On Stress

My life is pretty stress free and I’ve worked hard and deliberately to make it that way.

Looking in the mirror after a rare stressful day at work yesterday, I was reminded that this wasn’t always the case. Back then I would measure my baseline stress like a rev counter, sitting at seven or eight thousand RPM when at rest. I had biopolar disorder since I was a child and when things got too intense, the rev counter would go into the red zone at nine or ten thousand RPM and I’d break down.

In the mirror last night I saw the two physical scars that remain from that time, permanent reminders of what happened when I lost control of my life.

Removing an eyelash from my eye, tugging my eyelid to the side reveals a dull red burst above my iris. Some time in 2012 I had been sitting on the couch enjoying a girls night when I felt a sharp pain in my eye occur at random. A blood vessel had spontaneously burst.

Picking up my toothbrush and smiling into the mirror, I see the temporary cap on one of my front teeth obscuring most of the blackened tooth beneath it. I recall sitting in a cafe meeting in early 2011 with the temporary Director at work when I told him that my gum had split from the stress I was feeling. It wasn’t until later in 2018 that I felt I could afford to attend the dentist for the first time in ten years that I learned that my tooth had died and needed to be capped.

I can say that I know stress. It is a bracing beast that tries to trick you into thinking that you’re not in charge in of your life and then sucks the spirit right out of you, damaging your whole body along the way.

At some point, I decided enough was enough and I needed to start shutting down all of the things in my life that were the source of my stress.

My relationship was bad. We were in a long distance relationship and he had become emotionally distant. I hadn’t yet learned to control my temper. I ended it and howled with the pain of loss and failure.

Next was my job; I was fulfilled in the work which meant so much to me that it formed part of my sense of identity. But it was underpaid, over-responsible, long hours without breaks, midnight and beyond finishes with long drives and bullying.

I had become overweight and was in pain. My back had start to spasm and freeze randomly. I had just turned 30.

With my new job I could afford a gym membership. I thought hard about what I wanted my health to look like and I got a personal trainer and later, a dietician. I lost 20 kilos and learned how to move and became strong. My confidence was beginning to soar.

Despite improving from the depths of endless nights zoned out in front of the TV, too depressed to participate in the world, I was still in depression and found a therapist. I had spent enough time trying to do it on my own and I wanted my life back. I had spent years wasting time and the emotional life coach I took on helped accelerate my recovery and get back some of the time that I had lost to live my best life. I have been asymptomatic for depression since 2015.

Work, physical health, mental health, and relationship were big blocks to knock over. But there was still stress eating away inside of my. By this point I still had one last layer of stress to eliminate. The one that hummed on along deeply but quietly. Despite all of the above, this was this one that affected my rev counter the most.

I was now 32 years old and in deep debt. I owed money to my dad. I owed money to my friends. There was more. The credit card I had got as a just-in-case backup for my post-uni backpacking trip had been maxed out for years as I paid only the minimum every month, clearing out a hundred dollars here and there to scrape by. All up I owed around forty thousand dollars.

Three years after I made the decision to get rid of my debt I have a home deposit saved for a freestanding house (in Sydney!). I have a small share portfolio that I hope to grow with index funds. We are in the process of loan pre-approval and while the pandemic has slowed my saving, it has barely affected it. All bills are paid on time. Credit card balances are zero.

I’m engaged to be married soon.

I think back to the me that was sitting at that cafe meeting in 2011, stressed out of my mind. Vibrating with it. I would remain like that for another two years. The first step to fix this mess was changing my environment which for me meant changing my career. It took nearly twelve months and in 2014 it landed me in my dream job. Everything changed from there.

You learn a lot of lessons along the way. You find mentors, build resilience and develop tools for coping with what life throws at you.

Yesterday, when I had the most stressful day at work that I think I’ve had since changing careers, my rev meter stayed low. I was given a taste of the way things used to be and I am relieved that this truth holds: once you earn your resilience, it can never be taken away from you.

How have you overcome stress? What changes did you have to make to come out of it? Share with me in the comments.

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