One morning this most recent spring, I noticed my hands very openly trembling as I perched them upon my laptop to type up a budget report. Thinking I was possibly dehydrated, I made it a point to refill my water bottle as much as I could throughout the day. It was hot out. We live in the Florida Keys. Meh. I shrugged the instance off.
Life with a spinal neurofibroma is unpredictable. The future will always have question marks. Tasks and adventures will always need some accommodation. But the level and frequency of pain I had been feeling since the September of 2018 scans showing that the tumor had miraculously shrunk was increasingly concerning to my neurosurgeon and his team.
There were many days the alarm would sound, and as another morning greeted us, my husband, Luke, would have to help me roll over and get out of bed. Sometimes he would have to help me shower. Often, he would have to help me put my shoes on. These were all very normal things in the months following my surgery. But a year after the surgery, with such a positive MRI report? Things were not adding up.
As the flare ups continued, it became a daily challenge to get myself out of my office chair. It got very hard to sit still during hour, two hour long meetings, let alone even 30 minute meetings.
“I can do this.” I continued to whisper to myself every day, willing my body to just push; to just let me get through one more meeting, to just let me keep striving toward fulfilling the endless demands of the role. I just needed to finish one more forecast sheet, answer one more 10:00 PM phone call, get right back to one more 6:00 AM text message. I just needed to get through one more work day.
Calls to the neurosurgeon continued. Their concern increased. “Tell us about your work life these days. When are you resting?” And finally, “Maybe it is time to look for other options, Kelsey? Maybe it’s time to go…” Their urges began so very shortly after those so very optimistic scans. I fought these suggestions, telling them things would slow down soon. I was promised they would, after all. Surely, they would. The 16 hour days, never being enough in the eyes of far too many, weren’t that bad, after all. That’s why they call it work, right?
In attempts to make myself comfortable, I started wearing sticky heating pads around my spine and my lower abdomen, wrapping around my whole body to soothe both my spinal fusion and my tumor.
I started doubling down on my essential oils–using combinations that didn’t really make sense, but at that point, I would try anything. No pain pill was touching me at this point.
When that didn’t do the trick, I brought in Badger. Badger is a weighted, heated stuffed animal. Badger sat on my lap, pressing into my very angry tumor, every day. In a Director level role, there I sat with dear Badger. Totally normal.
Without progress, I started bringing protein and nutrient packed smoothies & vitamin pouches to work.
All this time, team members and leaders poked fun at these “antics”. I forced laughter with them. But these childish “antics” were indeed the only things getting me through each day.
About a month before Luke and I left for our honeymoon, I was given an impossible task. I am fairly certain that the giver of such task even knew it was impossible, and yet, there it glared on my to-do list. As I sat there defeated, trying to solve world peace, the flare up to end all flare ups abruptly invited itself into my horrid day. As the tumor bared down its grip into my lower right side and clenched its hold deeper into my spine, I could no longer sit at my desk. I tucked myself into my dearests team members’ office, closed the door, and sat in a corner on the floor; legs stretched out in front of me, laptop on my lap. The impossible task was worth it, right?
The Director of Human Resources poked her head into the office to deliver a report to one of my colleagues. She looked at me flabbergasted. I was the vision of normal: legs splayed out, reports all around me on the floor, typing away with shaking hands and a grimacing face.
I forced a Disney smile and told her, “Ah! Sorry. I haven’t lost my mind. Cramps! Girls gotta do what a girls gotta do, right?!” She hugged me and hustled back to her office.
Throughout the next hour, the pain got so bad that I was sneaking away into the restroom to vomit. I should have known, but those two colleagues I love so dearly caught onto this. When I sat back down in my place on the floor, the pain bared down into my body so badly, tears forced themselves down my face. The girls rushed over to me–urging me to go home, offering to drive, offering their care. I collapsed into one of their arms in sobs.
I said to her: “It’s not worth it. It’s not worth this. Please don’t let me forget: it is not worth it.”
I am not too sure how I drove home that day, but by the grace of God, I completed the 13 minute drive safely. During this drive, one of the leaders called to rattle off questions to me regarding the upcoming leadership meeting I was about to miss. I’m not too sure what I said back, but for the first time in a very long time, I drew a very clear line. I put my phone on do not disturb and tucked it away from myself for the rest of the day.
A few weeks later, after enjoying a dream of a honeymoon, I was practically bounding as I headed back into the office. Two weeks unplugged and I felt like new.
This didn’t last. By that Friday, as I lifted my mascara wand to my sleepy eye at the start of another work day, I noticed: the tremors were back.
As the following weeks passed of continued non-existent work life balance, the cycle continued. More flare ups. More oils. More Bring Your Badger to work days. More and more tremors. More heating pads. More hope. I had to do this. I would do this. I would prove myself to them.
One morning, as I grabbed my favorite black office dress from my closet, the body pillow in our guest room caught my eye. AHA! That’s just what I need! I’ll tuck it under myself and circle it around to sit behind my back in my office chair. Just. The. Ticket.
By the time this thought had completed, it struck me: Dr. Hirschl was right. It was time for me to go.
A little over four months after my life-altering surgery, I took a challenging role in a challenging field. My family and friends all voiced their concerns, but I had this. Months after that, I accepted a promotion to lead the very department I had just entered into. With that, came a promise of a further promotion. And so I kept going. I kept leading. I kept staying up until the very early morning hours; pouring into my mind as much as I possibly could. I explored more and more avenues of the role; obsessed with bettering my skill set to help my team, to help the brides, to help the company, to answer the endless demands.
The reality of it all is, tumor or not, this lifestyle was not healthy nor sustainable for my life.
I neglected setting boundaries for fear of being viewed as incapable. I neglected saying no when I should have. I neglected refusing middle of the night emails. I neglected ensuring my days off were actual days off. I neglected to speak up when I was openly, publicly condescended. I neglected the signs of my body crying out. I neglected myself.
It was time to leave the ladder. It was time to come home to myself.
I resigned from my role a week later.
Two months later, we braced ourselves for what we expected to be not so celebratory news. We anxiously stared at my phone for days awaiting the new MRI reports. Our neurosurgeon finally called us on the following Monday morning. We sat our Luke lattes down, grabbed one anothers’ hands, exhaled, and answered.
Dr. Hirschl shared that he was floored to see that the tumor was stable. He dove into details on next steps, and what to expect moving forward before it was time for the next scans. He said, “I’m extremely tickled with what we are seeing, but the biggest question is, how do you feel?”
The truth is, I was and have been feeling better than I ever have post-op since coming home to myself. I tried as best I could to choke out my response–stammering and stumbling over my words as my throat tightened with emotion. We all knew why I felt as good as I did.
What your mother always tells you about what extreme stress does to your body? Well…she’s right.
Last month, we celebrated two years since my emergency spinal tumor resection & spinal fusion surgery. I smiled the entire day. Gratitude roared through my soul.
This message has weighed heavy on my heart for quite some time. It is difficult to share it. But I can’t hush myself anymore. I’m a writer. I write about things that are hard to talk about. I do this, because the hard to talk about things are always the things needing talked about most.
No one, not even my husband, knew how horribly I felt. I hid it from everyone until I couldn’t hide from it myself.
The scariest thing about all of this? The reason why I feel it is so urgent to share it? I know I am far from the only one. You do not have to have a chronic illness to lose your health in what is so often the celebrated toxicity of the standard work life in the current day and age. I have a dear friend, who does not suffer from a chronic illness, who experiences night terrors so horribly she likes to avoid sleep altogether. She gets migraines weekly. She has developed gastrointestinal issues. She openly admits she knows this is due to work. This is viewed as normal. Most especially by our generation, the millennial generation, the work yourself into the ground mindset is glorified far too much. Work hard and bust your booty? I am all about it. Work your life away so much you’re hardly functioning? I’ll pass.
My papa, an entrepreneur who grew a business so small into a now international success, is who I look to for advice when it comes to my career. As always, he said it best: “You kids don’t have a chance these days. Because this? These things attached to our hips? You can’t leave them in the office. You can’t shut your office door and truly come home to your family. Everyone can find you. Everyone can reach you. Always. If you are somewhere that doesn’t respect a balance, well, life will be damn near unbearable.”
His entire life, Papa has worked harder than anyone I know. But he never missed a soccer game. He was always there to sing “Happy Birthday” to all of us. He still is. And his team? He knows all of their names. He knows how their spouse is doing. He knows what they’re currently driving, how old their kids are, and what their present worries are. I feel confident in thinking he likely even knows how they like their pizza. He adores and values his team. He adores and values their families. And because of it? He respects and values their lives–on AND off the clock.
I have felt completely at home in other roles throughout my life. There are only two roles in which I experienced instances much like the ones above. I know that there are many out there who have had fantastic experiences in the corporate world. I am thrilled for them. Truly. But I also know, with certainty, there are far too many out there who are burning themselves out. You aren’t asking for help. You are trying to prove yourself, all the while driving yourself into a hospital bed. You are frantically trying not to disappoint, trying not to let down. You are trying to deny the fact that you are a human. Please, whatever it is that is driving you into the ground, change it. Don’t wait until one final file is fixed, until one final email is answered, until one final report is completed. If you are in an environment that is unhealthy for you, it is not worth it. You will never prove yourself to them. And if you do end up so horribly unhealthy you’re in a hospital bed? The family you haven’t been seeing will come see you. But I can almost promise you, the very people you are trying so hard to please, will not. They will be busy at their desks actively and openly filling your role.
Come home to your body. Come home to your life.
I’ve seen mostly all of the colleagues I love so dearly since leaving. Every time I have, they so kindly tell me I’m glowing. Normally, I am horribly uncomfortable at receiving compliments. But this one? I feel it. I worked hard for it. I built it from the ground up.
And you? If you haven’t yet started building that life? Don’t wait for 2020. Don’t let any excuse, any doubt or any person stand in your way. Later is too late. It’s time to live your beautiful, healthy, joyful life. Start busting your booty to get back to it so you can begin busting your booty in the right place, with the right people, fit perfectly for you. It is out there. I pinky swear; it is out there.
Biggest Hugs. Always.