I’d felt the symptoms coming on for months—the bone weary exhaustion, the frustration over my inability to get together with every person who wanted to, the overwhelming feeling that no matter how many hours I stayed awake, I’d never catch up on everything I had to do.
These feelings were all too familiar. Even before I had kids, I had a nasty habit of putting everyone before myself, over-scheduling myself, and allowing other people to energetically suck everything out of me because I’m too nice to say no.
Nice girls don’t say, “I can’t.”
Successful women at the office don’t say, “I can’t do it all.”
Good moms don’t say, “No…mommy needs to rest.”
I had just flown home to New Jersey to visit my family. I’d vaguely heard the flight attendant drone on about how if the plane went down, I should put my oxygen mask on first before attempting to put one on my kids—like I had 100 times before—but please, did this woman think for a moment I gave a sh*t about myself if it meant my kids would suffer for even one moment without air?
I couldn’t seem to let my kids suffer 30 seconds without a snack for fear they would die of hunger, even if it meant putting off getting any sustenance into my own body when I hadn’t eaten for over six hours.
Which is what happened on this particular day, when I unexpectedly found myself laying on a gurney in the back of an ambulance with my blood pressure hovering dangerously low at 70/40. For anyone who isn’t a doctor, 70/40 is so low, it warranted the EMT wanting to take me to the hospital.
“No hospital, I’m okay,” I told the medics as I hastily signed some papers noting my refusal to go to the hospital and releasing the nice EMT of any responsibility should I take my last breath in the next 24 hours. “I probably just need to eat something and rest.”
Yeah. Duh. Shoulda thought of that earlier.
So what series of events landed me here?
I could tell you it started when my son got sick the week before our vacation while I was working late into the night so I could take the time off, and also balancing a freelance writing project I had taken on.
I could tell you it was when my three-year-old developed a fever just hours before boarding our flight, just as I was developing a nasty cold myself, but since I had to take care of her and my son, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to pay attention to myself.
I could tell you it was that while all of this was going on, my father took a bad fall and had to be taken to the ER more than once—three times in the span of five days to be exact. I flew home and there just wasn’t any time to focus on me when he was in so much pain and my mom needed help.
But the truth is, it started way before any of these things happened. My body had been giving me signals for about two months that I couldn’t take on any more.
Except I did. I always do. I just don’t know how to say the word no.
So I ignored the hacking cough deep in my chest that was keeping me up all night while on this vacation. I ignored the throbbing sinus headaches and the relentless exhaustion I was feeling daily on this trip. Because I had made plans, like so many of us do, and I wasn’t going to let people down, dammit! If I make plans, I stick with them.
I powered through the discomfort and I downplayed how crappy I felt because I didn’t want to sound like a whiner or cancel on friends and family because I didn’t feel well. And off I went to meet my girlfriends for a quick drink, which I told myself I could power through and then I would finally go home and try to rest.
I didn’t realize how much I had been neglecting myself until I was flat on my ass, about to pass out in a crowded, sweltering parking lot covered in dirt, with sweat dripping out of every pore, feeling as if I was going to vomit and crap myself all at the same time, and some man was yelling over my body for an EMT.
He fired off questions I was too weak to answer: “Are you on any medications? How much water did you have to drink today? When did you last eat something?”
And you know what? I couldn’t f*cking remember. Didn’t he know I had two kids to take care of, my dad needed to go to urgent care that morning, my hacking cough and sinus headache were making me nauseous 24/7, and the last thing I had been thinking about that day was eating something?
Well folks, this is how you land yourself in the hospital while on your highly anticipated vacation. Unless you’re a badass like me and refuse to go because you know…you’re a badass and you don’t need any hospital to diagnose your problem:
That’s what I’ve dubbed this chronic condition so many of us have. We simply don’t care about ourselves enough to indulge in the most basic of self-care. And the word “no” has become almost non-existent in our vocabulary.
It’s become an epidemic in our society, especially among women. And it’s really gotta stop.
Wondering if you might have it? This is a check-list of what self-carelessness looks like:
1) You consistently put other people’s needs before your own.
2) You don’t know how to say the word “no.”
3) You often go into work sick because calling in sick makes you feel guilty.
4) You put your kids needs above your own in ways that you know aren’t healthy.
5) You over-schedule yourself and are often running late, skipping meals, or just plain resentful that you have so many damn plans.
6) When people ask you how you’re doing, the most frequent words outta your mouth are “crazed,” “nuts,” or “hanging in there!”
7) You don’t set boundaries with other people.
8) The last time you actually sat on the couch doing nothing was when “Friends” aired its first episode.
9) You don’t schedule any down time into your week. In fact, you don’t even know what the words “down time” mean.
10) You continue to allow people who “need you” to suck your time and energy because you feel sorry for them.
11) You feel guilty whenever you aren’t checking something off your “to do” list or making things happen.
12) You don’t make time to work out or you force yourself to work out regardless of how tired, sick, or injured you may be.
13) You believe vacations are for the overly indulgent. Even the thought of a weekend getaway makes you roll your eyes.
I like to think I’ve come a long way in the areas of self-love and self-care, but sometimes knowledge and good intentions aren’t enough to prevent a relapse into old patterns and behaviors.
Luckily, all is not lost. There are some tried and true tips for getting ourselves back on track. Self-care is a practice…a muscle we have to work. If we neglect it, the muscle isn’t as strong, so when we push ourselves, we’re gonna feel it and it’s gonna hurt.
So how can we re-right the ship? These are some simple but necessary things we can do to get back on the self-care wagon:
1) Pull out your calendar and cancel at least half of what you’ve got scheduled. You can recommit to plans later if you feel up to it, but right now the most important thing is to get some breathing room into your schedule.
2) Let friends and family know you may be saying “no” for a little while until your schedule lightens up a bit. If they aren’t okay with this, that’s their problem, not yours.
3) Consider taking a sick day or two off from work. Mental health days are just as important as staying home when we’re physically sick.
4) Get into the habit of making your kids wait for things until you’ve taken care of your own basic needs. Be prepared for lots of whining and meltdowns. That’s the price you pay until they adjust to the new normal.
5) Pick that calendar back up and pencil in at least two chill nights. It doesn’t matter what you do…binge watch your favorite show, read a book, or stare at the wall, as long as it zens you out.
6) Energy suckers: They’re officially put on hiatus until you have the energy to properly set boundaries with them.
7) Sleep, sleep, sleep! You’d be amazed at what consistent eight to nine hour nights of consecutive sleep can do for you.
New mom alert: I’ve been there and I know this isn’t possible for you. But it is possible to have your partner, mom, or a good friend take part of the night shift for you so you can get more than two to three hours of uninterrupted sleep.
8) Eat well, exercise (something gentle like yoga or walking until you’re feeling stronger), and indulge in a little pampering like a hot bath, steam bath, or massage.
9) Practice saying the word “no.”
10) Repeat #9 because trust me, you’ll relapse in the first few days just out of habit.
We’re conditioned to believe that saying no to the things we can’t or don’t want to do makes us bad people. We create these stories in our heads that people won’t like us if we say no and that we’ll be perceived as weak, lazy, or selfish.
The truth is, the most powerful, respected, and generous people are the ones who have learned to say no to others, and yes to themselves. They fill their cup up first so they have more to give. This is the kind of person I want people to remember me as.
As I sit here writing this, I’m recovering from an extended bout of bronchitis, a sinus infection, and chronic fatigue brought on by my inability to say “no.” And as I’ve learned to do with everything in my life that I feel sucks, I’ve ask myself this question:
“What am I meant to learn from this?”
I think Dodinsky sums it up perfectly for me and so many of us out there suffering from the, “everyone else first, me last” syndrome:
“Be there for others, but never leave yourself behind.” ~ Dodinsky
Author: Dina Strada
Image: Andrew Kitzmiller/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Social Editor: Emily Bartran