This summer, I almost lost my husband to a rare illness. He is young (39) and was previously healthy, so this was completely unexpected.
I did not handle it well.
For weeks after he got out of the ER, I didn’t take a break. I barely slept. I stopped attending yoga classes and going for long walks because they were “non-essential” activities. Every ounce of my limited energy went into caring for Jens, who was recuperating from surgery, and our five-year-old daughter Clara. Some days, most days, I felt like I was the only thing that kept the machinery of our domestic life going. If I didn’t work tirelessly 24/7 to [fill in the blank], everything would surely come to a screeching halt. We would have no clean dishes to eat on. We would have no food to eat, period. And what about the bills? And the laundry? And the pets? And so on and so on.
I also happened to be juggling several book deadlines at the time. But there was no way I could write. The only workout my computer got was when I updated friends and family on Jens’s condition, Googled his illness (obsessively), and emailed my editors to ask for extensions.
But eventually, the same anxiety that made me draft grocery lists at 2 a.m. (We’re out of toilet paper! And Clara’s favorite mac and cheese!) subsumed my professional life. I convinced myself that if I didn’t get back to my projects ASAP, I would lose my creative momentum, alienate my editors, and never see another check or book contract ever again. Duly panicked, I returned to my computer and tried to finish up my overdue chapters, usually while Jens and Clara slept. The process was like pushing through molasses—the words came, but very slowly and with excruciating effort.
And I still didn’t take a break.
Gradually, our lives started eking back to normal. Jens felt better and stronger and was able to go back to work. He could pitch in at home and with Clara. I was able to get off my hamster wheel of non-stop activity.
At which point life forced me to take that long-overdue break. The full weight of what had happened—the fact that my soul mate, best friend, and the father of my children had almost died—sunk in. I’d filled my brain with so much crazy clutter (chores! errands! deadlines!) that I hadn’t been able to process things emotionally.
And so I had a mini-breakdown. I let myself cry in bed for an entire day. My mind and body were clearly telling me to stop, already.
After the fog cleared, I realized that I had to recharge. Really recharge. I was absolutely running on empty, and I couldn’t keep going like that.
I didn’t have the luxury of taking a couple of months (or weeks or even days) off. So instead, I did the following:
1. I took many deep breaths. (I’m doing that now, even as I write this.)
2. I resumed my yoga classes and walks.
3. I told Jens that I loved him and hugged him a lot. I do this every day now.
4. I resurrected some of my favorite old rituals: short naps after lunch; long, hot showers with bubbly, fragrant products; green tea; dark chocolate; candles; listening to the Bach unaccompanied cello suites; and lying down at least once a day in the savasana pose (a quick hit of deep relaxation).
5. I started going to bed at a reasonable hour. (I’m still working on this one, but at least I’m trying.)
6. I spent my remaining summer weekends with Jens and Clara, even though I had a billion other things I “should” have been doing. We went to the Farmer’s Market; we went swimming; we picked raspberries and peaches; we made silly crafts. It was blissful, and at the end of the day I felt less overwhelmed by my many to-do lists.
Part of me still feels like I’m in a state of emergency, although it gets a little better and easier every day. Hopefully, soon, I can incorporate more recharging rituals, like going out with my friends or getting a massage once in a while. And maybe someday, I can take a real break from life and not do anything but pick raspberries. Or write without deadlines. Or cry some more.
But until then, I’m just grateful that I can give myself the little gifts that I do. And I will keep breathing and eating chocolate and hugging Jens as often as I can.