I should have known. I can say that now, three years later, with a certain amount of incredulity at my own lack of self-awareness, but the then-reality is that a lifetime of programming had me completely disconnected from my own health. Oprah Winfrey talks about listening to the “…whispers of the universe…” My universe was screaming at me and yet I remained oblivious.
It was April 2016 and for five months prior my body had been sending me warnings signs that I deftly ignored. I would be driving, sitting at my desk or walking into the boardroom at our office when I would be overtaken by massive waves of dizziness akin to being on a boat in choppy seas where the horizon suddenly disappears. The spells would be so extreme that I would often have to make a concerted effort to stay upright. Driving was particularly scary for obvious reasons. At other times my hands would shake to the point that people would notice and ask me if I was ok. I was also having trouble with my short-term memory. I would leave conversations both in and out of my professional life and 2 minutes later not have the faintest idea what had been talked about. I was desperately fatigued all of the time, but couldn’t get a good night’s sleep because I would wake-up at 2AM with my heart racing as though I had just done sprint training. I was irritable and impatient. I would be overcome by waves of profound sadness and anxiety, and found myself taking hour-long showers because the idea of leaving the house was simply too overwhelming. My typically sharp, attentive and logical mind was at moments just that, and at other moments the exact opposite.
And then it happened. As I walked from the office to my car to go to a meeting, I lost consciousness in a public parking lot. It was one of the greatest gifts of my life. My becoming hopelessly lost helped me find… me.
How I Got There…
All of the above was against the backdrop of a non-smoking, non-alcohol-drinking father, athlete and coach who had a lifetime of being active, eating well and preaching the benefits of self-awareness to anyone who would listen (and often even those who wouldn’t). But, clearly, behind the scenes there were lifestyle habits taking place that despite all of the seemingly positive behaviors were killing me.
To start, I viewed sleep as an inconvenience and would routinely get 4 hours a night. I worked long hours professionally in a high stress environment, gave a significant quantity of additional hours to a not-for-profit organization that I founded in 2010, was always present as single dad to my then-9 year old son, worked-out physically 5 – 8 times per week, had the attitude that because I was active I could eat anything I wanted and went out of my way to accommodate requests upon my time from those around me.
My kissing the pavement that sunny April Monday three years ago kicked off a two week period of great uncertainty and fear, but also marked a new beginning for me. I now refer to myself as Dave 2.0.
I received comprehensive medical attention immediately due in large part to the swift and amazing support of Julia Lefebvre, a friend and critical care nurse, who rallied colleagues around my cause. I was thoroughly tested in three different hospitals over a period of 10 days, but staff remained puzzled as to why a seemingly healthy and active 45 year old man kept losing consciousness, having extreme dizzy spells, experiencing heart palpitations, trembling hands and a tightness in his chest.
The break came two weeks later when I was admitted to a fourth hospital located near a home that I had rented out of town to, as the doctors had told me, “get some rest” while they tried to figure things out. I was alone at this cottage and at 8PM on my first night there started to feel like something was very wrong. I was having horrible pain in my left arm, a brutal tightness in my chest, difficulty breathing, bad dizzy spells and was sweating profusely. When I called my doctor she told me that I needed to hang up immediately and call 911 because all indications were that I was having a heart attack. I get choked-up at this point in the story because, for the first time in this whole ordeal, I thought that I might not be seeing my little boy again and I remember very clearly having a deep sense of loss, fear and regret flow through me.
I called 911 from my cell, but the operator told me that she couldn’t pinpoint my exact location and because I was in a rented cottage in an area that I didn’t know, I had no idea how to quickly tell them where I was. In the end, and perhaps stupidly as I likely endangered others, I drove myself to the nearest hospital because I felt like the clock was ticking particularly fast.
It was at this hospital that a doctor came to talk with me in the middle of the night. He said, “I have some good news and I have some bad news.” He shared that the good news was that I wasn’t having a heart attack. He then shared the bad news. He explained that, in essence, my lifestyle habits were causing damage to the way in which my body produced and regulated certain essential hormones. He shared with me that what he was seeing in me was something that he sees with increasing frequency in performance driven, Type-A individuals who seem to be perpetually in “GO” mode. He told me that I had a decision to make and put it like this. “If you continue as you are there is a high degree of probability that your son will be without a father in the coming few years. So, figure your shit out because the only person who can fix this is you. I can’t do anything for you. There aren’t any pills to take or medical treatments to follow. You need to change how you live your life. And, it is going to take some time. Give yourself 12 – 18 months. You aren’t going to change a lifetime of living one way in a week.” I remember the two of us sitting there for a moment or two in silence as I let it sink it in before he wished me luck and left.
As I left the hospital that night I did so with a certain amount of fear of the uncertain road ahead, but also with a huge sense of relief as the solution was within my control. I felt like I had been given a second chance. Those who know me know that I am an action oriented person. When I make a decision I do my absolute best to make it happen. I decided that night to, as the doctor said, figure my shit out.
I quickly came to two very important conclusions. The first was that I am entirely responsible for my physical and mental health. I could have blamed a long list of extenuating circumstances, but the tough love conversation with the ER doctor left me with a clear understanding that I had gotten myself in this mess and that conversely I was in control of getting myself out of it. The second conclusion that I came to was that I was going to need help and I was going to need it quickly.
- I reached out to my network and had the great fortune of being put in contact with Chantelle Groenewoud of Movement108 in Vancouver, BC, a young woman and former high performance athlete who had lived through her own personal hell of a burnout, and who, without hesitation, shared of her own journey with me. Chany became my unofficial burnout coach and there aren’t enough words to adequately describe the impact that having her in my world as a source of support and education had on me.
- I started to educate myself about the importance of sleep and came to understand that it would be the focal point of my recovery. Arianna Huffington’s book “The Sleep Revolution” played a huge role in my sleep journey.
- I started to educate myself around body chemistry and came to understand that our mental and physical health are directly related, and that both reflect the quality of the fuel that we burn in terms of nutrition and lifestyle habits.
- I became highly protective of my time. The word “No”, which I had rarely uttered in the 45 years prior became my de facto motto. Mark Manson’s book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” and Tim Ferriss’ book “The Four Hour Work Week” figured prominently in shaping my journey towards saying “No” and managing my time.
- I stopped all endurance training for 12 – 18 months, including running, which was particularly hard for me, and replaced it with walking and less strenuous activities.
- I immediately stopped working in the evenings and on weekends.
- I immediately and significantly decreased the amount of time I spent looking at my phone particularly outside of work.
- I immediately decreased my hours at the office to a more reasonable level of 6 – 8 hours per day. The idea of stopping work altogether simply added to my stress so I viewed a more balanced to approach as the best solution for me.
- I came to the realization that my To Do list and Inbox were forever going to be full whether I worked 14 hours a day or 8, so it didn’t make logical sense to work 14 hours.
- I started to pay closer attention to what I ate and reduced the quantity of added sugar and simple carbs in my diet.
- I started to pay attention to my breathing.
- I started to practice being present in the moment.
With these changes and with time my mental and physical health started to improve at a steady pace. Again, proper sleep, which for me was being in bed by 2200 hrs and waking at 0700 hrs, was critical to my recovery. It took me 6+ months to get to a place where I could sleep 6 – 7 hours uninterrupted a night. I found it very difficult.
In the months and years since I have learned a lot about life and myself in general.
- I took my health for granted and I had the attitude that I was somehow invincible.
- I took time for granted which, in my opinion, was one of the major contributing factors as it facilitated destructive lifestyle habits.
- I now know that the key to my good health and a balanced life is… less. Working less, training less, being less available and taking on less stress.
- I now know that I show-up in life as the best version of myself when I am rested and present. I am a better father to my kids, a better man to my partner in life, Nathalie, a better business partner, a better coach to my clients and, first and foremost, a better person to myself.
- I now understand that my prior inability to say no was in part anchored to a lifetime of programming around the notion that to martyr one’s self on the pyre of sleeplessness and self-sacrifice is a sign of strength. I was an enthusiastic student of a school of thought that preached working long hours, forgoing sleep; “excelling” in high stress environments and physically training 5+ times a week regardless of the fact that it was harming my mental and physical health.
- I now understand, somewhat sheepishly, that I had a need to be wanted and to feel important through behaviors that were actually making me ill.
The Gift That Changed My Life…
I am a strong believer that my passing out between those two cars gave me a second chance at life, which I will forever be grateful for. My experience with burnout has made one very important truth crystal clear to me. And I am speaking directly to those of you who, as you have been reading this article, have been nodding your heads because you, too, feel like you are either at or moving towards a burnout. That truth is…
Living a healthier, calmer and more balanced life doesn’t require quitting your job, selling all of your worldly possessions and disappearing into the jungles of South America to escape the pressures of modern life. What it requires is the decision to make your health your number one priority, a willingness to follow some fundamental rules around lifestyle habit change (described above) and to seek short-term assistance from the appropriate person(s). The ER doctor was correct in stating that it would take me 12 – 18 months, but the reality is that I benefited almost immediately from the changes that I started to implement with the help of Chantelle and others.
There is absolutely light at the end of your tunnel. It is a question of committing yourself to believing that and doing what needs to be done to make it a reality. We must each champion our own change, but with a commitment and willingness to get it done the rewards are great.
If you or someone you know is in a bad place around burnout, please share this with them. Feel free to reach out and connect with me to share of your story and / or your struggles.