Work life balance is a tricky beast. What inspires us to achieve it is even trickier. Why does it take tragedies like the recent senseless shooting of Gabrielle Gifford’s to remind us all of our own mortality? The reality is that our chances of getting killed in a car accident on a daily trip to work are more likely, but that never gives us that same sense of urgency?
As a mother of three and entrepreneur for the past seven years, I vow each day to make work-life balance a priority and it is a constant decision maker in my career choices. My family life comes first, work second. However, I didn’t always have that clarity of purpose. It took a sudden onset health crisis to prompt me to achieve my work/life balance.
The day started just like any other, but I planned a stop at my doctor’s office in the morning. I had been having some odd symptoms I couldn’t explain and figured a doctor’s input couldn’t hurt. After a brief wait, I was whisked in and the nurse took my temperature, blood pressure, and the other usual formalities. My doc walks in and we chat, I casually start explaining my symptoms. I have numbness in my arms that last for hours, brief bouts of distorted vision, and my hearing becomes muffled. As I continue, I can’t help but notice as the expression on her face transfixes from intent to terrified. I pause at her inquisitively. She takes a deep breath before declaring,
“I think you have a brain tumor, we need to find out ASAP.”
The next thing I know I’m being rushed off to the ER. Once there, it’s an endless series of MRI’s, MRA’S, CAT scans -you name it. As I lied there in the coffin-like tube of the MRI machine, I struggled to make sense of what was happening.
After a few hours, the tests finally ended and all initial readings looked good. No tumor detected. I was ecstatic and relieved. Those feelings were short lived however, as my mysterious symptoms only worsened. A typical “episode” would start with a slight tingling in either my finger or face, followed by loss of feeling in my corresponding arm, face, or both. My vision would become prismatic like I was looking through a kaleidoscope, or I would have a visual field deficit (meaning I couldn’t see anything to my left or right- my brain simply would not process the image). My hearing would be muffled with ringing. When the episodes were severe, I would become so dizzy and nauseous I couldn’t stand. These symptoms lasted for hours and were followed by a severe migraine that left me pleading with God for a way to just stop breathing. Never to die, but to stop the pulsing pain of my breath for a brief moment of relief. The “episodes” were completely random and could be either sudden or slow to onset. I might have three one week or none at all. As a person who strives to be in control of their life and destiny, mentally my spirit was being broken.
After countless visits to specialists, no one had any answers. My illness couldn’t be categorized and they continually speculated on treatments, diagnoses, and potential causes. I was placed on migraine medication to no avail and then even on blood pressure medication to help control the possible vascular cause. Nothing worked, but I was now plagued with fainting spells due to my already low pulse being forced too low. The only option left was to monitor damage. I would regularly visit my neurologist so he could place an electrode in my elbow, finger tip, and then electrocute me to measure how fast the electricity traveled through my arm. This helped monitor whether I was sustaining any permanent damage in my arms. Needless to say, I never looked forward to those visits.
Despite it all, I was still attempting to live a normal life. I was a full time mom to a toddler and new baby girl. As well as the CEO of Glamajama, managing all operations, a staff of six, and coordinating some of my most ambitious marketing campaigns. For the most part, I think I was in denial of my health crisis. I simply took the approach that I wasn’t going to let it stop me. In retrospect, I realize how naïve and reckless my behavior was.
The breaking point was in the wake of a sudden, severe “episode” that snuck up on me while I was leisurely folding laundry. Within minutes my whole body felt numb, I couldn’t stand, and the numbness had taken over my face and mouth. I couldn’t speak -just mumbles as if my mouth were full of marbles. I was in complete panic that I was finally experiencing the major stroke my doctors had warned of. I frantically called my mom. She heard my mumbles and instantly knew what was happening. My baby was in her crib and I was desperately trying to crawl the stairs to be with her. By the grace of God, my mom was in the neighborhood and arrived in minutes. To hear the frightened, shaky voice of my mom calling “Heather? Oh my God, Heather???”, my heart broke. No mother should have to feel that anguish. As she found me in a helpless heap on the stairs, I knew she shared my same fears. Was this the big one?
As with so many things in life, the outcome was unexpected. After about an hour my symptoms subsided and the “episode” was passing. Feeling blessed, I took the whole event as a sign that changes needed to be made. In a leap of faith, I started researching alternative therapies. I ultimately sought the help of a well-respected acupuncturist with a history of solving complex problems.
Never a huge fan of the unconventional, I tried my best to be open minded. After all, what were my choices? Nothing else had worked. The acupuncturist took an in depth evaluation and listened attentively to my story. As I finished, she asked, ‘Heather, have you considered that your body is simply under too much stress and shutting down?” I was dumbfounded, “What? How could stress do THIS?” She went on to explain the extreme physical (sleepless nights with newborn, nursing, active lifestyle with toddler), mental (challenging job responsibilities), hormonal (unstable after giving birth, additional strain of nursing), and emotional (my health dilemma among many other smaller hiccups) stress my body was currently under. As she detailed all the obvious, the picture become so much clearer. I had no idea how bad things had become and how insanely hard I had been pushing myself. With a potential cause in sight, I was eager to finally find treatment. Her explanation seemed just as plausible as the others, why not give it a shot?
I ceased taking all medications and vowed to get back to a more natural state of being. I made it a priority to exercise daily, watched my diet closely, and kept regular appointments with the acupuncturist to help me control my stress levels. With her guidance I also incorporated a strict biofeedback program. This way, I could have a deeper understanding of my body’s warning signs. I was soon able to identify when my heart rate was increasing and was then able to initiate meditation and breathing techniques to calm myself. Within three months my “episodes” were nearly nonexistent and I had a new found respect for work/life balance. I started re-building my life with a deeper focus on well being.
It’s been four years since the last “episode” of my mysterious illness, but I still live each day with the reminder. Never again will I neglect my health and well being. If anything, I feel fortunate I was given an opportunity to see the error of ways and a second chance to correct my path. So many people aren’t given those chances. I think the moral of the story in all this is that we shouldn’t wait until there’s a tragedy, personal or public, to make achieving work/life balance a priority. Every day is a blessing and we need to wake up each morning respecting that reality.