Call it Perspective. Call it a quarter-life crisis/intervention/timing/coincidence. Whatever the term, some things in life really do happen for a reason, for the better, for another shot at peace of mind, heart, and spirit. The fork in the road. Self-Love or Self-Destruction.
But before I go all hipster and start preaching standing on an old raw milk crate, spitting pepita seeds and coconut flakes from turmeric stained teeth, I’ll begin with a brief background snapshot.
I had a heart attack at 32.
No pre-existing medical conditions apart from a history of ball and chain work insanity.
Rewind a few years to…
Twenty-eight. And I was kicking-ass. A health professional, with a past-life of adrenalin fuelled roles in event and project management abroad and on home-soil, completing two degrees in the background, progressing to middle management in the health industry, and rapidly climbing the ladder to a General Management role of two states and the crowd of staff that come with it.
A 30 year old female in a GM role of a major international corporation, in my naiveté I was not aware I was considered a rarity. The political daggers in my back made sense in retrospect, and that’s the blessing of hindsight, and also the blessing of blissful ignorance at the time. The stress was always felt regardless.
The supposed never-ending domino of success wasn’t easy to obtain, let alone maintain, and there were downsides, failures scattered along the way, but to each one I dusted off and kept ploughing forward. Dwelling was not permitted. And so, I marched with blinkers on into a gauntlet of delayed side-effects. Quite like a set of dominos, it all came tumbling down, gaining momentum as the years progressed, to what has now been the ultimate lesson.
Rock bottom, the final piece fell. My health.
Yes, I ‘busted my ass’ for many years in order to ‘kick-ass’ since the age of 13, studying, competing, pushing myself with sheer adrenalin and the thrill of being ‘the best’, ‘the one’, ‘the top of the class’, the ‘reference point’, the ‘standard’. The prizes, certificates, accolades, pats on the back, hype and respect followed.
Point of this entry is that throughout all the success I failed in one crucial area, Self-Love.
It irks me to think of it. To acknowledge it. Let alone type it. And to publish it?! No way. This is for the time capsule. Even so, the capsule would be buried at the centre of the earth. With the hope of molten lava disintegrating any trace of my uttering. But here I am typing this as a healing, an apology to myself, an act of Self-Love so to speak. What I had done for so long, ignored my health, sanity, flailing energy, tears, exhaustion, loneliness. All self-induced. I hadn’t time for exercise, for nourishing my body, for fun, for rest, for relationships. But 100 -150 emails, a monsoon shower of calls, and firefighting corporate crises daily all making me look like Lakshmi the multi-armed Goddess? Booyah! I was IN. Wow did I get a rush from that. I hadn’t realised I’d also be rushed to hospital from its cumulative effects.
External expectation reigned. Ironically, this was of course, self-created too. There’s no such thing as expectation really. Each person has a different filter and definition of what is ‘expected’. Depends on your environment, the people who surround you, your previous experiences.
All of the above had created the Gauntlet of a Lifetime, and there was no other option than to run it.
Hurdle 1: Vulnerability. Hurdle 2: Acceptance. Hurdle 3: Trust. Hurdle 4: Humility.
My business-like-don’t-mess-with-me facade had granted me the catchphrase of ‘strong woman’, and now I was on a stretcher in ER: helpless, confused, scared; all confounded by the fact I was alone in a foreign country as a solo traveller, and at the mercy of these doctors who were working very quickly on me and speaking even quicker in a foreign language. Yep, it was all Greek to me, quite literally. I hadn’t a clue as to what was going on.
‘I may actually die…I can’t breathe…’ the thought repeated.
Tears turned into sobs. How humiliating. I’m having a meltdown. For once in my life I can say I need help. No more ‘Independent women’ playlist on repeat, it’s morphed into a Moby kind of vibe.
Strangely I could feel my heart opening, releasing; the more I cried, the more I felt, the more things made sense. Wow. What is happening? Breaking from the cocoon. But what was this cocoon anyway? I thought I was already a glittery butterfly goddammit. The ‘strong woman’, facade had been unintentionally created, touched, and retouched, over the years to keep the marshmallow within safe. Because we all know how easily marshmallows burn afterall. And when they burn they’re inedible. No one can stomach that.
And so, the interwoven threads of questions began to loosen, the once tightly knit tapestry unravelling to …
The What Ifs.
What If I die here? What If I had treated my body differently? What If I chose peace of mind instead of watching my bank account grow at record speed? What If I chose to catchup with my friends and encouraged joy to ripple through with a string of belly laughs instead of toiling away on a sunny Saturday in front of 15 different tabs on my laptop? (and relatives delivering food to my door because I was ‘in-the-zone’ sunrise to sunset and onward to welcome another sunrise). The horror.
What If I chose to sit silently and breathe in deeply instead of crowding my mind with ‘To-Dos’ or replaying the negative loop of the past/current issues/conversations/interactions/outstanding rubix cube of problems?
Would I have been in a different position now? Would I be in better health? Would I still be island-hopping, sunning my backside into a dreamy shade of tan, instead of drowning in a sea of salty tears?
Cue Scene One: EXISTENTIAL CRISIS. Because hey, we all love a good drama.
Enter 1st Character, Stage Left. or Right? Hang on, there’s a crowd of characters pushing through.
“Hello Vulnerability. I had prayed I’d meet you one day after years of refining the armour around my heart, perfecting my poker face, keeping my emotions in check. I mistook you for weakness, but I now see how essential you are in the art of Give and Take, the natural rhythm of existence. My years of perfectionism, persisting through knock-backs, hurts, disappointments, never taking no for an answer and never allowing myself to acknowledge negative emotions lest it affect my end-goal; revealing my humanity, my truth, my self.”
Somewhere between the hours of 2pm and 11pm in the outpatient ward, from sheer exhaustion, I let it all go. Vulnerability cradling me, the extraneous, superfluous thoughts faded into the ether. The white noise of my mind lost its hum.
‘Yes, so what if I die,’ I thought, ‘at least I got to see Santorini 2 days ago. What great timing.’ I smiled to myself staring at the clinically stark white ceiling; and this time a tear of joy rolled down my cheek.
My breath deepened.
“Hello Acceptance, I’ve struggled to allow you into my life, without a fight or tantrum of some sort. I’m so happy to have you here with me, thank you for persisting with me after all these years. There’s nothing more to do now, but trust. It will be okay. And if it’s not; that’s okay too. All I have is the present moment, not the past, nor the future. And like I said, at least I got to see Santorini, how magnificently silvery can this lining be.”
The relief deepened.
“Hello Trust, it’s so good to meet you, finally. What took you so long! such an elusive character you are. I’m exhausted, and I need your help. I know, that you know, how to handle everything in the perfect way, with perfect timing, so I’ll leave it to you. Oh and by the way, you’re really great company, please stay.”
I made some calls with my IV-free arm, and spoke (slurred) to the people I love. Perspective entered, another acknowledgment that the most beautiful things in life are genuinely free. My heart melted into peace.
I realised expectation is a figment of our own filter and past experience. Our lesson is to know that we are creators of our own experience, and we can create a new experience, if only we learn to embrace imagination and intention as our guide; not our past, not hear-say, not unwelcome expectation.
It may take a bit more creativity, positivity and fearless leaping into the unknown (even if you’re praying/chanting/crossing toes fingers eyeballs/overdosing on immodium to keep from shitting yourself as you launch), but wow, how freeing it is to be aligned with your intrinsic nature; your own desires, beliefs, your personal vision.
Where had chasing my interpretation of the world’s view of, ‘Enough’, gotten me?
“Oh hello Burn-Out, it sucks to meet you, but I suppose I always felt you lurking around, your stench emanating from every corner. Yeah, you really do stink. I tried to batten down the hatches to keep you at bay. Shoved all types of furniture against my front door. Looks like you’re sneakier than I realised, dropping clues, hinting at the inevitable outcome. What a sadist. You’re the kind of character I typically cull, an energy vampire, you drag me down. But here we are, face-to-face, I may as well tell it as it is and show you what I’m made of. Thanks for the ticket to Athens, I’ll see you there. Oh and, BRING IT.”
How could I have avoided this unpleasant rendezvous?
Perhaps by acknowledging when I felt tired at 1am, and supplying rest instead of soldiering on with excel plugged into my big-screen TV so I could see better with my dreary eyes.
Acknowledging those darting pains in my shoulders by giving the finger to those 90 emails staring at me, and providing relief with 30 minutes of fresh air and movement instead;
Paying attention when I held my breath due to stress and needed 5 minutes of downtime to regroup.
Realising that training myself to enjoy coffee to stay awake, increasing from 2 shots to 4 shots per day, with a grand finale of bringing my very own espresso machine into work for an on-tap hit was a matador FLAG.
Weekends spent in bed catching up on sleep from the week prior, and mentally preparing for the week ahead; having a beautiful relationship with books and European pillows and 1000 thread Egyptian cotton sheets – I hadn’t the energy nor time for an actual person. Plus, that would have crowded my snooze-style of passing out on my stomach stretched out like a pancake.
SCENE 2: RECOVERY – Taking Action because Talk is Cheap (and a hospital bed is fabulously expensive)
Stage 1. Shedding the old, aligning and embracing a new version of me
I quit my job. The ethos of the company made me feel I was selling my soul a little more each day.
The crux was when, face-down forehead on desk, during a conference call I kept repeating in my mind’s eye ‘God help meeee…this is not where I should be…their people management is heartless, I can’t be this type of leader…or can I?!’ I envisioned having physically aged 10 years more in the space of a year, a shell of myself, Ambassador for the Walking Dead Rise of the Zombies: The Apocalypse. Oh and I should mention, I was alone in my office during that call, otherwise I would have surely been sectioned off.
Fast forward another 2 weeks from that head-banging moment, and I had the courage to unshackle myself and flee. I told the CEO to stick it Joan of Arc style (for the people!), and remember practically skipping out of the office lobby with such a sense of relief I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner. I did a little pirouette in the middle of the street, arms held high to the heavens. Slightly mad to onlookers but hey, I was a free woman! With the courage to choose my own path Hoorah!! *The crowd goes wild and the amount of rainbow confetti thrown is blissfully blinding*
Stage 2. Creating more space for Life to unfold with Intention
1. Shunning the rat-race.
2. Learning how to breathe again.
3. Learning how to have fun again.
4. Learning how to love again.
All of the above requires time – courage to just Be.
Shunning the rat-race: I consciously downsized the type of life I was living. I applied for clinical roles in keeping aligned with my passion for helping others regain their health instead of putting out the political fires in people management, no matter how tempting the financial rewards were. Goodbye fancy car and Apple freebie products. Goodbye corporate credit card and indulgent all-inclusive work trips. I will miss you all, but not as much as missing out on my version of happiness.
Breathing again: I began making time for self-care, the empirical form of self-love. The perfectionist in me absolutely sucked at perfecting the basics. Give me an abstract problem and I’ll solve it. Give me the challenge of eating breakfast in the morning and I’ll tell you why it is not possible. Sub-lesson within this lesson: Accept that you do not know everything, find some things difficult, and ask for help. It does not mean you are a failure! Admire yourself for having the courage to tell it like it is!
“Why hello Humility. Thank you for teaching me that there is a perfection in showing imperfection. That it is okay to ask for a footstool or a step ladder, a flying fox or a pyramid of people to carry us across to our next destination. That it is okay to wave a white flag and signal for a rescue crew. People need people. We are biologically wired for connection afterall.”
So I hired a personal trainer. I reviewed my diet. Increasing energy levels and feeling stronger were my main goals. Feeling grounded, nurturing myself. When my trainer asked me if I was allergic to vegetables and I hadn’t realised she was sarcastically referring to the lack of nutritional items in my food journal, the light bulb short-fused from such high wattage. Now how basic is that. But it was clearly a struggle for me, a genuine oversight.
Point is, seek the experts of what you find to be your achilles heel, learn to gradually improve, forgive your missteps (to hell with the all or nothing attitude, it’s the extremist method that creates the greatest disappointment from unsustainable gains) and have faith in your ability to eventually master your achilles and walk straight again with head held high. I got this. You’ve got this.
I now choose to eat breakfast before diving into my morning coffee; choose to actually kick off my shiny heels and slip on some scuffed flats for a walk outside the office during lunch; purposefully inhale fresh air and sunshine, or rain! (Who’d have thought? Not me). Walking meetings anyone? Embrace it! Create it.
I make an effort to drink more water even if it means patients need to wait another 5 minutes for my toilet break (yes, I actually trained myself to stop drinking so much water so I could sit in long meetings/run appointments back-to-back on time without risk of peeing myself or needing to duck out! Ludicrous).
Having fun again: Making the time to do things (literally diarising it in 1-2hr blocks) that I love; things that bring me laughter and joy. Painting, salsa dancing, going to concerts (even on weekdays. No more ‘school night blackout periods’!), scoping out new brunch places, catching up with friends, connecting with people who are aligned with the type of life I wish to lead and I can gratefully announce, I am now currently leading.
Loving again: Being open to Love. Firstly of Self, via Self-Care. The bonus is it naturally radiates into a greater expansion of giving and receiving love with Others, and ultimately Life itself. It really is a 2-way street baby. One cannot exist without the other. We’re symbiotic creatures. I’m pleased to say I now share my 1000-thread egyptian cotton sheets and european pillows with a beautiful man, books on both our nightstands (Happy to announce I’ve also traded in my infra-red goggles for some sexy sunglasses to manage all of this sunshine).
What had chasing the world’s definition of ‘Enough’, given me?
The wisdom to know that everyone’s version of enough is so different, so individual; and how else could it possibly be, when we are all unique?
The real question is: what is YOUR definition of Enough? Of Happiness? Of Success?
And where is this definition stemming from? Yourself? External Expectation? Have a think about that. It is worth your while.
It’s the same as Love. Amongst all of the millions of people on this earth, with all our varied traits, aesthetics, aspirations, how is it that we can meet hundreds of people and yet we are searching for the ‘one’ that resonates with us. That click. The spark. That inspiration. The Muse. That melodic connection when your frequency tunes into the right station. No more white noise. A knowing, an unspoken understanding, that instant you realise, ‘ah, there you are, I’ve been looking for you…’
It applies with the Self also.
“There you are, I’ve been looking for you. It only took hospitalisation in Athens to find you. But that’s okay, I’m still alive, and all will be different now, for the better, you’ll see (and yes, my smashed rose-coloured glasses are of no use to me anymore, but thanks for your infra-red goggles, they’ll help me navigate the darkness instead).”
That’s what I came to understand during recovery. 32 years of age, my heart packing it in was the only way to learn to appreciate myself more. To stop the endless wheel of burnout.
Mr Burnout left some rotten clues with his tip-toeing. Glandular fever in 2008. Intermittent weight and circulation issues oscillating like a pendulum, the extent of the swing correlating to the extent of corporate insanity. Sprinklings of heart palpitations in 2015/16. A side of sporadic anxiety for good measure. Would you like an ambulance with that? Sure. Why not. It’s Limited Edition, but you’ve earned it as our VIP customer. Thanks.
To every action there is an equal an opposite reaction. A Newton classic. What a smart guy.
As I wrap this novella into a perfectly imperfect bow, I shall leave you with this…
In the colourful tapestry of existence, we are all constantly striving, learning, evolving, climbing a mountain or sliding down one dodging twigs and boulders, wading through emotional swamps and hoping for a calm clearing ahead. The rainbow after the storm. Everyone wants one (the rainbow, not the storm) and as the cycle of life shows us, just as the sun rises reliably each day, there’s always an upside to every downside, if you look hard enough, and deeply enough that is.
To recap, the upside in all of this? It was the seemingly simple, but very essential lesson of:
Self-Care; Otherwise known as Self-Love. The Gate-Keeper. I hope my ramblings and riddles are of some use to someone out there, searching for a rainbow amongst the clouds.
Onwards and Upwards.