Down and out.

Let’s roll back to circa June 2018. I had been bestowed with 6 weeks’ gardening leave between finishing my job and starting a new one. It had been a battle of a journey; the job I had left was not conducive to my health or my happiness. By the time I walked from their offices for the last time, I was on my knees – I had nothing left to give. My skin was also reacting violently to the stress (I’m talking acne and itchy rashes). I made an appointment with my nutritionist to see whether she had any suggestions of what I could do to boost my energy levels before starting back in the City. The conversation went something like this:

Nutritionist: “Claire, you’re constantly operating in your reserve fuel tank. As soon as you feel yourself get a slight boost of energy, through food, caffeine or adrenaline, you absolutely rinse it, and then you’re back at zero. You’re not giving your body a chance to build up your reserves so that you’re operating within the normal energy level range. If you carry on like this, you’ll be ill and at burnout by Christmas.”

What I wanted to say: “Look, sister, just tell me what monster fuel and vitamin pills I need to fix this”.

What I actually said: “I know….*eyes fixed at my feet*”.

Looking back, I can see that I wanted the quick fix – much like dieters want to take the slimming pills to lose weight without putting in the training. I didn’t want to do the deep work and assess whether what I was doing was sustainable and why I was doing it. As with all good prophecies, my nutritionist’s came true:

I spent the first week of January 2019 ill. I am now spending the first week of February 2019 ill. I find this difficult to accept. At my lowest and least honourable moments, I’ve assigned blame to other people – for being demanding of my time and sapping my energy, for being on the train germy, for coming into the office germy, for making me attend pointless meetings in air-conditioned conference rooms for days on end. I could go on.

In reality, I am the only one who’s to blame (ok, I still apportion a slight bit of responsibility to those who insist on sharing their germs on trains/in offices). I haven’t been creating the balance that I’ve always been such an advocate of. Instead, I’ve been labouring under the misapprehension that I could do everything – to the max. What I had used as self-care activities in the past, such as training and reading, had become another avenue of competing with myself, of extreme tendencies. I wasn’t reading to enjoy literature – I’d been reading ‘how to’ guides for self-development. I wanted to maximise every ounce of energy I had, and every minute I had to spare. And these books were whipping me into a frenzy of how to do it – I’d go to bed with my brain buzzing. I only realised this when, surrounded by tissues and breathing like Darth Vader, I read the first few pages of the next one on the list, and realised I had no sap of energy left to even comprehend what it was telling me to do. I told it to go f*ck itself and found the most trashy book on my shelf I could find to re-nurture my soul.

As Ann Dowsett Johnston highlights in Drink, the practice of self-care doesn’t come naturally if you didn’t have a parental role model who showed you how it’s done (I definitely didn’t). Instead, we fumble around to find ways to cope – some more healthy than others. I learned at a young age that achievement was the only way to obtain recognition and praise, and it was my only lifeline for survival and independence. For more years than I can remember it’s been my rocket fuel. Yet, now that I’ve reached a space of safety, stability and independence, I don’t know how to switch it off and change the movie reel. I don’t know how to stop running from that possibility of weakness and destruction. I know there’s got to be a middle ground, and I’m currently investing the time and work to establish what that looks like and understand why it’s ok. Maybe these illnesses are the universe’s way of sending me validation that the middle path is worth exploring.

Unfortunately, my response to being ill is to shun others, to retreat to my nest and avoid contact (physical or electronic). I was recently led to realise that I do this in order to prevent displaying myself as weak and vulnerable. Apparently my concern is that if I let down my defences during a time of illness, I risk being rejected, but that it also risks a greater possibility of being hurt in the future after having opened myself up during a period of vulnerability. But surely this is what relationships are for? To nurture one another through sickness and in health? Seemingly, I reject the nurturing in sickness. Maybe it’s because I’ve had to do it on my own for so long, I’ve not realised it can be any other way, and because I never saw it role-played with my own parents, it’s like a foreign concept. Why would someone want to be near me like this?

A VIP sent me a message which said ‘self care is giving the world the best of you instead of what’s left of you’. My immediate reaction was guilt and self-beratement. It was confirmation that I wasn’t good enough – that I was failing in my duties to other people. But I felt guilt/shame/anger at myself for being weak enough to be ill (hint: WRONG THING TO BE ANNOYED ABOUT). I should have been disappointed that I hadn’t invested the time in my own well-being, in order to deliver on my projects/work/relationships to the best of my ability. Instead, I’ve had a few days off sick, worked many more from home and therefore not present with my team, I had to postpone a course I had wanted to do this weekend, and out of the past 5 weekends when I could have spent time with the VIP I have only made time/not been ill on 2 of them. The VIP probably now thinks they’re a N(ot)IP. Good work, Claire. Absolutely smashing 2019 so far.

Whilst drowning in my own illness-infested sweat, I have surrendered to the possibility that finding a middle ground is a good idea; even though I can’t quite work out what a middle-ground existence looks like just now, I think it’s progress that I realised I need to find it. I look forward to trying and testing the new reality – who knows, it may be the start of great things? Maybe there’s a whole new level of performance that’s possible if I get this right? Who’s to say that my previous reality was the most effective one? Despite being self-destructive and rigorous, my old reality was firmly situated within my comfort zone – it felt right, even when it was wrong, it made me feel safe and protected. And yet, as my January project taught me, “a comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there”, so I’m going to try stepping outside of the box I’ve created for myself and see what’s on offer.

“Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be.” – Sonia Ricotti.

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