When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.
It started last January with a gut, throat to business end, on fire. Muscle and bone pain, headache, and a species of fatigue I had never known, through 15 long years of parenting and multiple surgeries. With those eighteen pounds that dropped off my frame in two weeks (and the twenty that followed in the next three months - all gladly but painfully parted with), and the bouts of sobbing that took me by surprise because I am not, generally speaking, a habitual sobber.
But really what started it all was a four-year-old child, a beloved little slip of a boy, who spoke some words to a teacher about wanting to end his own life. That was 2004, and we had no idea we were headed into a region we would struggle mightily to navigate without compass, an impenetrable forest of illness that would entangle our family - all of us already accustomed to disease and disorder, and supported by some of Boston's finest clinicians and services.
We grew up near the mountains and the woods. We knew from forests.
My extended family's collective complaints range from the somatic to the psychiatric. We have lost breasts and we have lost young lives. Prostates and knee joints (the latter regained in that beautiful orthopedic art of restoration and replacement), ovaries and gall bladders. Our hearts have been broken both figuratively and literally (as when my mother suffered "broken heart syndrome," or stress cardiomyopathy), and one of us lost her short-term memory for a terrifying thirty hours.
We have gained things, too. Caps on bad teeth, and extra pounds from the medications meant to heal us. The redundancies of voice and movement that can accompany neurologic disorder. I screamed with delight when I heard my father had developed gout - not because I took pleasure in his pain, but because it made him so very Dickensian, and in the days before stress felled me I had been a Dickens scholar.
We had all this disease and dysfunction, and yet we were resilient. Anxious, maybe, but upright.
We were still standing, and we were fully functional.
But about this boy. His autism and sadness, which sooner or later became Asperger's and sadness, and finally blossomed into florid psychiatric disorder, became my daily work. I do not use "work" to suggest some dutiful or compulsory effort. I devoted myself to his care with a full and loving heart. I dropped Dickens and teaching. I dropped leisure activities. I did so willingly and gladly, because it meant I had a shot of making him better, or finding others who could do so if I could not.
I was mighty, and this much I could do. I had lost a sister and several parts of my body. I had endured a very public (and to others, certainly very strange) tic disorder from age six on. I had learned about human savagery and family lost to genocide, and I had even married the son of a son of the genocidal regime that tried to exterminate us. I loved and was beloved. I made babies and music and art. I lived life fully and gladly, in spite of its occasional treacheries. Stress was an acquaintance but not a taskmaster.
Also, I am experienced in the art of delay when presented with near-daily hospital bills, waiting just long enough before opening them that I am spared some anguish but also the hassle of collection. I am adept at parsing my calendar not only for the appointments I scrawled (and can no longer decipher) in twenty out of the thirty or so boxes on each page, but for purpose of figuring out when money is coming in and when it might go out.
I lived under these conditions - including having to look my young child's suicidality in the face - for years, and until eighteen months ago I generally felt strong enough to take them all on, mano a mano, while attempting other kinds of work.
It was at the beginning of our boy's fourth psychiatric hospitalization -- there would be three between October 2012 and May 2013, five in all, over the past four years -- that I truly began to break.
He was nearly 13. I was most of the way to 50. I developed a respiratory infection so severe and so prolonged I wondered if I would ever again be well. It lasted six weeks. After a week of respite that conflagration of my digestive tract kindled, and it continued to burn until I fell to my metaphorical knees
and cried uncle. Other parts of me were also inflamed: my nerves, my muscles, my joints. My heart, most of all.
Because in the spaces between my own medical appointments and tests and emergency room sojourns, I was triaging my child's intensifying psychiatric crises, taking him to HIS appointments, trying, with my husband and our daughter, to stamp out his anguish, once and for all.
Of course, we failed. As we always had before.
And I was tired. All those years of struggle, the cumulative (but previously ignored) stress of parenting a progressively ill child while bearing my own neurologic affliction, and this new surprise of serious medical fragility, which intensified the weight of those other things tenfold, did me in.
Once I was mighty, but stress felled me.
My beloved boy is in the hospital again, and I am beginning to understand the etiology of my own disabling collection of ailments. Luckily, we have a stellar team of clinicians and educators working with us, pulling for us, and for our son; helping my husband and me find a way to make things better for all of us. This is possible partly because we live in a state with a conscience. Massachusetts offers robust supports to the disabled, physically and psychiatrically. Even though I am bone-tired, even though some days I cannot do a single thing but sit on my couch and sob and worry, we are taking tiny steps forward.
Our son is happier and more functional these days than we have ever seen him, in the hospital or at home. We have learned to accept help, and that makes all the difference for the lot of us.
I think the reason I finally succumbed to stress was my own perverse insistence on doing everything myself. I needed to be mighty, to be the supermom, staunch in the face of all adversity, gentle and calm and competent and loving no matter what. But being mighty meant neglecting myself, ignoring the needs of my own body and spirit. I had to, because the needs of others - not only people I loved or even knew, but sometimes strangers whom I could help - required intense energy and focus.
And that's when I got sick and sad. That is when stress got the upper hand.
My goal is to work my way back to healthy and strong but with a twist: I'm going to do it in a better way, a more human way. Because all people deserve an occasional gift of solitude or silence, of rest and repair. Even the mighty.
Is there a moment you hit a stress breaking point and knew you needed to change your life? If you'd like to share your story, please send personal essays under 1200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration in this series.