Running on empty

Since June, I’ve been running on empty. The fuel gauge of my internal energy levels was flashing orange, the needle on the gauge was below empty and I was almost at a standstill. I could coast a ways, but if one more big hill presented itself in my path, I couldn’t have surmounted it. I had reached a point no one wants to reach, and yet, it seems a point human beings often get to. Especially recently.

The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone. Even if you are one of the lucky ones who hasn’t suffered physically. Two years of fear, restrictions, unknowns, health issues, working from home and not seeing loved ones affected us all. Whether obvious grief for the tangibles we’ve lost – family members, jobs, freedoms – or ambiguous loss for a way of life that, to be honest, wasn’t working so well for many of us anyway. Grief for the lives we once knew that won’t ever be the same, despite what business and political leaders want us to believe.

For many there is a sense of anger – anger towards all the pandemic has taken from us. But as many people know, if one sits with anger long enough, one will usually find it’s actually grief.

Grief is something that touches us all. I don’t claim to be an expert in all grief, but in recent times I’ve been forced to sit with MY grief over and over until I do feel I’ve become an expert in IT. Sometimes she feels almost like an old friend who I now recognise when she shows up.

My grief was due to my own Covid illness as well as the death of my father in May and other family emergencies that arose in the aftermath of his death. These all combined with exhaustion and emptied my energy tank recently. My body gave me the warning signs – that flashing light on the dashboard to remind me to fill the tank – and I had to pay attention. My heart was broken, both figuratively and literally.

I had no more fucks to give about anyone or anything. And if you know me, that’s pretty serious. I’m always the first to be there for a friend or family member who needs help. Even as I watched other people’s lives unravel around me, I seriously couldn’t give a fuck. A friend of mine had given me this gift a few years ago, A Little Box of Fucks, to hand out when I didn’t have any fucks to give. When they had given me the gift, I had laughed and thought it was funny. Now I seriously considered if I could hand out the cards to people who told me their woes. I just didn’t have any other energy to give.

I had never felt this empty before.

I knew I had to re-think what to do. I immediately prioritised my physical, mental and emotional health. Anything that didn’t align with filling my tank in one of those areas fell by the wayside.

This was a new approach for me. I have a long history of always making time to help others. But this time I knew I had to help myself. It wasn’t being selfish. It was vital.

Why is it that women especially, have been conditioned to care for others over ourselves? I know many women who will prioritise their partners, their children, even the family pet, over their own needs. And yet, in order to help others the most effectively and from a place of love, not resentment, we need to ensure our own tanks are full. It’s the principle of being on an airplane and having the airmasks drop from the ceiling. What are you instructed to do by the flight attendants? ‘Fit your own mask first, breathe normally and then help others.’

My heart issue, combined with my obvious and ambiguous grief, made me grasp my airmask with both hands and fit it tightly to my face. I chose, very deliberately and consciously to put myself first. It was an odd feeling at first, but over the six or so weeks I’ve been practicing, the feeling has become more comfortable.

My plan started with action. Or more importantly, non-action. It was imperative that I rested. Getting 10-12 hours of sleep a day was vital just so I could function and perform the bare necessities of life. If I wasn’t at work or eating, I was sleeping. Did my house look like a bomb had gone off? Yes. Did I worry about it? No. I had something more important to take care of. Me.

I removed myself from social media and talked with only a handful of people. For the first time in my life, I didn’t automatically respond when someone called or texted. I took stock of my energy before responding. If I responded. I still have a few people that I owe messages. I’ll get to it, when I can. The few I talked to, I chose because they fill me energetically. I cancelled all activities. Anything I’ve done in the past few weeks has been spur of the moment and only agreed to after I checked in with my body and my energy levels.

Hiking and kayaking are two of my usual ways of beating stress and filling my energy tank. With a broken heart, neither of those things are possible at the moment. But I am able to walk with my dog George each morning, in the quiet, before most of my neighbourhood is awake. We walk on even paths and our walks take twice the time they used to. George, being a German Shepherd, would like to walk faster but has quickly learned that although we go slower and don’t cover as much ground, we get to spend more time together so he seems ok with it.

I prioritised getting deep-tissue massages to show my physical body some love and appreciation. And I resumed a meditation practice and started an EFT practice to show my mental and emotional sides some love and appreciation too.

I’m a firm believer in the right people being in my life at the right time. I’m grateful for my new boss and my new job. My boss believed in me, held space for me and gave me time to heal, rest and recover. Having had bosses in the past who would never have done that, I know how amazing this woman is and am grateful she’s in my life at this time. She believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. Having a champion in my corner has made all the difference.

But the biggest factor of all has been self-compassion. I’ve learned enough about myself, healing processes and grief over the past few years to allow myself to sit in my feelings, acknowledge them, feel the emotions and just be with them. Knowing the more I can just be with them and accept them for what they are, the more my broken heart heals.

I keep picturing my heart as one of those Japanese kintsugi bowls where the broken pottery is repaired by mending the breaks with lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum. Only in my case, instead of precious metals, my heart is being held together with self-love. It really is an inside job.

I don’t for a minute believe I am the only person on earth suffering like this. But I am the only person on earth who can help me fully heal.

I’m happy to report that after six weeks of this concentrated self-love and self-compassion, the needle on my energy tank has moved out of the red zone. I’m no longer in danger of running out of energy completely, but I have a way to go before my tank is full. Luckily I have a plan that works for me and I’m sticking to it.

As I write this piece, I’m sitting in the Spring sunshine on my deck. Coffee in one hand, journal in the other and dog at my feet. Everything about this moment fills me with joy. My wish for you is that you can find such a perfect moment in your life today to help fill your own tank.

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