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My Happiness Choice

An unexpected hospital stay in China prompts a major life change

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Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Knell
Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Knell

Seven years ago, I was working in a job that was running me ragged — long hours dealing with clients in Asia, UK, and US, nonstop impossible deadlines, and a toxic boss who made me feel I was never good enough.

Simultaneously, I was a few months in on a regimen to dig me out of the worst depressive episode of my life. I was making progress, and feeling more functional. But after years of feeling unhappy, pessimistic, and hopeless, it was a long climb out of that deep dark hole.

Still, I went into a business trip to Shangai and Singapore feeling good, motivated to prove to my boss (and myself) that I could win us a bunch of new work while there.

And then two days into my visit to Shanghai, I got sick from something I ate. And when I say sick, I mean hemorrhaging blood sick. I passed out in a new client meeting, and then spent a night in my hotel feeling fairly sure I might not survive, but terrified to go to a hospital.

It was clear by the next morning that this was not your typical food poisoning and I had no other choice but to allow my colleagues to arrange for the hotel to take me to a hospital. My coworkers had to continue on to our meetings that I’d scheduled, so there I was alone in an emergency room in China, delirious and even more terrified. 

I was admitted immediately after a fairly frightening CT scan experience, and told that what I had (hemorrhagic gastroenteritis) was going to keep me in the hospital for about 7 days, half of which would be on IV antibiotics/liquid diet in order to kill the very powerful bug that had attacked me. I begged to be allowed to fly home to the States so I didn’t have to go through this alone. No, I was told, that would be impossible, as I would likely die if I took a flight. Oh. Wow. 

After a couple of hours of outright panic and calls to family and doctors back in the States, I accepted that I needed to stay exactly where I was. And to be honest, I was so sick and so weak that I collapsed into my hospital bed and just cried and cried.

Being in a hospital 7000 miles away from home, away from family and friends, is life-changing. But just how life-changing was up in the air. At first, the choice was Life or Death.

Those doctors helped me choose Life with their care (which turned out to be quite good care). A day or so into my stay, once my delirium lifted as the meds did their work, I realized the rest of the choice was up to me. I could choose to continue to be terrified and miserable or I could choose to find happiness. 

What I realized in those forced days of recovery in the hospital is that my happiness was completely in my control. I had a LOT of time to think, and realized I hadn’t been allowing myself to truly think about my happiness, and what I needed to do to allow it into my life.

I had only recently taken up meditation, and I relied on that a lot during my hospital stay. I thought about how happy I was that I had found that practice just in time for when I would really need it.

I realized that while I did not get sick because of my job, the sickness gave me the opportunity to evaluate what I needed in my life to be happy. And ultimately, I realized I would need to walk away from my job to be truly happy.

I also embraced the idea that my family was the most important thing in my life, and being so far away during this life event was heart-wrenching. 

So after my 7 days in a Shanghai hospital, I gratefully (albeit still a bit weakly) returned to NYC. A few days after my return, my first niece was born, I quit my toxic job, and I chose happiness as my next steps.

The path to happiness isn’t always straightforward, and isn’t always easy, but I’m so thankful for my hospital stay because it ultimately opened my eyes to what’s important in my life. And happiness is always my choice.

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