What Ambition and Anxiety Taught Me About Self-Care
The wake-up call that taught me to follow my dreams without sacrificing my well-being.
On a chilly day in 2018, I walked out of the hospital and took a deep breath. I hadn’t zipped up my coat or wrapped my scarf around my neck before stepping out into the winter air, so eager I was to get out of that building and on with my day. I squinted at the sun as a cold breeze slid up my sweater and around my neck, feeling like life itself awakening me, inviting me back. Relief coursed through my body as I inhaled and exhaled with more hope than I’d been able to muster in months.
Walking into the hospital, I was prayed up and confident. But after being called back into the mammogram room three times for more photos, my courage wavered. After watching several women come in after me and leave before me without complications, I sat waiting for an ultrasound and possibly more tests, wondering what they saw and how to feel.
I wondered if I’d made myself sick with all my dreading and worrying. When you know that your thoughts create your life, and you also know that you’re thinking about awful things most of the time, you worry about what you’re attracting.
Pondering all the possible outcomes, I braced up. There were only two choices: love or fear. I thought, whatever they tell me, I’ll be brave, I’ll have faith, I’ll choose love.
A week before, after discovering a sore, dense area in my right breast, I set up an appointment with my primary care doctor. She examined me then scheduled a mammogram for a week out. I counted down the days with affirmations: I am brave. I am healthy. I am strong. But I was also shaken.
I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind and focus on each moment, each task in front of me. Each step, each conversation, each meal, each kiss, each hug, every small act, every tiny beautiful thing felt big and generous and I was thankful to be alive. For that week, I lived like each day was sacred, too sacred to spend in the labyrinth of anxiety and depression I’d been lost in for the last couple years.
It’s hard to say, but I think I started losing hope in 2016. I’d been self-employed since 2013 and I finally felt like I was hitting my stride. That January, I declared it a year of abundance. I hosted more writing workshops that year than any other year. I was invited to speak at more conferences and groups than ever before. I had one-on-one coaching and ghostwriting clients keeping me busy. My kids were growing up and I was able to be at home with them while doing work I loved. But I was building my dream life on a shaky foundation. In my haste, I was more concerned about the finished product than the framework.
My ambition was loud and urgent and I was eager for results, so I didn’t make time for healthy habits and reinforcement. I just charged ahead, avoiding any structure that might dare to slow me down. When I started feeling overwhelmed, I thought maybe I should go to therapy, but I didn’t make time. When my thoughts got darker and more troubled, I knew how to redirect them, but I allowed them to seduce me. When sadness began to close in, I thought maybe I should be careful, slow down, but I didn’t. I refused to repair or even look at the cracks in my foundation, all I wanted to do was build. That year was abundant indeed, full of experiences, opportunities and warning signs that I ignored.
When I left my corporate job to pursue writing full-time, I underestimated the toll it would take on my mental health. It wasn’t just a career change, becoming a professional writer was a heavenly destination, an escape from the hell of feeling out of place and without purpose.
But this all-consuming pursuit not only enchanted me, it alienated me. The chase didn’t leave me alone and it didn’t come and go. Even in the most euphoric moments — making love, cuddling with my children, laughing with friends — I was thinking about how to find the words, how to write my next piece or attract my next opportunity.
The act of creation can be addictive and become a single-minded obsession, especially when your livelihood is dependent on it. It can become bigger than anything else. Even your family, even your health, if you let it. You keep thinking that once you get the work out, you can concentrate on the rest of your life. You keep thinking you’ll schedule that doctor appointment, you’ll call your grandma, you’ll put down your laptop and spend undistracted time with your family, once you get this one idea out, this one story. But then you get it out and it’s not enough, there’s more, always more to be released. David Duchovny once said, “Anxiety is part of creativity, the need to get something out, the need to be rid of something or to get in touch with something within.”
While I’ve always been a highly sensitive person, my creative career sent my emotions into overdrive. In 2017, I was burning out. In an email to friends I wrote, “I don’t know if I’m cut out for this.” I never wanted to be an entrepreneur or a boss. I wanted a simple life and self-employment always seemed too complex. But writing gives me hope and this hope led me to make decisions and dare in ways I never imagined I could.
Along the way, I’ve struggled with overcoming self-doubt and self-sabotage, balancing motherhood with self-employment, managing business and personal finances, and learning how to pace myself and be myself and not be influenced by what other people are doing. All the while, holding my love for the work in my hands, making sure I don’t drop it, no matter what is thrown at me.
Maybe that was the problem. The work had become my savior. I worshipped it and expected it to wash away my sins. Fueled by ambition and anxiety, I thought if I became a successful writer, I would no longer feel average. I would no longer struggle with anxiety. I would achieve financial freedom. I would find my wholeness and worth through this work. In my mind, it was all or nothing and it had to happen right away.
I spent 2017 in conflict with myself, frantic and questioning every step of the way. I don’t have a list of accomplishments to share from that year. Unless you count getting out of bed each day, putting one foot in front of the other, pressing on when I felt hopeless, and finding a new therapist. Looking back, I see nothing but God keeping me afloat because at times I wanted to drown to escape myself. Nights when every place I went in my mind greeted me with defeat. Days when anxiety twisted my perception, making my path a dangerous tightrope that only I could see. I didn’t want to be a heavy presence so I isolated myself, wishing I could get back to the hope and joy that started it all.
Anxiety and depression will distort your thoughts. Self-care cultivates positive feelings that help recondition those thoughts. Everything I thought I knew about these things, I had to relearn. I’ve been reading and writing about mental health and self-care for years. But my knowledge didn’t help me when I wasn’t putting it to use in my own life.
You can study nutrition and gather a wealth of knowledge but if you get hungry and still reach for unhealthy food, you aren’t applying the knowledge and you won’t reap the benefits. Your body and your life won’t thrive from what you know, they’ll thrive from what you do.
Here again, I faced two choices. Walk in constant fear that the next step I take would push me over the edge, or live in the faith that by doing the right things to keep myself well, I can keep the anxious episodes at bay.
In 2018, I gradually started over. Cutting back on work, I put my mental health first. In the past, my ambition was often at odds with my wellness and that needed to change, starting with my habits. I set the groundwork with spiritual reading, journaling, talk therapy, energy work, exercise, and a cleaner diet. About halfway through the year, I told my friends, “I believe I’m ready to work with what I’m going through instead of waiting for it to go away.”
Self-care is any practice that feeds your mind, body and soul in a satisfying and healthy way. It could be a habit that clears your head like taking a walk in the morning or a boundary you set with your loved ones to protect your time alone. Being honest with ourselves, we have to do the inner work to find out what practices we need most, so when we come face to face with our fears, we can remember our center and rely on it. Healthy habits keep that center strong.
When I walked out of the hospital that day with a clean bill of health, it was like a spell had been broken.
At the very least, there was a shift. Marianne Williamson said, “A miracle is a shift in perception from fear to love.” When I thought I might be facing a life-or-death fight, I could not afford to indulge in any doubt or dread or catastrophizing, I needed to raise my vibration for the challenge in front of me. This shift in perception created a rush of gratitude for the creative work I get to do and the source inside of me that inspires it. I decided on a spiritual definition of success: to clear any and all energetic blocks that keep me from feeling good and creating abundance in my life.
Difficulties come and go but self-care keeps us rooted in purpose instead of circumstance. We have to prioritize our healthy habits all the time, not just to get through a crisis. Even if anxiety is a weak spot for me, I can choose to take the best possible care of myself. From there, no matter what comes, I can fight my best fight.