“I’ve never seen any life transformation that didn’t begin with the person in question finally getting sick of their own bullshit.”– Elizabeth Gilbert
To say the last few months of my life have been transformative, would be an absolute understatement. I did what so many of us need to do more and took care of myself.
Not in the form of pedicures or a shopping spree or guzzling mimosas at brunch. (An effect of which is often fleeting.)
I really took care of myself.
It meant evaluating what was working and what had slowly stopped, sputtering out like a car blowing smoke out the tailpipe and stalling in reverse. (I just described my first car, you guys. Let’s pour one out for my 1992 Chevy Corsica named Papa Smurf for its electric blue color. RIP Papa Smurf.)
Imagine me grabbing at anything that works or has previously worked in the past and going to my trusty coping toolbelt.
- Therapy: 1-2x a month
- Exercise: Ran nearly 3x a week for all of 2021 and completed two 10K races and two 5K races, along with strength training sparsely patched in.
- New hobbies: Took up painting and reading way more than I normally do.
- Routine: Getting up around the same time and using my mornings for mediation and stretching.
- Connection: Reached out to family and friends when I was feeling blue, even if it was just a Facetime call. Joined an IRL (In Real Life) group of fabulous humans while volunteering at vaccination clinics. I started this regular newsletter, which has been a shiny beacon for me—and you, from what I hear.
- Mixed up the everyday: Tried tons of new recipes, explored different areas to walk and hike, pushed myself to join new groups (even if it was only online) and renovated my office and dining room.
And guess what? It didn’t work. It only helped me keep my head above water.
And man, was I tired of treading water. By the beginning of 2022, I realized I absolutely didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror—if I was even brave enough to look in it—nor the thoughts I was having about humanity itself.
The 2.5 years of being in total isolation for the majority of the time, took a toll on me. For someone who loves her solitude, she quickly found out that isolation is very different from solitude, even if I was trying “all the good things.”
I couldn’t keep kidding myself that I was okay. I tricked myself into thinking I was doing well, covering up the pain with: SEE! I’m doing all-the-things-they-say-to-do. Look at me, self-care extraordinaire.
But by the start of this year, I let go of my pride in coping skills. I was done. Tired. I was sick of my own bullshit that I could continue to carry on, like I always have.
(See that great Elizabeth Gilbert quote above.)
Isolation is a bitch. I used to think if I’d somehow committed a heinous crime—What? Totally normal thoughts!—that I’d be okay in solitary confinement. Boy, am I more confident of myself in my mind.
Because of my husband’s line of work, we very often were relegated to doing the heavy lifting of isolating ourselves. This was before and sadly even after vaccinations were available. With each surge, I had to cancel the few appointments or lunch meetups I had. Even as I became more confident and comfortable with larger gatherings as time went on, I dealt with the anxiety of wondering if my husband brought it home to me and I’d unknowingly passed it onto grandma during my single outing of the month.
Please know that this is absolutely not an overreaction. Nearly every single healthcare family goes through the same exact thing. After what doctors, nurses and hospital staff have seen in the last 2.5 years, it’s a very normal response. You want to protect your family and community.
Which led to a very lonely existence for me.
Which proved more painful again and again by watching people I love gather, gather and gather some more. Before vaccinations and after vaccinations during surges when hospitals and the CDC begged for people to stop getting together. They got to enjoy connection when we were alone. Our little healthcare family wasn’t considered during a Thanksgiving gathering or big blow out birthday party. And yet, we were considering them as we sat alone.
It made me feel like we didn’t matter; that I didn’t matter. And I was isolated on an island in the middle of a huge ocean managing these thoughts and emotions.
This was compounded by the fact that there’s an underlying guilt to living in paradise, somewhere you wouldn’t consider leaving, surrounded by beaches and tropical jungle hikes. I felt incredibly ungrateful for being so sad.
No matter how resilient I am, how many healthy coping mechanisms I tried; it couldn’t erase the fact that I had moved 4,500 miles away to the most isolated island chain in the world during a years-long pandemic that prevented me from meeting more than a dozen people.
(While the world seemed to carry on.)
Then I read some journals from my childhood at the beginning of this year for a big project I’m working on.
I saw in plain, black and white writing that for the vast majority of my life, I’ve been resilient. I’ve done the tough work. I’ve taken on responsibilities that weren’t mine because other adults weren’t willing to do it. I’ve carried the weight because it was “the right thing to do.”
It hit me like learning to drive a manual car that suddenly stalls out—thrashing me forward only to leave me breathless and panicking that I’ve done the wrong thing.
I absolutely didn’t need to be resilient any longer.
I was tired, and rightfully so.
I’d tried everything, hoping something would click, something would work. I was looking for the silver bullet when there was none. Mental health is a bit more complicated than that.
I had been on anti-depressants/anxiety medication previously and it was mostly situational. I got an extra hand during times that were completely out of my control. See: an absent parent and the trials and tribulations of medical school and residency.
In many ways, I’m in a much better place now than I was then. The fruits of our labors in our careers had just come to reality. We finally were living where we wanted to be and doing just what we had set out to do.
Thinking I didn’t deserve this point in our lives stuck with me throughout that pandemic. I was an ungrateful nutjob for being sad during the pandemic. The words of the Baby Boomer generation rang through my ears, “It could be worse. Focus on the positive.”
The shitty results?
Far too long, gritting my teeth and bearing it. Forcing myself through self-care exercises and being a shoulder for everyone else to cry on, while I cried alone, until I trepidatiously tip-toed around and finally raised a slow mo version my white flag.
“I think I need help.”
Help, for me, looked a lot like talking to my therapist more and also talking to a physician. (Not the one whom I married.)
I’ve had to learn what my life looks like truly taking care of myself even if that means not making an effort in other parts of my life. That was probably the toughest part; forcing myself to stop considering others as much and instead, prioritize thinking of me. What a concept?! Without exaggeration, it’s been a life-saving exercise.
Which leads me to why in May, I set out for a month-long trip back to England to decompress after the most bizarre 2.5 years of my life.
When I started this business, I had this idea that I would hit a certain goal and take a month off to go back to another place I love: England.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t hit the goal.
My husband reminded me the goal was arbitrary. It didn’t matter—I matter; something I tend to forget.
One of the things that kept me sane these last 2.5 years was fake-planning where I’d travel to next. Hiking Hadrian’s Wall in northern England was one of them.
Hadrian’s Wall stretches 84 miles, coast-to-coast in England.
84 miles to recalibrate. To decide what I want and don’t. To remind myself that I am a lovely human.
Spoiler alert: I completed it!
It was exactly what I needed. It filled my travel heart while giving me time to digest, step after (muddy) step, all the way across glorious England.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen this monumental Roman structure either. At 17, I stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall during my first time in England. I often wonder what 17-year-old Caroline would think of Caroline now.
I bet she’d be proud.
When I came home in the middle of June after 18 hours of flights, it proved to be a bit of reverse culture shock.
I set down my bags in our hallway and made my way to my office. Everything was neatly arranged on my desk before I left and still in place. I walked past the cabinet filled with files, notebook and records for my small business. Lists upon lists upon lists measuring my productivity or at times, lack thereof.
My stomach immediately felt that knot of anxiety. My lips pursed a bit.
This is a time capsule I didn’t want to open.
I didn’t recognize this person here, the one that left all these things.
The person who tried so desperately to perform, who clung onto the edge of life while watching everyone else carry on like she wasn’t dying inside. The one who filled her desk with little reminders of how good she had it while not feeling good inside. The one who felt perpetually ungrateful looking outside at paradise from her desk each day.
Who is she?
I wasn’t her anymore.
I have a more confident heart than I’ve had in years, a gentleness that offers grace for myself and others, and a firm belief that I don’t need to provide anyone an explanation for who I am.
Everyone deserves that. Everyone.
Here’s to taking care of ourselves. No matter what that looks like.
And yes, even if it means hiking 84 miles.
I can’t wait to share more about this journey with you.
Jane Schreiner says
Love. Love, love, love. Right there with you sister. xox!
My sister came up with a great term for “fake-planning” (or I think she came up with it anyway!): plan-a-cizing! Planning+Fantasizing! YES!!