what ambition and anxiety taught me about self-care

I walked out of the hospital and took a deep breath. I hadn’t zipped up my coat or wrapped my scarf around my neck before I stepped out into the winter air, so eager I was to get out of that building and on with my day. I squinted at the sun as a cold breeze snuck up my sweater and around my neck, feeling like life itself awakening me, inviting me back. Relief coursed through my body as I inhaled and exhaled with more hope than I’d been able to muster in months.

I’d walked into the hospital prayed up and confident. But after being called back into the mammogram room three times for more photos, my courage wavered.  After watching several women come in after me and leave before me without complications, I sat waiting for an ultrasound and possibly more tests, wondering what they saw and how to feel.  Pondering all the possible outcomes, I braced up. There were only two choices: love and fear. I thought, whatever they tell me, I’ll be brave, I’ll have faith, I’ll choose love.

A week before, after discovering a sore, dense area in my right breast, I set up an appointment with my primary care doctor.  She examined me then scheduled a mammogram for a week out. Each day affirmations were on repeat: I am brave. I am healthy. I am strong.  But I was also shaken. I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind and focus on each moment, each task in front of me. Each step, each conversation, each meal, each kiss, each hug, every small act, every tiny beautiful thing felt big and generous and I was thankful to be alive. For that week, I lived like each day was sacred, too sacred to spend under the spell of anxiety I’d been struggling against for the past few years.  

It’s hard to say, but I think I started spiraling down in 2016.  That January, I declared it a year of abundance. I hosted more workshops that year than any other year.  I was invited to speak at more conferences and groups than ever before. I had one-on-one coaching and ghostwriting clients keeping me busy.  My kids were growing up so fast and I was able to be at home with them while doing work I loved. But I was building my dream life on a shaky foundation. In my haste, I was more concerned about the finished product than the framework.

In other words, my purpose was loud and urgent and I was eager for results, so I didn’t make time for healthy habits and reinforcement.  I just charged ahead, avoiding any structure that might dare to slow me down. When I started feeling overwhelmed, I thought maybe I should go to therapy, but I didn’t make time. When my thoughts got darker and more troubled, I knew how to redirect them, but I didn’t, I indulged them further.  I didn’t practice what I preached. When sadness began to close in on me, I thought maybe I should be careful, slow down, but I didn’t. I refused to repair or even look at the cracks in my foundation. That year was abundant indeed, full of experiences that showed me that while I was on the right path, I was ignoring important warning signs and dragging unnecessary baggage.

I spent the next couple years in conflict with myself.  Part of me still and knowing. Part of me frantic and questioning. Believing in God, grasping at joy, but unable to control my fears. So many days were filled with more dread than hope. I didn’t understand how I got so low, so I blamed my circumstances, my past, my personality.  I blamed the chaos in the world, the collective suffering that haunts me. I spent time with my shadows, relearning their shapes and secrets.

In 2017, in an email to my friends I wrote, “There is a part of me that feels I'm not strong enough, resilient enough, for the life I want to live. I know how that sounds and that it's irrational but something broken in me believes this nonsense.  Something inside me sees me making the same mistakes over and over and it tells me that all I do is disappoint people and myself and it tells me that I'm hopeless and a waste of potential and when I'm weak I believe it. My spirit is tired from fighting the negative thoughts.”

Anxiety will distort your thoughts.  Self-care cultivates positive feelings that help recondition those thoughts. Everything I thought I knew about these things, I needed to relearn. Here again, two choices. Walk in constant fear that the next episode will push me over the edge, or live as if by doing the right things to keep myself well, I can keep the anxious episodes at bay.

In 2018, I gradually started over. Cutting back on work, I put my mental health first. In the past, my ambition was often at odds with my wellness and that needed to change, starting with my habits. I set the groundwork with spiritual reading, journaling, talk therapy, energy work, exercise, and a cleaner diet. About halfway through the year, I wrote in a newsletter,  “I believe I’m ready to work with what I'm going through instead of waiting for it to go away.”

Self-care is any practice that feeds your mind, body and soul in a satisfying and healthy way. It could be a habit that clears your head like taking a walk in the morning or a boundary you set with your loved ones to protect your time alone.  Being honest with ourselves, we have to do the inner work to find out what practices we need most. So when our moods swing and we are up today and down tomorrow, we can remember our center and rely on it.  Healthy habits keep that center strong. This lesson will come around again and again until we learn it. I’ve been reading and writing about mental health and self-care for years. But my knowledge didn’t help me when I wasn’t putting it to use in my own life.

For example, you can study nutrition and gather a wealth of knowledge but if you get hungry and still reach for unhealthy food, you aren’t applying the knowledge and you won’t reap the benefits. Your body and your life won’t thrive from what you know, they’ll thrive from what you do.

When I walked out of the hospital that day with a clean bill of health, it was like a spell had been broken.  

At the very least, there was a shift.  Marianne Williamson said, “A miracle is a shift in perception from fear to love.”  When I thought I might be facing a life-or-death fight, I could not afford to indulge in any doubt or dread or catastrophizing, I needed all of my energy for the here and now, for the challenge in front of me.  It was the wake up call I’d prayed for and it drove home the importance of having a strong foundation. Because difficulties will surely come and self-care keeps us rooted in purpose instead of circumstance. We have to prioritize our healthy habits all the time, not just to get through a crisis.  Even if anxiety is a weak spot for me, I can choose to take the best possible care of myself. From there, no matter what comes, I can fight my best fight.

I’m coming out of a hard place. Writing about it is my way of doing something constructive with the discomfort. What story inside of you is begging to be told?  What experiences have shaped you and who could benefit from hearing them? Writing is one way to open the inner doors that fear has spooked us into keeping closed.

If you want to invest more time in writing but struggle with fear and resistance, you will find hands-on solutions in my Words That Move online writing workshop.    If you want to be more vulnerable and infuse more of yourself into your writing, you will find tips, techniques, examples and a community to support you. You can find out more and take advantage of the early bird discount here. If you’ve taken one of my workshops before, email for a special discount code.

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