The night of the 5th June 2015, I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t stop vomiting and my head was spinning. I was dazed and confused. I couldn’t stand up. My husband rushed me to the hospital. The doctor couldn’t explain my state: a healthy woman, who two months before had just completed her second marathon. They did an MRI of my back, my head… they took blood samples and six hours later, I was still feeling pretty sick, so they sent me to the neurologist, who delivered a clear diagnosis (finally): “You are exhausted. You are too stressed out and your body can’t cope anymore. You have to rest.” And I cried. As I never had in a long time. I felt so guilty and so ashamed of myself that it was unbearable. I had tried so hard to cope with everything, always to go the extra mile… and I had failed. And worst of all, I had put myself in that situation. I was the only one to blame. I spent one week, literally, in bed. I could not walk or maintain a conversation. Eating was very difficult and my parents had to travel to Lisbon to take care of me. I know what it is to go through rough times, as I had stage one ovarian cancer when I was just 25 years old, but this was much worse, because I couldn’t understand how and why I had put myself in that position.
I was at the top of my professional career. I had just moved from Beauty Director of ELLE Spain to Editor in Chief of Women’s Health (Spain and Portugal). I was in a new city, Lisbon, ready for new adventures. My first book Women that Run had sold more than seven editions, had been translated into Chinese and Portuguese, and I was in the process of writing my second book, while I was preparing my second marathon. I was giving speeches on running and female empowerment through sports, organizing charity events for research into child leukaemia, writing my blog The Beauty Mail and running countless social media accounts… living three lives in just 24 hours. And I was delighted, and happy, with that frenetic life: no stopping, taking planes was for me was like getting on a bus, constant traveling and working with three teams in two different countries. I was a big player… and being stressed out and exhausted was part of the game (or so I thought). But I paid a heavy price: lack of sleep and not eating properly made my trained and super-fit body crash. I didn’t read the signs: I couldn’t sleep, eat, couldn’t feel my arms and I had terrible headaches. “I can do it. I will rest when I find the time”, I kept telling myself. But the symptoms got worse. I had sudden blindness in one of my eyes and by the time I decided to ask for help, I got so sick that they had to take me straight to the ER.
But I recovered and discovered that I had to disconnect to reconnect.
I knew that I had got sick because my neurons, literally, were exhausted. It had been like a short circuit in my head and I knew why: my 24/7 digital life. So the first thing I did was my own version of a “DIY digital detox”. I disconnected my e-mail accounts on my mobile phone (yes, and I survived), I didn’t take the smartphones with me (yes, in plural because I had three) during the weekends and once I arrived home, I literally had to lock them in a room. It was difficult but I managed. I realized that if I didn’t want to have another nervous breakdown that was what I had to do. Note: I still haven’t changed these routines.
Making sure that I was sleeping properly was my other priority, so no mobile phones or tablets in bed and I also started monitoring my sleep. If you don’t measure it you can’t change it and it worked. I used different apps, like Sleepcycle and I got a Fitbit to track my activity and also my sleep.
I read about meditation and I tried it through an App (Headspace) but it also became another task, another thing to be included in my to-do list. But once again, my running shoes where the answer to my troubled head and my best medicine.
I realized that I could meditate while I was running, but do it in my own way. Running gives you a certain clarity. Sometimes I just want to listen to my heartbeat and the thoughts that normally trouble me just come and go, I don’t fight them, I don’t struggle… they come and go, like breath in and breath out. Running is my therapy and my daily meditation that keeps me calm and helps me cope with stress and anxiety.
Like many women I have discovered that running is that time that you can reconnect with yourself: you are not a mother, a wife or an employee. It is just about you, free from everything. And the most amazing thing is that you don’t have to run a marathon to experience this freedom. Once I recovered, I was running and that was a joy and a true gift. Now, it is less about my personal best, shape or size, and all about the sheer joy of proving to myself that I am capable of doing more things than I had ever imagined.
The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other defies the limits of my own body. When I lace up, I am leaving my comfort zone with the only help of my discipline and my mental fortitude. I am not racing against anyone but myself. Running has taught me to be fearless: I don’t know what the future holds but I am not afraid anymore. I am a runner so I just have to keep on going and see myself crossing the finish line with a big smile on my face.
As Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon officially says in the preface of my second book, “Correr es vivir a tope de power” (“Running is living life to the full, full of power”): “Run. Slow or fast, it doesn’t matter. Just run. If you do, here is a promise from me: running will give you just about everything… especially yourself”.
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Originally published at medium.com