At the Height of My Career, I Gave it All Up to Get Well
Well, let’s start from the beginning.
It was spring of 2015 when I woke up with acute pain on my right side, concentrated in my upper back and head. It didn’t happen overnight, I had experienced tightness and pain in my right shoulder blade and jaw for a few months, but on this particular morning, the pain was blinding and I was experiencing unexplained numbness down my right arm.
Thinking it was maybe related to a fall earlier in the year, I made an appointment and started working with a physical therapist. She assessed my body and taught me on my first visit to breathe into my diaphragm, an area deep below your rib cage that looks kind of like an accordion on its side. As I look back, I realize this was a critical first step. As time went on in our weekly appointments, we started to unlock some of the physical symptoms: an ultra tight jaw, a retracted neck, and collarbone, shoulders that were not moving freely, a rigid upper back. Some weeks were good and helped me to progress and some appointments would set me back and cause added pain. It was the hardest work I’d ever done.
Unbeknownst to me, I set up the perfect, painful storm while building my business: A mind that was always on and a body that had adapted—and not in a good way—to this unhealthy lifestyle. A few visits in, the PT recommended I see a neurologist because the numbness was still present.
The Most Serious Doc Ever
She was my age. I could tell right away that she was really listening. She said, “I can tell you don’t normally feel this way.” She was right. That was huge to hear.
She spent a couple of hours doing testing to be sure that my spine was working properly and sending the right messages to my brain and limbs. Then we started to uncover things I hadn’t really even noticed. Because of everything that was going on: I had daily headaches, some memory loss (it’s hard to even type that right now) and extreme fatigue that I began to feel was just my new normal. The scariest thing, if anything can be scarier than the three things I just typed, was that I was also having trouble finding words and as a professional writer that was simply terrifying.
She was thorough and that day I started on a strong prescription (the class of drug that pharmacies lock up in case of robbery — the serious stuff) to numb the nerve pain so I could get through my days and dull the pain to make space for healing. It dulled me to the point of major depression largely because I lost a lot of pleasure sensations, both large and small.
I had traded some pain away for an inability to stay fully awake during the day or laugh at movies or my boyfriend’s jokes and other sensory, ahem, deprivation. You know, (not so) little things like that. Some days (hell, some minutes) I really didn’t know which was worse. But, I was alive and kept going by some miracle.
The Darkness Sets In
Needless to say, I was in a really dark place. In addition to the pain, and now the medication side-effects, I really couldn’t work as much. This hit me hard. When I couldn’t make sense of things in other parts of my life, I knew I could always come back to my work. I fell back on that. I was good at it and I could always succeed in that space.
For now, I filled my time with doctor appointments. Grim.
I went in for an MRI and CT to have my spine, neck, and head. I came back to the office to hear the results and go over them with her. She found something. There was severe compression in my occipital area which was causing at least some of the symptoms. And some were a result of sitting, breathing, and living in a body in this state. A domino effect.
She explained what they thought it was and what it was called. She said that over the years the extreme stress I was enduring coupled with the terrible posture of being over a computer, the point where my head met my neck was squeezing enough to cause all of these symptoms I was experiencing. The good news is that it could be reversed. And of course with good news, there’s always bad.
A Bomb, and Not the Kind Lush Sells
Next, she dropped the bomb about work, which I had more or less figured out day-to-day but hearing it from her was an out-of-body experience. She said:
“You can’t work on a computer more than 50% of the time.”
[BLACK HOLE SOUNDS HERE]
They were just words, right? I can do what I want. I’ll do what I want!
But, oh god: She’s a neurologist.
She is the Most Serious of Doctors.
This was not a request. This was a directive.
To get healthy. To be upright. To walk. To work. To mother.
I absolutely had to do this.
Yeah, you could say I panicked. My entire career was built on the internet. On machines. On this tiny computer I kept in my pocket that also occasionally made phone calls.
Learning That Hustle < Health
I spent the better part of the last five years hustling hard to start and grow my creative agency. I found myself at the top of my game, and as all entrepreneurs know well: that means I was behind my computer or on my phone pretty much all day. Every moment I wasn’t sleeping or with my boys, I was ON. Once they were tucked in, I would hop back on, and happily. I love my job. And when you love your job, you will do it anytime, all the time, now, later, and always. But as we learn, it’s always at the expense of something else. Balance is work. And it’s kind of an elusive bully. Time to beat the bully at its own game.
Time to Get Flexy and Clear-Headed
I knew I loved yoga, so I started to do more of it alongside my physical therapy. In that time, I also learned how to meditate which I credit to be the turning point to reaching a healthful state again. I can’t tell you how many times over the years various people told me to meditate and I was like yeah yeah yeah sounds nice but who has the time? It took me a few times to get the hang of it, and I learned that guided meditation is really key if you have a hard time sticking with it. But here’s the one simple thing: Meditation makes space in your brain. It empties the full parts and clears the desk, so to speak. When was the last time you had that? Yeah. Me too. It’s the best and most important thing I’ve ever learned how to do, by a mile.
The Nice But Also Honest Ending Everyone Wants
I’m writing again and still making the internet great AND I am now a personal and professional coach and have also become a yoga and meditation instructor, teaching people how to do what I did.
I’m also happy to report I am around 90% of the way to a cure of my disorder. Additionally, I am off that dreaded medication (WHEW, right?). I have stuck to the 50% computer time protocol by using dictation software to write. In fact, I wrote the article you’re reading right now with dictation.
I know that the work won’t ever be completely over. My body could easily slip back into the state it was in but I have come so far and worked so damn hard, I can honestly say I will never let that happen again. It took a while to get into this state and it is going to take time to get out of it. I accept that, and I want to leave you with a few ideas to keep yourself from getting stuck.
Six easy changes to make this week to not end up where I did:
First and foremost: Re-prioritize your online time. If the internet upsets you, GTFO. You aren’t Tom Brokaw and do not need to read the news seventy times a day. Social media isn’t your elementary school class bully which you must tolerate to be included in the Friday popcorn party. Admit that Twitter is not good for your soul some days. That Facebook can keep you stuck in the land of shoulds. That Instagram is the only safe space on the internet right now. (Just me?) Find what works, and be relentless. The people you need to reach will be reachable. Trust me: You’re not missing a damn thing.
Use your phone to remind you to do healthy things regularly if it doesn’t come easy to you. Ideas to put in your reminders app:
- breathe deeply into my diaphragm
- unclench teeth
- stand up and stretch
- fill up my water bottle!
- take a drink of said water
- schedule a massage or pedicure
- text a friend something funny
- look at something green
- have a snack, will you?
Hustle, but not at the expense of your health. You know the feeling. Stop it before it starts by trying to find the right level of stress for you. Too little and you feel sluggish, too much and you feel tense. Chase that elusive balance like it’s your job.
Be as comfortable at your desk as you are on vacation. I realized this when I came back from a recent getaway. I was uncomfortable while working and realized: I would never tolerate this on vacation. Adjust everything accordingly.
Honestly check in with your mental health—especially in gray, rainy and cold climates. If you’re avoiding taking minimal care of yourself, noticed an uptick in your drinking, or don’t want to do things you normally do, get a happy light and a therapist, STAT. Mental health is Serious Business.
If you’re going to start doing yoga, don’t go to Yoga Sculpt. It’s good for strengthening your body, for sure, but if you do that first, you’ll never go back. Start with a class with the words Slow, Yin, or Restorative in the title. Deal?
Images courtesy of Christopher Delorenzo
Kate O’Reilly can’t follow directions but manages to find plenty of work somehow. Always: good food, multiple beverages, houseplants, loads of affection, and a big stack of things to read. Never: uses the internet to argue or win things. She lives in Minneapolis with her family and you can find her on Instagram daily @cleverkate.