Last week, I was sick—sicker than I’ve been in 35 years. What started with deep fatigue on Saturday morning became body aches by Saturday night. I spent the entire weekend on the couch drinking liquids, determined to feel better by Monday. Monday came, but recovery did not. I trudged through my morning classes, then went back to bed. (Fortunately I have a short commute.) That night, my fever hit 101°, the first of several fever spikes.
In some ways, illness was no surprise. The last few weeks have been hectic with lots of demands at work, with late nights and early mornings, weekends spent catching up on the class prep and grading that I had not been able to finish during the week. College teaching has a rhythm all its own, and spring semester can be especially brutal as my colleagues and I try to squeeze in dozens of enriching co-curricular activities before the end of the school year. Every evening offers multiple opportunities to hear stimulating speakers, see student theater performances, and screen documentary films. Each week my inbox contains a half-dozen invitations for me to share my professional expertise: the student asking me to offer a residence hall program, the publisher who would like me to review a manuscript, the community group sure that I would jump at the chance to offer their members a talk about women in the Civil War. I say “no” more often than “yes,” but the requests keep coming. It’s wonderful to be wanted, but my batteries were dying, and now I had fallen ill.
I tried to rest. I sweated my way through every set of pajamas I own; my husband washed them, and I started the cycle again. I navigated a tight circuit from class to bed to couch to bed and back to class. Years of teaching have honed a knowledge base both deep and wide that allowed me to preside over my classroom with minimal preparation, but compassionate students seemed a little alarmed at my appearance in Wednesday’s classes. Only when I returned home and glanced in the mirror did I realize that my pale, puffy face, and smudged eyeliner worthy of a horror film actress betrayed the extent of my distress.
As the week wore on and my illness persisted, I became discouraged. A colleague who contracted the bug a few days before me was not encouraging. “It’s up and down,” he reported. “I’m not even close to being over this.”
For the past two years, I’ve made a commitment to live more mindfully—to more carefully curate my calendar so that I am focusing my time and energy on tasks and events that align with my deepest values—commitments that leave me feeling recharged rather than exhausted. And yet this was my fourth bout of illness in five and a half months. What was I doing wrong? Would I ever manage to get my life under control?
I decided that I needed to ask myself the kinds of questions I ask my coaching clients who want to restore equilibrium to lives overwhelmed by an endless list of responsibilities. I began, as I suggest clients begin, by reviewing my calendar for the previous month. What was on that calendar? How had I spent my time? I realized that most of the demands that had recently occupied my time were commitments I believed worthy of that time: serving on an important committee at work, hosting a brilliant guest speaker, participating in a series of yoga and meditation classes, spending time with friends. So far, so good, on my mindful living.
After I completed my calendar review, I moved on to the next question I pose for clients: of all the tasks on my agenda for the past month, which ones do I wish I had declined. Why do I regret accepting those? The results were reassuring. There was only one obligation that I wish I had refused. For me, that was great progress. Once upon a time, there might have been twenty commitments that I regretted accepting on the list.
The first lesson I took away from being my own coaching client: even a carefully curated calendar can become too full at times. That’s part of living a full life.
Then I had to ask myself: how have I coped with the stress of the past month? Here’s where the news wasn’t so good. I wasn’t being proactive about dealing with my stress at all.
First there are the areas of sleep and exercise. Like most menopausal women, I struggle with bouts of insomnia, falling asleep normally and then lying awake for two or three hours in the wee hours of the morning. Stress aggravates my sleep problems. I hadn’t done a very good job in the last couple of months at trying to keep a regular sleep routine, and in my busyness, I had also abandoned my regular exercise routine.
My eating habits had also gone to hell. I couldn't remember the last time a yellow, orange or leafy green vegetable had crossed my plate. At home and in the college dining hall, I had loaded my plate with comfort foods—foods rich in saturated fats and high glycemic carbs—in place of the salads and soups that I had been trying to consume last fall. Nor could I recall the last time I consumed a nutritious fruit smoothie. Only my morning oatmeal could be called a health food choice. Clearly an epic fail, one I had rationalized by telling myself, “I deserve this comfort food; I'm very busy right now.” I had fallen off the mindful self-care wagon, for sure. I mentally kicked myself—over and over again.
Eventually I surrendered to illness. In between feverish naps, I read novels. The cat and I snuggled on the sofa drowsing through episodes of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix. I stared into the fire. Illness itself became something of a mindfulness practice.
Today I'm ten days into my bout with the great illness of 2016, and I'm starting to regain my strength. Cliché as it is, I’ve realized that the business of making mindful choices about how to live my life is a journey, not a destination. I'm going to hit potholes and traffic jams and detours. I'm going to fall off the mindfulness wagon. Changing the habits of a lifetime is a slow business, and as I tell my clients, two steps forward and one step back is perfectly normal.