A few years ago, I awoke in excruciating pain. Every bone in my body ached.
Soon, I found myself on my doctor’s exam table in one of those ugly smocks with my butt exposed, describing the piercing pain that first started in the back of my head and my left knee.
What the heck the back of my head got to do with my knee, I had no idea.
Within months, every muscle and joint in my body ached. At times, I was so fatigued that it was unbearable to get out of bed. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, my body had kicked into menopause to the tenth power, bringing an onslaught of hot flashes, insomnia, bloating, irregular heartbeats, irritability, mood swings, brain fog, and night sweats so terrible that I awoke every morning soaked.
Most days, I’d have just enough energy to sit in my pajamas with my laptop and an iPhone pressed against my ear, trying desperately to hold onto some semblance of what used to be my reality.
I knew my life would never be the same.
It was as though I’d gone to sleep one night and awoke with a big yellow YIELD sign plastered across my chest.
Over the next six months, I lay on exam table after exam table, in ugly smock after ugly smock, with every type of doctor—neurologist, endocrinologist, cardiologist, rheumatologist, gynecologist—anybody with an ist behind their credentials that could heal me.
Soon, I’d come to learn that I was not just battling one health problem but three: Prolactinoma (a disorder of the pituitary gland that leads to a brain tumor); Fibromyalgia (an incurable chronic disease that causes widespread muscle, joint pain and fatigue); and Autoimmune Disease (a condition where the body attacks and damages its own tissues and triggers all kinds of illnesses).
I stood in front of the mirror one day and took a close look at myself—thinking about the nearly ten years of chronic stress that I had imposed on myself when I decided to walk away from a 20+ year corporate career to found Saving Promise—a national nonprofit inspired by five generations of mothers and daughters in my family that suffered and survived more than sixty years of domestic violence, including my granddaughter, a little girl named Promise.
While the work was purposeful, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was to blame for having to lay in those ugly smocks. Until then, I had never once given thought to all the stress that contributed to the decline of my health: the countless late nights and weekends I’d spent hovered over my laptop; the times I’d shoved anything down my throat just to satisfy the hunger pains in my belly; the days I’d put off exercising because I was too busy to breathe let alone work out.
I was so fixated on my work that I couldn’t begin to fathom the damage I was doing to my body. And I’d shouldered a deep sense of personal responsibility: I did not want to fail.
I could NOT fail.
Ever since I was eight years old—about the time I came to understand the difference between success and failure—I’d prided myself on working hard to prove that I was good enough, that I belonged.
Somehow, fear of failure and belonging were synonymous to me, something I’d learned when I first started measuring myself against my brother. Barely nine months apart, we shared the same age, size, height and schools. But he was always so much faster, smarter, more gifted than I.
For years, I thought of him: what, why, and how he would do something, and then I’d try my damnedest to do it better. I loved my brother. We were so close. But secretly, I was jealous of how learning came so easily for him but knocked me square on my ass. Although I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, a bit awkward, lanky and lacking, I did have one thing going for me: grit.
Whatever I put my mind to, I was determined to persevere.
Now, when I looked in the mirror, all I saw was my work. That singular project or task or email that sent me into a frenzy. I was no longer measuring myself against my brother. I was now measuring myself against my insatiable need for belonging—a belonging that was interwoven in my quest to save Promise.
I didn’t think about the consequences. I didn’t think about the risks.
Yes, I’d heard that stress is a weapon of mass destruction—leading to all kinds of chronic and acute illnesses like heart disease, hypertension, stroke, ulcers, PTSD, anxiety and depression. But that lanky little girl had also heard about what our overzealous society tells us is the key to the American Dream: Grit + Hustle = Success.
I had grit. I had hustle. But I’d lost my way.
I didn’t know how not to work so hard. Even when I tried to find balance, it meant getting as much done as I could in the fourteen-to-sixteen-hour days that I had become accustomed to, then ending my day in the nick of time to eat, sleep (restlessly), then do it all over again.
I was profoundly and utterly a complete mess.
Before I knew it, Fear, Worry, Doubt, Regret and Suffering showed up and wreaked havoc on my body, hauled my hiney out of bed one night and made me beg for mercy.
Monsters were what I would come to label them.
My monsters were there to teach me something: either I was going to change my life or change my life expectancy (something one of my wise doctors had once said to me).
Over the next few years with the help of a cognitive behavior therapist whom I fondly referred to as Dr. Sharon, I slowly began the journey of healing and finding balance. Every week, I sat despondent on Dr. Sharon’s couch as I struggled to rethink my life. For decades, I had prided myself on hard work and perseverance. Now I had to unlearn all that I’d been taught and believed.
I was angry that I had allowed my monsters to put my life at risk.
I was angrier still that this was the way fate and the universe chose to acknowledge me for my hard work. I am reminded of a story that put it all into perspective for me.
The truth is we all have Fear—and so many other monsters—that are our Cholera. I know firsthand how challenging it can be to face your fears and find that delicate balance when you want nothing more than to succeed.
Success comes with a price.
But I am living proof that the stakes don’t have to be so high. Learning to work smarter, not harder, not only saved my life but helped me to live more productively and purposefully. For example, a study published in the Journal of Employment Counseling revealed that failure to achieve balance can lead to serious negative consequences for the individual, the organization and their work, including higher stress levels, increased absenteeism and lower productivity.
So, know that you can find a new way of living, a new way of succeeding. But first, you must be willing to open up your heart (and your mind) to finding that balance. Allow me to help you get there by offering a free copy of my book: Inspiring Life-Changing Stories to Overcome Your Fears, Find Balance and Live Your Best Life. Not only will these stories empower you, but I also outline 13 practical tips that you can start using right now to find balance.
Today, my greatest lesson has been to find my own sense of self for the sake of my health and my sanity. I no longer measure myself against my work or my brother. For the first time in my life, I know that I will succeed and even more… that I belong.