I grew up in a household that ran on productivity. My mom grew up on a dairy farm, so she was used to rising with the sun and making the most of every waking hour. As a teenager, I would try to sleep in, but at 7am sharp I’d be jolted out of bed by the Footloose soundtrack blasting through the house. Naps were unheard of in our family, with one exception. My dad would occasionally take a 10-20 minute power nap, but that was really all that was allowed. Whether a day was “good” or not was measured by how much you had accomplished.
This backdrop, although admittedly not intentional on my parents’ part, led me to believe that my worth as a human was based on whether I was performing or producing. I enjoyed sleeping in, watching TV, and laying around the house on unbearably hot summer days (we didn’t have air conditioning). I would do these things when I could, but the price I paid was a crushing feeling of guilt. If I didn’t have my friends to compare myself to, I may have considered myself entirely worthless or inherently lazy.
As a result, I grew into an achiever. I feared not being useful, successful, or hard working. I feared I might not be successful if I didn’t work hard enough. And although I may not have been the hardest worker or the biggest overachiever I carried a lot of anxiety around whether I was doing enough or meeting others’ expectations.
For most of my life I thought of my body as a machine that I could control. In fact, I think many people treat their bodies like that these days. We push through fatigue to meet deadlines, go into the office when we’re sick and should rest, starve ourselves with fad diets, and undergo crazy cosmetic procedures to look a certain way. Rather than seeing the body as an equal part of our being, we perceive it as merely a house for the soul and something to be molded and overcome by the mind. For the first 29 years of my life I treated my body as an inanimate possession, rather than the living, breathing organism that it is. I ignored my bodily needs, as so many do, and ended up unwell in my body, mind, and soul as a result.
At my lowest point, I was depressed and burnt out, giving way too much to a job that depleted me. I would stay in the office until 9pm many evenings, drinking the free beer we got from our beverage clients, only going home when I was too drunk to handle menial tasks. My partner at the time was also stressed and depressed and rather than motivating each other to drink less, go to the gym, and get better jobs, we drank more and fought into the early hours of the morning. At one point I would drink a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer to myself each and every night. I went to work with a stomach flu once, because I had no choice but to work either way and I would be docked a vacation day if I worked from home instead. I smoked cigarettes daily and partied every weekend and surrounded myself with people who did the same. I was entirely removed from my body and its needs, yet convinced that the work ethic I’d grown up with could overcome and win out no matter what. Because that’s what was important, right? My drive to stay on top of my career, to do what was expected of me, was creating so much stress and anxiety that I would drink and party in my time off to distract myself from how miserable I was. And yet, this cycle was like a drill that just dug me deeper and deeper into a pit of dis-ease and misery.
Right about now you might be asking, “so what changed?” The truth isn’t pretty. The partner I mentioned earlier died suddenly at the age of 30. His stress at trying to succeed and provide, to fit within the societal mold of what it means to be a man, took its toll on his physical health. The instability of the start-up job market shook his confidence, because like me, he also believed his worth was tied to his ability to produce. This led to more stress and anxiety, which meant more drinking, which eventually produced physical side effects. After a year of declining health, he died of a seizure, just about a month after his 30th birthday. I was devastated, shocked, and absolutely terrified. Until that point, I had never quite understood just how intertwined are our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
These days I know how to listen to my body. It turns out, when I’m in pain or tired or feeling sick, there’s a good reason. And rather than pushing through, the best thing I can do is actually to slow down, rest, or change my behavior. Who’dda thought?! It turns out that most physical ailment actually has an emotional root. When we push down our emotions, ignore trauma, or force ourselves to live in prolonged states of stress, our bodies bear the brunt. And although our bodies are spectacular, strong, resilient creations, they have their limits. When we bend over backward, we can only bend so far before we break.
Following Kris’s death, I began to make meaningful changes. I no longer work for agencies or clients who suck me dry. I am transitioning to a career that provides purpose and meaning. I drink less and exercise more. I meditate regularly. And when I’m sick, tired, or overwhelmed, I rest. I have completely reshaped my life to make time for these healthy habits. I recognize now that my health and well-being are dependent on me finding balance in all areas of my life. I have found that my body is constantly talking to me and telling me what it needs. And when I listen I am rewarded all around.
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