Contributed by Holly R. Jensen, Esq.
I’m that woman - you know, the one you love to hate. And the reasons why you love me are also the very reasons you hate me: I’m driven, focused, smart, and determined. I have accomplished a great deal in life due to my ability to work harder and longer than most others, and by all measures, I’ve enjoyed much professional success.
But that success came at a cost, and I did not understand that my methods were a recipe for physical and emotional disaster until it was almost too late. I have worked through several periods of extreme burnout in my 22-year law career. I kept telling myself that it was OK, that everyone goes through this, and if I just kept showing up, it would eventually go away. And it did, or so I thought.
Unbeknownst to me, my body was hanging on to all that stress and burnout, even while I convinced myself I was fine. And in one fell swoop, my body revolted. I mean, I crashed and burned HARD. I developed several really awful autoimmune diseases that made it impossible for me to sit at my desk, made it impossible for me to focus, made it impossible for me to carry out even basic daily functions. I descended into depression coupled with an impenetrable brain fog as my body marshaled its resources to fight itself. Many days I could not even string a sentence together coherently - the words just would not come. It felt like a civil war was being waged under my surface, and my brain was off floating around somewhere, completely disconnected from the work we were supposed to be doing.
At my core, I felt like I was on the brink of a monumental mistake. I didn’t know what form it would take - maybe I’d get in a car wreck, maybe I’d misstep and injure myself, but more likely, it felt like I was going to make an irretrievable mistake on a client file and lose my law license. Now I’d added a healthy dose of fear to the rest of the stress swirling around in my body. And I lost faith in what has always been my greatest weapon and ally - my brain.
So I decided to stop. Just stop. I needed to get off the merry-go-round and heal myself if at all possible, and the only way to do it was to shut off the stress spigot. I wasn’t doing any good to anyone by going through life at 15% max power. But how to do it? Now that was the question.
The answer was simple - I had to relinquish control. Oof. For a long time, I tried to come up with a plan to get better while keeping control, but each variation of those thoughts kept me in the chair, kept me at my desk, and kept me an indentured servant to everyone else=s emergencies. I needed to pay attention to my own emergency, so I finally embraced the idea that the control was the thing that needed to go.
I’m not gonna lie - it took me 3 years to pull the trigger. Not for lack of trying - it just takes a long time to implement a year off when you’re a solo practitioner. I needed my firm to survive so that my staff and I could all keep earning a living, but if I shuttered for a year, that wouldn’t happen. I made the decision to hire another attorney and speed-train them to take over for me. That ended up being a three-year process, mostly because the first attorney I hired only lasted a year, which set me back a bit. I was already soooooo done when I had to start over with training another new attorney. That was the point at which I almost cracked for real.
I got sick in 2013. I barely remember that year. I came back to life somewhat by 2014, and by 2015 had decided on this radical change. I took my sabbatical in 2019. Like most things I do, I approached the sabbatical with ridiculous focus and a list of Ame projects@ that I wanted to accomplish. So much for my original idea of doing nothing for a year! I should have known better than to expect I could turn off the routine of going to work every day, and make that full mental shift between me clocking out at 5pm on 12/31/18 and waking up at 8am on 1/1/19. I laugh now that I gave myself a whole 15 hours to adjust. Needless to say, it took a bit longer than that.
Here’s what my sabbatical taught me:
1) It takes a long time to undo the physical damage that stress does to the body and brain.
2) I never want to sit at a desk and computer full-time again.
3) I have some artistic talent I never really embraced or explored before.
4) It took about 4 months to become disconnected from the calendar to the point where I stopped knowing what day it was.
5) It took about a week to start waking up later.
6) It took about 3 months to start going to bed later.
7) I napped almost every day for the first 6 months.
8) Hot flashes will f**k up your sleep whether you’re working or not.
9) My instincts were right and I should trust them more.
10) The time I was able to spend with my elderly parents during the twilight of their lives can never be taken away from me.
I’m still that same driven, focused person. But I had to adopt a mind shift that said I was worthy of all that drive and all that focus - that it was okay to direct all of it inward and to engage in radical self-care. In the final analysis, that’s the biggest lesson of my sabbatical – it’s OK to unplug, it’s OK to indulge, and it’s OK to be kind to myself and forgive myself for many past actions that I now view as missteps. I am so happy to have the greater clarity that a wider perspective brings. My focus was so narrow that I was missing the forest for the trees, and now I see not only the trees, but all the branches and leaves on each one.
Final thought: It’s as simple as giving ourselves permission to put ourselves first for a while and ignore not only everyone else’s expectations, but also our own inner critic. I fired my critic in 2019. And in case you’re wondering, I’m working again, putting in about 6-8 hours per week. It’s all I can manage, and guess what? It’s enough. I’m enough. We’re all enough.