When you regain consciousness after fainting, life doesn't slowly reveal itself like curtains rising at the start of a play's opening act. It roars in, all at once, like a flood of lights in a dark room. I blinked my eyes open one evening in late June, 2012, and immediately realized that I was lying on a bench outside of a restaurant in the West Village where I had just finished dinner with friends. My last memory was paying the bill and heading outside to hail a taxi, because I suddenly hadn't felt well and desperately wanted to get home.
My next realization was that the police and fire department were there. I couldn't move my body, so my eyes darted frantically back and forth to take stock of the situation and my surroundings. A cloth napkin from the restaurant was placed in my mouth to absorb the blood that covered my face, neck, and chest. My friend Tommy was holding my hand and saying, "It's OK, honey," while my friend Michael was speaking to a police officer nearby. When the ambulance arrived several minutes later, I had already deduced that several teeth were missing. I had to hold fingers up when the police asked for my husband's phone number because I couldn't move my mouth to speak. My blood pressure was so low that the EMTs had to wait until I was stable enough to physically move me on a stretcher. I was a healthy, happy, 31-year-old woman and had no idea how this had happened to me.
I had fainted at the top of a short set of stairs, pitched forward and absorbed the entire impact of the fall with my face. The impact broke my maxilla bone (otherwise known as the bone that forms your upper jaw, directly under your nose) and six teeth were fractured or lost entirely. I suffered through 18 months of painful and expensive reconstructive surgeries and procedures, countless tests to find out what underlying medical issue could be the cause, and indescribable mental and psychological anguish as I was put on medications to address the dizzy spells and chest pains that sporadically followed.
Up until this point, I was one lucky gal. I moved to New York City after graduating college with my sights set on building a career. Over the years I built a circle of great friends, met and married a wonderful man and in general had the life I wanted for myself. I was proud of my accomplishments but pushed for a particular milestone -- I wanted to be a VP by the time I turned 30. I missed that goal. I wasn't promoted until several weeks after my 31st birthday. Less than six months later, I was taking my first ambulance ride to the ER.
Here's the thing: I'm really not that different from anyone else trying to make it in New York. In fact, I'm not that different from anyone trying to be successful anywhere. But it wasn't until another appointment with yet another doctor (after being frustrated with previous doctors who would simply prescribe medication after medication) that light dawned on what was going on. Instead of starting with the usual tests, this doctor sat down and simply asked me to explain why I was there. He listed carefully and patiently while I gave him the whole story that began one night in the West Village. He paused and thought a bit before finally asking, "You've talked a lot about specific events, but I still don't have a sense of your lifestyle. Would you say that you deal with a lot of stress?"
It took me several moments to consider this, as incredibly (and in retrospect, shockingly) I had never been asked this question before. Like so many other companies, mine had downsized after the economic pitfalls of 2008 and like so many others, I had absorbed many responsibilities after the layoffs. I thought incessantly about work. I talked about it all the time. I couldn't turn off, ever. I checked emails and my blackberry constantly. I even dreamed about work, sometimes confusing what was real and what had manifested in my slumber. The last vacation I had taken was stressful because I was so uncomfortable with what could be happening without my oversight and control.
"Yes," I finally answered. Then my doctor said that almost every health related issue could inevitably be drawn back to stress.
"But I'm only 32," I protested. "What does that matter?" He countered. "I feel terrible for young people these days. All that technology and pressure to be on all the time."
This was a lightening bolt to my brain. After thinking about it at length, three weeks later I quit the job that I had worked my entire adult life to obtain.
I didn't run off to Costa Rica and became a yoga teacher, if that's where you think this is going. After several months, I decided to accept a demanding position at a fast-paced company that I greatly admire. I still work hard. I find incredible fulfillment in the work that I do. To turn my back on that would be to turn my back on a part of myself, and that wasn't something I was willing to sacrifice.
I now find small and manageable ways to control how stress affects my life. I leave the office at six o'clock most nights. I go to yoga several times a week. I disconnect on nights and weekends (for the most part). I took a vacation a few months ago and locked my iPhone in the safe. I get eight hours of sleep almost every single night. Seriously.
A daily reminder of the toll that stress took on my life is in the mirror everyday. (I'm not disfigured or anything -- in fact, my team of dentists and surgeons put me back together almost better than I could have imagined.) In fact, I consider it one of the biggest blessings I have ever received. I now find myself waking up each day to a new form of consciousness, one that often means simply being OK with the things that I can control and especially the things that I can't.
Professional achievements still mean a lot to me. Success, however, is in the process of being re-defined. Prioritizing my well-being is the lesson I'll be learning for the rest of my life. After all, what is success worth if we're not fully present to enjoy it?