I stopped working a year ago today.
Many people choose to change professions throughout their adult life. Maybe they’ve switched fields of interest. Maybe they went back to school for another degree. Maybe they have a "passion" or an expertise to share with the world. Maybe they are in their mid-40’s, like me, and think it’s now or never to try something new.
Or maybe, they didn’t have a choice.
Maybe “life” made the decision for them.
I was the executive director of a small nonprofit organization that helps abused and neglected kids in the foster care system. I have advocated for abused children since my twenties; I love working and helping humanity in some way. My job was challenging and rewarding. I cared for those children and respected the people who advocated for them. I loved telling their stories; helping their voices be heard. And then my son was diagnosed with three diseases and suddenly my world was turned upside down.
My husband and I were constantly up in the middle of the night trying to help him as he learned how to manage his diseases. High and low blood sugar alarms went off constantly. Every day was different. There were plenty of good days (and nights) and plenty of truly awful ones. After a few months, we decided I would be the “on call” person for our son during the week, and then my husband would handle the responsibility on the weekends. This way he could get sleep during the week, and I would rest on the weekends. It was like having a newborn baby again, but scarier. Meanwhile, we continued to do everything we normally would do: work full-time, enjoy nights out with friends, host events, and manage the activities of all three boys. We were exhausted but we wanted to show our son that his life was going to be the same as before the diagnosis, at least the parts we could control.
My son started his senior year of high school and tried to manage everything on his own. Most days, he did a great job. Other days, the continuous glucose monitor alarm would go off on my phone and I could see his numbers steadily fall. I would wait, on edge, to see if he could pull them back up. If he couldn’t, I was an 8 minute car ride away and I would rush to school to get him. Every day was different. This was hard, and we were still learning. Fear… came and went.
Then, in those first few months of school, he had two near-death incidents. Two: one was a car accident when he blacked out at the wheel because his blood sugar dropped suddenly and the second was terrifying trip to the ER because he forgot to take one of his medications and, unbeknownst to us, his body was fighting a virus. Fear…stayed longer during this time but eventually went away.
By November, his heart rate started to drop, in the middle of the day, and for no clear reason. 48 beats per minute. He would get light-headed and couldn’t concentrate in his school classes. Any physical activity was exhausting. He started to keep track of his heart rate on his Apple watch. More calls to the doctor in Boston. Multiple visits to cardiologists. Echocardiograms. Electrocardiograms. Halter monitors. Re-evaluating all of his medications and how they interact. More worry…is this it? Is it myocarditis, a heart condition triggered by autoimmune disorders? Is he going to have to manage more medications? No. Not this time. Tweaks to his medications and his heart rate came back into healthy range. He’s ok. But then, Fear decided to come and sit with me on a daily basis.
By February, I was finally pushed to my limit. My son decided he would attend college in Chicago the following year. Great! How exciting! It’s going to be fine. Order senior photos and plan graduation festivities. So fun! Let's celebrate! Plan and organize our families and friends to participate in a JDRF walk to raise money for diabetes research. Continue to help others! That's what we do! ...More sleepless nights, not just because of his blood sugar numbers but because of my worry. He's graduating. He's leaving. So much to think about; so much to plan. How will he do this on his own? My eyelashes and eyebrows started falling out. No problem, I used more mascara and bought my first eyebrow pencil. Yes, hello Fear, I see you, but I’m fine, really I’m fine. It’s all going to be fine.
Working full-time, being the person in charge of the organization, and barely sleeping was getting harder and harder. Stress at work was high because we needed more funding, and I was having issues with my board of directors. “I’ve done this before,” I told myself, “I can do this. Just keep moving.”
The chest pains started. They came and went. I didn’t tell anyone. I was breathing through the pain and ignoring them. At this point, I was surviving by trying to calm everyone else’s fears about my son moving away and keep my family of five happy. I scheduled a doctor appointment and kept moving. Fear, I can feel you but I am trying to ignore you!
One day at work, a request for a child in foster care came across my desk. A three-year old was raped by a family member. Sodomized. His Guardian ad Litem volunteer advocate wanted to buy him a tricycle. Could we help? Usually this type of request would both break and fill my heart, simultaneously. Heart-broken for nauseating violence the poor child experienced and proud that my organization was able to fulfill a simple request, a $60 tricycle, to help put a smile on a child’s face. That day, I felt nothing. Numb. I authorized the check and moved on to the next task.
In March, I went to my doctor appointment. She reviewed my blood work, did an electrocardiogram, and we talked. I’m fine. Suffering from severe stress and panic attacks. Great. Fine. I decided against taking any type of medication to help take the edge off; too afraid that I won’t react in time if my son needs me. Instead, I will take some long walks and deep breaths. See? I’m fine! Take that Fear! Keep moving.
Then one day, I had lunch with a dear friend. As I filled her in on both my personal and professional life, she said, “Well, I think it’s time to resign”.
“What? No, I need to work. He’s going off to college and the other two are close behind. I’m sure I have to keep working.”
She said something along the lines of, “I think you are being too hard on yourself. You are trying to do everything and you can’t. Your son needs you. The nonprofit will find someone to replace you. Talk it over with your family, but I think it’s time to move on. Just think about it.”
As I drove away from our lunch, I started to cry. I knew she was right. I’m sure other friends and family members thought the same thing and tried telling me, but I couldn’t hear when they expressed their worry. I felt like I had to keep moving or else I would drown. All of it was so overwhelming. But now, for some reason, I was finally ready to listen. My body was telling me to stop (losing eyelashes and having chest pains), my heart was telling me to stop (my passion for my job was gone), and finally, my mind knew what I had to do.
I didn’t choose to stop working. I didn't quit because my job was too hard. I didn’t retire. I’m not sitting poolside, reading all the latest novels, and eating bonbons. I resigned because it was time for me to listen to my body and my mind, and do the right thing for myself and for my family.
Life makes decisions for us every day. It’s up to us to slow down long enough to hear what we are called to do. For me, it was time to stop running from Fear. It was time to sit beside Fear, put my arms around it, and embrace it. I had to face what I was trying to ignore and what I knew was going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done…I had to let my son go to Chicago...and so, instead of running, I just stopped.