I am not a bad employee, became the shame-ridden second-guessed sentiment I’ve been repeating for a year since. I’m not a bad employee – I’m just sick. Yes, I’m just sick.
What should’ve been a quick one month medical leave turned into a two month medical leave to only eventually quit my job for another three months before finding and feeling capable of handling employment again. I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and identified as a likely candidate of Fibromyalgia (a chronic pain disorder).
I could tell you that these disorders have considerably lessened and otherwise (to be dramatic) ruined my life – because it feels that way sometimes, and to a certain degree, is true. But in the midst of all the way these disorders lessened me, they also very much did spark a much greater realization and change in me. The very obvious realization dawned: “You’re working yourself into sickness. You need to balance your life better.”
Since then, it’s been about a two steps forward, four steps back sort of process, involving what feels like a lot of judgment from a lot of people. I eventually ended up “firing” my doctor over the treatment I needed, I received a lot of implications that I was a “flake” on the modeling/photography scene when I needed to call out sick, and I dealt with the perpetual self-doubt that I was a bad employee and that my sickness would be continually limiting my interaction with my career.
But, during this time, I also very adamantly worked to not overwork myself in grad school, ensured I got enough sleep between shifts, prioritized meeting up with friends and going out every now and then, worked the most I could within reason to address my stress around finances, changed my medications several times over, changed my diet to address newfound food allergies, repeatedly followed up with doctors, and very firmly (but politely) stated my boundaries when I felt someone was crossing them. I still have a very long way to go to achieve complete peace of mind, but I’m likely a lot closer than where I was when I was perpetuating my toxic stress.
The biggest challenge I’ve had across the board this past year was the acknowledgment that my disability could jeopardize my employment, make people think ill of me, and make me seem unprofessional – especially because it’s not a visible disability. A supplemental challenge to that one was the fact I found myself repeatedly dealing with the conflict that when people see you have potential in a certain area, they want you to work it all the way – even if you actually physically or emotionally can’t. Working around these agendas and discriminations can be tedious and tiring, but the advocacy of self-care is vital. Without self-care and advocacy, I would be a lot worse off in my conditions than I am currently.
Now that I’ve graduated grad school, I’ve moved to another area whose climate better suits my medical needs, which pays more for the same line of work I’ve been doing, and oh my goodness, look at that, without school I have free time for hobbies and more self-care! Excited for this future, I have great plans of more meditation, some self-defense, a generally better exercise routine, changing my diet again to better help my body – oh and go back to writing, modeling, photography, and all those other things I used to do with pretty good consistency.
How are you helping yourself develop your self-care skills? What helps you make time for self-care? What are the lessons that helped bring you there?
Love and health,