I have been working since I was 12 years old. I wanted after school spending money, so I found a “help wanted” ad, and I worked from then until age 34 without a pause. I always worked multiple jobs, hustling in numerous fields at once.
In 2019, finding myself at a third toxic work environment in as many years, my body started to give up. I was throwing up every morning before work from anxiety (not the morning sickness I was longing for), my limbs felt like lead, and some days I couldn’t face my life. Everything seemed wrong and in the wrong place, but I couldn’t work out the puzzle.
I was throwing up every morning before work from anxiety (not the morning sickness I was longing for), my limbs felt like lead, and some days I couldn’t face my life. Everything seemed wrong and in the wrong place, but I couldn’t work out the puzzle.
In March of that year, I found out I earned a fellowship to develop a long-form TV show (not a web series, but a show you might find on TV!). It came with a little bit of money, certainly enough to cover me for about 3-4 months of not working, depending on how frugal I was.
I started by working on the show in my off-hours, something I had always been able to do as a person used to multiple gigs. Within a month, I realized I had no space in my brain for anything beyond surviving the workday.
My husband sat me down. He let me know that my health issues weren’t worth it, and I could leave the toxic job situation, write for a few months, and together we could reassess after that. He reminded me taking care of my mental health was like taking care of a broken bone.
I knew it was coming, but I dreaded this conversation. I had tried my hand at freelance a few years prior and found that it was difficult to pay my bills. I didn’t think that I had the capability to make that leap again.
Our reality was also that my husband was making less money than I was at the time, and our health insurance was through my job. I was stressed at the prospect of losing the additional income and our health insurance. We would be back on the healthcare exchange, which my OBGYN had also stopped accepting. So, we’d have to scrounge for health care, and I’d also lose my doctor and hospital system, while we were also trying to conceive. In fact, getting pregnant in the midst of all this change felt impossible and maybe even foolish.
In fact, getting pregnant in the midst of all this change felt impossible and maybe even foolish.
But I was non-functioning. I couldn’t relay anything about the previous months with any kind of clarity. Everything was in a haze and a fog, and the only consistency was the vomiting and the pit in my stomach. So, I finally gave in and put in my notice.
My body collapsed immediately. I was sick and in bed for a week. Finally, when I could move around again, I got restless. So, I started to plan a road trip. I started by just thinking about going home to Detroit and letting my mom take care of me. When checking the route, though, I noticed Pittsburgh didn’t seem too far from Detroit. So, I thought maybe I could visit some buddies there. Then, I saw DC was only a few hours from Pittsburgh, and there was Raleigh, and Asheville, and Nashville! All of a sudden, I had a three-week road trip planned.
I was terrified. Some days I was struggling to even shower, and here I was proposing I drive several hours at a time. But I LOVED driving. I grew up in the Midwest where driving was the only thing that gave you a semblance of freedom. My girlfriends and I had laughed our hardest, cried the most, and had so many vulnerable conversations sitting in cars together. I felt safe on the road, insulated from the rest of the world, moving through it with a shield.
So in early June 2019, I took off. I promised my husband I would come right back if I needed to and that I would only do as much as I could.
It was hard as hell. There were days I didn’t leave the guest bedroom at wherever I was crashing. There were days that I cried for hours while I sang “Alabama Shakes” winding through the Smoky Mountains. But there was also a lot of laughing. Precious time spent with my nieces and nephew. Late nights with my best friend while we giggled, shushing each other while her children slept.
I realized I had stopped listening to myself until my body gave up. The throwing up and day-long nausea—these were signs that I had had enough—but it took me that much longer to stop what I was doing and try something new.
I was incredibly lucky. I work in a field that is a combination of working for yourself and working with others, so I had the ability to shift gears. I also had a husband with a full-time job. And without that fellowship, I wouldn’t have had the financial safety net.
The most important lesson I learned is one we can all share, though. If we ignore the cues our brain and body are sending us and force ourselves to push through, eventually we will fall apart. We need to pay attention to our limits and boundaries so that when we do engage with the world, our bodies will trust us and maintain when we need it. If we stop listening, the body just gives up, and nothing we can do will bring it back until it’s ready.
If we ignore the cues our brain and body are sending us and force ourselves to push through, eventually we will fall apart.
During this pandemic, I have to remind myself daily of this lesson. It’s difficult given that my fields (film, TV, and theater) have paused for the foreseeable future. I felt constant helplessness when I wasn’t doing something, but I was also continuously overwhelmed. My body has reminded me to pace myself. So, I’ve been spending some time taking a walk, growing some vegetables, and reading by the lake.
These days, I have more good days than bad, more days of accomplishing something than not. I still have to be mindful of not trying to accomplish too much in one day and only taking on what I have the capacity to do. I’m trying to remember there are always other days of the week and most things don’t have a life or death urgency. Sometimes that means throwing in a frozen pizza to make time for a walk. And remembering to breathe.