It was a rainy evening in Munich, Germany in November 2011 when I realized something was seriously wrong. I had just gotten into my car after a full day of delivering a workshop to a media company then presenting to a women's group that evening. I felt utterly depleted, dizzy and nauseous and could hardly move. My whole physical and mental systems were shutting down. What was happening? Then I heard a voice in my head say, "Look at your calendar." What??? "Look at your calendar." So I pulled out my annual overview and looked. It was then I understood what I was looking for: The only time I had taken off that year was three days in April. I was so exhausted those three days that all I did was sleep. Other than that, I had not taken any time off except for sporadically having one morning on the weekends to rest. My work had always involved a lot of travel (often international), which usually meant leaving or arriving home (or both) on the weekends. In that instant, I saw the big picture. I had not had more than five days off at a time over the last 27 years of my career. Weekends were usually my time to catch up with work, unpack and re-pack. The number of times I had taken five days off in a row could be counted on one hand in that 27-year period.
I had had the opportunity to move to Germany from Los Angeles in 2007 to launch a training and coaching company with a German partner. For me, it was a dream come true. What a year to start a company; the year before a global financial meltdown! Fortunately, my partner helped to subsidize the company through the first two years and then the business started to take off in late 2009. In the following two years the company grew and made a steady profit. It was a huge win for me.
I never fully integrated into Germany. Different cultures are like different clothes; you can step into them and they either immediately feel comfortable or no matter how much you nip and tuck, they never quite fit. Germany was the latter for me. I was deeply unhappy in Germany, but carried the responsibility for the success of the company. So, I did what I did best. I worked. And worked. And worked.
That night in November as I drove back to the town where I lived, I called my sister in the States and couldn't stop crying. What was wrong with me? I had turned the company around and it was continuing to grow. I was successful. Why was I so depressed and disoriented? My sister suggested I might be suffering from adrenal fatigue. I had never heard of it, so I looked up the symptoms and realized I had eight out of 11 of them. Then it clicked. I'd been doing what I'd always done. I ignored the signs from my body and willed my way through them doing what I felt I had to do to keep the business growing, no matter how exhausted or stressed I was. After all, the business was the most important thing in my life.
I flew to the States and met with my doctor, who confirmed the diagnosis and was deeply compassionate because she had suffered from it as well. She emphasized that I had to change my lifestyle or I could get really sick. I had been witnessing my sister's struggle with cancer for five years, so that got my attention. I began a process of deep reflection which ended with the question, "What am I making more important: a successful company or my health and well-being?" In that moment, I made a pledge to myself: my happiness is more important than anything "out there." I started small by committing to taking one full weekend off a month. That may seem simple to some people, but it was huge for me.
Within a year I closed my company, relocated back to Los Angeles, and am now surrounded by the most delightful support network while I start a new company that focuses on well-being. I'm the happiest I've been in years. So far this year, I've taken 15 vacation days and am scheduled to take 11 more.
If you recognize yourself in anything I've shared, I encourage you to do something easy today which demonstrates honoring yourself. Start the journey to give yourself the most precious gift you have: yourself. If not now, when?
Leslie Boyer is President of Leslie Boyer Consulting and is starting a company to hold retreats for women in positions of influence to reconnect and rejuvenate.