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Helpers Need Help, Too

by Melissa Lee-Tammeus, PhD, LMHC

Yesterday, I woke up and I just knew it was going to be one of those days. My head felt fuzzy, my stomach was cramping, and my joints ached. I could almost feel my body apologizing with a slight shrug to the universe. Sorry, we can’t do it today.

Mentally, I went over in my head what I had to do – or rather, what I might have to miss.

The list was long.

My adult son was home and we had planned to go through some of the boxes stored in the garage to get him ready for his transition to a new state, a new job, a new life. He recently graduated from college and was waiting on an apartment that would be ready for move in less than a month’s time. We had packed up all his stuff from his college apartment and dragged it home with the promise to one another that we would sort it all out later. Later was now. We needed to go through what he would take to his new home and what he wanted to leave at what was now “my home.”

I had just one client on the books today– a tentative, shy client who I was always happy to see on my online calendar. Working with him was always like befriending a feral cat – you never knew when he would bolt, so every appointment made was a milestone.

I had a Meet and Greet Zoom session with a new Associate Dean at the college I worked full time. I had a meeting with a committee I had a large part in that just took on a new member who needed guidance. I had three brand new courses I was teaching, and I knew my inbox would be filled with students’ anxious questions. The dog needed to be walked. I had grading from another university in which I did adjunct work. My deadlines for two writing submissions were looming.

The list went on and my stomach continued to protest. I felt my anxiety clawing at me.

Could I call in sick? What would it take to cancel everything? Was it even more work to just cancel than try and do it? The contemplation took a while. I can argue well with myself in these instances.

I decided to sleep for another hour with the classic, “maybe you’ll feel better in a bit” resolution in my head.

But instead of sleeping, I just kept thinking about all I had to do. Or, if I was being totally honest, didn’t really want to do. I then realized if I didn’t make a decision RIGHT NOW, the guilt and shame would eat me alive and I would never get the rest my body craved.

I pulled my robe tight around me, hair matted in sweaty piles, and tentatively pushed myself off the bed. With a bent over shuffle, I patted the dog on the head, apologizing that a walk was out of the question, and slowly made my way to my in home office which felt miles away but was a mere few steps. I opened my multiple emails and calendars and sent my apologies. I tend to overexplain (shame, anyone?), but today, something shifted. I simply said, “I must cancel today. I am under the weather.” That was new. I had no energy to explain further.

For now, my inner voice settled. I went back to bed. I slept.

I woke, disoriented. Got some toast. Laid in bed some more. Read a book. Watched a few Disney shorts on the Disney Channel to boost my spirit. Went out in my backyard and sat in the sun. Sipped some ice water. Went back to bed.

When my husband called to check on me, I cried. I had so much to do and my body had let me down. He talked me down. Gave me permission to rest. He must do this on occasion, because the permission I give myself is fleeting and unsustainable. Numerous times during the day, the permission floats away and the guilt blankets me.

After we spoke, I fell back asleep with chatter in my head. Maybe I can still make that last meeting. But I already cancelled – I would have to try and reorganize it. Could I do that? Was it worth it? The answer escaped me, and I drifted back to sleep in sheets that smelled faintly of sweat and illness. A vague thought floated by. I should plug my phone into the charger, but sleep took me.

When I woke, I would like to say I felt refreshed and knew then that I had made the right decision. But, of course, that was not the case. I kept batting away the guilt, the shame, the unchecked list of my to-dos left to mock me.

What I can tell say is, today, I do feel refreshed. I do feel better. And the email responses all included things like “No worries. We can reschedule” and “Hope you feel better soon.” I realized that the world kept spinning. That one day off did not cause anyone or anything to implode. My body thanked me with a renewed sense of simply feeling okay. No aches. No pains. Ready to face another day.

I admonished myself to remember this next time. I doubt I will.

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