It’s been two years since my last bout of extended illness, and much to my chagrin, I still struggle to cope with the challenges it presents. As an active person who was privileged enough to grow up healthy, being physically limited by anything leaves me frustrated enough to push myself to heal faster rather than giving my body the time it needs. The first time I experienced this powerlessness over my own body was when I was hospitalized in September of 2014 because mono caused swelling of my spleen and trashed my immune system for six months. The store suffered immensely from my absence and frequent closures, and when I became sick this year, I kept reliving that impact—an impact felt more keenly as the shop was busier now than in 2014.
In early February, a run of the mill cold escalated into walking pneumonia which I have been battling for over two months. The shop flourished in the last two years, and not only did the diagnosis coincide with a time of growth but also with our bra sized swim expansion. Completing and promoting the many facets of the Indiegogo campaign, managing the daily responsibilities of the shop, researching and assembling trade show orders, and making a myriad of decisions for our inventory plan created a mile long list of tasks I had neither the energy nor the ability to perform. I felt myself burning down to ashes again as I sat curled up on the couch underneath one of the quilts my mother made crying into my hands and questioning whether I would live up to my own resolution to be reborn. Would I have the strength?
For two months, I faced drowning: the weight of my own expectations as well as those of my customers and vendors pulling me further into the depths. Each time I swam to the surface, gasping for air and flailing for the shore, the weight became heavier, dragging me under again. Even now, I still feel trapped in the water. Being robbed of my health, of my power, of my strength—it left me defeated, willing but unable to change my circumstances. It taught me how privileged I was to be able-bodied, and it reminded me not to take that privilege for granted. Ever. As the sickness waned, I reexamined the experience and focused on what I learned. The last time I wrote about chronic illness, I discussed coping mechanisms, like “Accomplished lists,” but this time, I learned more than how to cope. I learned how to live better.
Do not offer what you do not want to give
Because we attract customers from all over the state (sometimes even neighboring states), closing the shop brings out the paranoia in my personality. I have lost count how many times I ask if a client is local only to hear they came from over an hour and a half a way, meaning for me to be closed costs someone time and money from the travel. Even though I always leave voicemail messages or post on Facebook regarding our hours, I know not everyone thinks to call. After all, you probably don’t call Target or Nordstrom or Best Buy to see if they are open before driving over to them, so why should you call the bra store? On many days when I was not physically well enough to be out of bed I found myself giving instructions to my dad, who, good sport that he is, sat up at the store all day. I told him to call me if anyone came from “out of town,” but I secretly hoped to never hear my phone ring. When it inevitably did, I fought back anger and sorrow filled tears.
If you’ve never had some form of pneumonia before, be thankful. The endless coughing and heaving leaves your body racked in pain, the muscles tightening and pulling. You can even herniate your intestines or crack a rib from how violent the spasms are. Your body exists in a state of exhaustion, where even simple tasks like positioning pillows or reaching for a glass of water exert too much energy. Breathing feels labored, where deep inhales never seem to fully expand the lungs and often yield fresh bouts of coughing. Moving or even talking causes shortness of breath, leaving you panting and lightheaded and dizzy. There’s a reason doctors advise bed rest for at least a week. The most consecutive days I managed to stay in bed was two and a half. I didn’t want to get off the couch or out of bed, but because of my sense of duty to the store and to our customers, I offered that service. It was an empty offer, one I thought no one would take me up on because of how ill I was.
If you are reading this post and were one of the people to call me to the store, I’m not writing this to make you feel guilty. The fault is entirely mine. I offered you something I had no desire to give you, and you, unaware of my true feelings, accepted it. What right do I have to be upset?
Set realistic expectations for yourself
As soon as I felt well enough, I was back at the store, working furiously to catch up. I came in early. I left late. I refused to take breaks, barely resting between customers, and I brought my leftover responsibilities home with me in an effort to not feel so damn behind on what I needed to do. If you own a small business, especially one without a staff, being ill means no work is done and no money is made. No one is there to finish the projects you started, to place orders for customers like you promised or to answer the accumulating emails and voicemails. No one fills the void left by your absence, and the longer you are ill, the more the void deepens. You feel a frenzied need to catch up, to push yourself to work harder and to stay open. Bills must be paid regardless of how sick you are, so you put on a hat and sit in your chair and force yourself to be there for as long as you can. My anxiety levels skyrocketed, and I more than once asked how I could possibly get everything finished? I was living up to the expectations set by my “well self” not my “sick self.”
Eventually, I realized, albeit much later than I should have, that setting realistic expectations is vital. Obtainable goals which factor in your present abilities not only controls anxiety but also allows you to build in a time frame to recover and accomplish each task. You can prioritize important demands but also give yourself the freedom to not to do others. If you are working on a large project, then focus your efforts there and do not punish yourself if you can’t answer every email immediately or if your home is messier than usual. Figure out what is important and listen to your body. Don’t feel like a failure because you need to slow down or rest.
Learn to say “No”
Somewhere along the way in life, I became more of a people pleaser than is healthy. Growing up, my parents raised my brother and me to be kind and helpful, and especially when it came to family and friends, to do whatever you could to help. The message is a good one. Of course, practice has muddied the intent a bit with me agreeing to requests regardless of whether they are feasible given my commitments and state of wellness. Part of this stems from my genuine love of helping people, especially when it comes to the store. At some point the “Say yes!” approach breaks down though, leaving you to face the consequences. A manufacturer wants to send something for review by a deadline? Yes, I’d love to help! A customer waited until the last minute for an item and wants me to order it immediately even if I can’t meet my minimum and have to analyze my cash flow? Yes, anything for my customers! Two charities want you to run fit events and donation drives while you’re sick and overworked with expansion plans and trade shows? Yes, I will find the time! Your brother wants to invite his girlfriend over last minute for a family dinner that you need to help host and clean up when you had plans on catching up with work? Yes, he’s family, and family comes first!
When you constantly say “Yes,” the expectation is you will never say “No.” People rely on the fact that you are dependable and reliable, and it makes it easier for them to intentionally and unintentionally take advantage. I always feel like I am disappointing people when I say “No” or that I’ll be perceived as a bad person. However, pneumonia reminded me you can’t please everyone and you can’t keep saying “Yes” to everything all the time. I love charity work. I love our customers, and I love the vendors who are kind enough to send me free samples. I also love my pain in the ass little brother too. I genuinely wanted to answer all of those questions with a resounding “Yes,” but in many cases, the answer better for me and my recovery would have been “No,” or perhaps “Not right now.”
Put your self first sometimes
The idea of making myself the first priority became so foreign and abstract I hardly understood it anymore. I put myself behind everyone and everything, something I see so many people doing these days. If it’s not your job, it’s your family or your friends or your house or your church, and so on. Somehow we always find something, anything else, that is more important than we are. We become masters at finding excuses for why our needs are secondary. Pretty soon, you can’t remember what the last thing you actually did for yourself even was. It’s pretty obvious how far ahead of my health the store became, but this behavior isn’t something new. I frequently found time to arrive at work early or to stay later. I managed to clean my home and host family dinners and take on extra projects for people. I found time for all of this, and yet I couldn’t figure out when to go grocery shopping or why I had no energy for exercise or reading or painting or writing. There was always something or someone else that needed my attention first.
Clearly, when you are healthy, this mentality creates problems, but when you are ill, the habit of putting yourself last is the opposite of what you need to do. As one customer put it on Facebook: Better 85 days out of 100 at 100% than 100 days at 50%. I cheated my business and myself, robbing us both of having me at my absolute best. As soon as I am upright, I pronounce myself “well enough” to go back to work and to resume my normal activities because the idea of sitting at home when I am not incredibly ill feels irrationally like lying to customers about my status. One of the days I came back to work, my cough was nearly gone, but I literally could not talk for more than two minutes without losing my breath. I had to stop in the middle of sentences because I couldn’t breathe. I was dizzy constantly. I could barely stand, couldn’t walk, and I was in and out of a fever. But, the operative word for me was “stand.” I could do that! Barely, but I could get out of bed. I must be well enough, right? I felt better than yesterday, so that meant I should be at work. What I truly needed was to stay covered up until I felt recovered, not simply “better than.”
I’m not advocating living life with selfish abandon, but if you don’t make YOU a priority, who else will? You can’t give of yourself to others if there’s nothing left to give. Learn to set boundaries, to know when you can or can’t do something. Recognize that sometimes you may want to help or may want to participate, but the timing isn’t right for you. Care for and about others, but take care of yourself too. Remember you are only human and identify what you can achieve based on your current abilities and time commitments, and if that means taking a step back or extending the time frame on certain goals, don’t beat yourself up or feel less than successful. Don’t get overwhelmed about circumstances beyond your control and instead focus on doing the best you can at that particular time in your life, even if that means you disappoint others. You’ll never be able to please everyone anyway.
And it’s okay to be a hypocrite too. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about your progress one day and then feeling overwhelmed the next day. You do not have to be the epitome of grace, tranquility, composure, and control. You will have days that are worse than others, but you will have good days too. You are human. You are beautifully imperfect. And when everything seems like it is too much, listen to the wise words of my mother: Breathe and believe.
Here’s to a better spring and complete recovery!
P.S. If there is a fifth lesson to be learned here, it is definitely listen to your doctor. When he/she tells you take the week off work, listen. I am a cautionary tale on what happens when you think you know best.