How many years can you operate in overdrive before finding that your energy tank (both physical and emotional energy) is at or close to empty? And then how long does it take to recover and refuel?
I started considering these questions in my second year of grief. My body had minimal energy and all that was possible was the most basic daily tasks to look after myself and my young children. It had been over a year since my husband died from brain cancer. Why was I feeling worse in the second year rather than better?
It was only in late 2013, when I created a graph of my energy levels year by year – through different phases of my life – that I started to understand and accept that my energy tank was severely depleted – and it would be for a number of years to come.
This is my graph.
As you can see, I managed to operate way beyond “normal capacity”, through two phases of my life, for about seven and half years at levels up to 150%. The phases were:
- The last four years of my busy Conventional Life (working 12 hour days, trying to and eventually starting a new family, buying and selling houses, moving across the city)
- Three and a half years on the Cancer rollercoaster as a terminal cancer carer, mother of two infants and working in a senior commercial role.
I operated at such high levels by using a mixture of factors including:
- ambition and dreams
- incredible love and support FROM family and friends
- deep love FOR my husband and children
- frequent dashes of adrenalin
- a sustained above average level of cortisol (a hormone that is generated in the body to respond to help the body react to the impact of stress) and
- ignoring my emotions by storing most of them away in a “parking lot“, to be acknowledged another time.
After my husband died in 2012 my energy plummeted. This made sense to me – my dreams had shattered, I had lost my life partner and I had been through a lot as cancer carer and young mother. Of course I was tired and not up for much in the 8th year of my grief.
But – I was frustrated to find that in the 9th year (2013) and then in the 10th year – my energy fell even further! I was 38 years old and reasonably fit and well. I had had a few pockets of rest here and there. Why could I not return to normal capacity again? Why couldn’t I “do it all” – just like my most of my friends and society seemed to be doing?
When I considered my graph I asked myself – was it realistic to assume that after seven years of operating above base line only a few pockets of rest here and there were needed?
I realised that the majority of the factors that had enabled me to operate at such high levels for a number of years were no longer.
Most of the crises and stressful events had passed and my cortisol levels dropped accordingly. My parasympathetic nervous system kicked into gear and I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. ( After a period of stress or a stressful event – the parasympathetic nervous system balances out the impact of the stress hormone cortisol by supporting the body to rest.)
My low physical energy did not only to help my rest my body so that it could repair and rejuvinate. It was also a gentle way of encouraging me to sit with my emotional energy and start working through my parking lot of emotions. It provided me with an opportunity to be still and contemplate my circumstances. An opportunity to consider and rediscover what was important to me. An opportunity to heal, reset foundations and create new dreams.
“Don’t just do something – sit there”
When I looked at my graph I could see that I needed a lot more time and space to rest and contemplate. This was all well and good – but I still had young children to look after and ill parents to support – more circumstances that required vast amounts of emotional and physical energy! It was NOT POSSIBLE to sign into a yoga and wellness retreat for a month!
I continued to be frustrated and impatient. Regular appointments with my counsellor reminded me of my energy graph and to practice self compassion. I also utilised Acupuncture and Yoga to boost and balance what energy I did have and calm my mind.
I realised that I would have to accept that each day, all I could do was
- listen to my energy levels,
- be still in any spare moments and
- let go of standards and expectations around housework, perfect parenting, socialising and always “achieving”
- engage help and get better at asking for help when I really needed it.
And so I continued on travelling through my Labyrinth of Grief, surrendering to circumstances and listening to how I felt, physically and emotionally.
It is now five years later. I finally have my groove back and on most days feel close to 100%.