I felt fine. I was in my 30s, I was happily married and my career was beginning to “take off.” It was December and I had worked relentlessly throughout the year so that I could have three weeks off for the holidays. I was so excited! When I left the office to begin my vacation, I met a friend for lunch. That night John and I went out to dinner to celebrate the start of my three weeks of freedom. I felt fine.
After dinner, I coughed once or twice; no big deal—just a dry throat, I thought. Being quite tired from the push to get everything done so I could take my three weeks, I went to bed a little early. The next morning, I woke up feeling like mud. I had a mild fever and was coughing violently. I went to the doctor and was given an antibiotic for bronchitis.
The next day, I woke up feeling worse rather than better. I had a fever of 105 and was having difficulty breathing. Breathing hurt; lying in bed hurt; moving hurt. Coughing was agony. I had never felt so bad in my life! When John said that we had to go to the doctor again I couldn’t imagine the effort and pain that would entail; I refused to go but John insisted—thank goodness! I was too sick to realize how sick I was; in retrospect, I don’t think I would have survived without medical intervention.
This time the diagnosis was double-pneumonia. My doctor prescribed 21 days of a heavy-duty antibiotic and 6 weeks of rest to recover. It still took several long days and nights before I started feeling better.
I returned to work early—“I don’t need 6 weeks,” I told myself. I drove myself to work and got out of my car. I took a step. I took another step. It was like walking through molasses. I could see the building ahead of me. I kept plodding but I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to it. My breathing was labored. I had to stop several times to catch my breath. This was a walk that I used to take for granted and now it was an ordeal! I finally reached the building only to realize how much farther it was to my desk. Down the hallway I went: plod. stop. plod. stop. When I finally made it to my desk I collapsed into my chair. I was exhausted. I realized that there was no way I could do a full day’s work. I had only been sick for a few weeks yet I had no stamina! I was too young and too full of life for this! Discouraged about everything, all I could do was rest at my desk long enough to enable me to make the return trek to the car—more plod. stop. plod. stop.—and drive home.
My doctor said it would be years before my lungs healed from all the scarring caused by the pneumonia and not to be surprised if I was out of breath walking up stairs or doing anything strenuous. That turned out to be true. I didn’t want to hear that and pushed it out of my mind.
Eventually I did go back to work and was very far behind from being out so long. Picking up my old habits, I once again put in the long hours and pushed myself.
One day, about a year later, I was late to a meeting so I took the stairs to the next floor rather than waiting for the elevator; by the time I climbed that one flight of stairs I was hardly able to breathe! I vaguely remembered my doctor saying this would happen and then rushed on to the meeting room.
After the meeting I had to ask myself: how had I gotten to this point? In high school I had played basketball, volleyball, field hockey, soccer . . . I was now in my 30’s and it had only been a few years since I biked to work every day. I was an active person and suddenly, it seemed, barely able to climb a flight of stairs. Perhaps not so suddenly, I thought. I reflected back . . .
It had only been a few years since I had biked to work every day but several gradual changes had occurred. John and I had both changed jobs. We had both had jobs before but these felt like careers opening up. Every day there was something to accomplish, something to learn, new work environments to experience and new co-workers to get to know. Because we both had interests in IT we were able to help and support one another. When one of us learned something new it was shared with the other. When one one of us faced a vexing technical issue we could ask the other for their insight. Even though we worked for different organizations, we were a “team.” We threw ourselves into our careers. And we each gained a little weight.
Another change: we had moved. We moved closer to where our new jobs were but still not close enough to bike to work. We loved our new house, our new neighborhood and our new neighbors but the area wasn’t as bike-friendly as where we had previously lived. We tried a few rides in our neighborhood but it just wasn’t fun. The bikes started to gather dust in the shed. We gained a little more weight and—imperceptibly—lost a little more fitness.
Another change: we stopped preparing our own dinners. There was so much else to do: hardware to learn, software to learn, programming languages to learn, operating systems, networking, databases . . . And there was a new toy play with—something called The Internet. There was no such thing as a “Web Browser” yet but our respective organizations were working on a way to use the internet to send electronic mail. Sometimes one of us could send a message to the other and get a reply in the same day! We were on the cutting edge of what would become the computer revolution. With all of this excitement, who had time to shop and cook? “Dinner” consisted primarily of answering two questions: which fast food place tonight? and: how many jumbo burgers? (“You want fries with that?” was never asked—of course we wanted fries! Super-deluxe, please!)
In that reflection, I realized that all those ordinary moments of life had led me to this place and something had to change. My weight was out of control and had been for some time, my health had been threatened quite dramatically and I had to do something differently. But what to do? I knew I had to change my diet. But which diet would work?
There were loads of diets with claims from the modest to the ridiculous; I would have to “do some homework” to decide which ones seemed viable, then select one to try (part intuition, part educated guess), then “double down” and really study the selected diet: how to follow it, why it made the promises that it did, what precautions it urged. Later in the process I realized I would have to educate myself on basic nutrition. This would be the foundation from which I could evaluate any diet.
I had to add exercise into my routine—which exercises could I do at my weight, where would I do them (I was too embarrassed to go to the gym), what equipment would be needed, how much was enough? How much was too much? Later I would learn about the importance of recovery and the dangers of overtraining, too. I had to balance all of this with my time at work—what did that even look like; how would I do that and not damage my career?
It all seemed so daunting. I wanted to give up and I cried a river of tears.
In the end, I wanted wellness more. That ordinary moment at the top of the stairway turned out to be pivotal; it was the origin of a journey to wellness that I am still on today.
I learned a few things along the way worth mentioning:
- I learned that one step at a time will yield results. I could not make all the changes I needed to make overnight and all at once (even though I wanted to). Eventually, I would learn to start small, celebrate those successes, and build up from there.
- I learned that I needed to experiment and stay curious (with John’s help) so that I could “play” with each category I needed to tackle (diet, exercise, work/life balance). I still change things up as I learn new things or just to keep it interesting. I learned that for me, wellness is not merely freedom from illness, but a health in mind, body and spirit that enables me to do the things that matter the most to me.
- I learned that a coach can be a valuable partner. I was fortunate that my company had hired a coach while all this was going on. She was hired for work-related issues, but as she always said “The whole person comes to work”, so we worked on whatever was relevant in my personal and professional life.
In the intervening years, I have come a long way from that breathless stairway. The last time John and I visited a lighthouse we challenged ourselves to see how many times we could climb to the top—while still having fun. It was neither a race nor a competition; we climbed together, just to find out what we were now capable of doing. We cheered each other on and while we didn’t expect additional support—surprise—we got it! Every time the groundskeepers saw us make another ascent they cheered us on too! 🙂
I like to call these changes a journey; others may prefer to call it a lifestyle change. Either way, the important point to me is that I don’t see it as a destination—there is always something new to learn, something else to try out, new research to explore, something else to work towards—I never “arrive”.
There have been fun places I have visited along the way and more that I want to visit in the future. Although I may be older than that 30-something that could not climb the stairs that day, I feel younger and more alive today and I am excited about tomorrow!
I want you to be excited about your tomorrow too!