After fifteen years of nonstop hustling, I crashed. I’d heard of people with hardcore, stressful careers—like mine—having breakdowns. But I never thought one of those people would be me. I thought I was tougher than that. Stronger than that. Until I was one of those people, and I had no choice but to rethink . . . everything.
A major (and majorly overdue) overhaul was my daily schedule. Right up until I ended up on someone else’s watch in the hospital, my schedule had been ridiculously unsustainable. But that’s the way I’d wanted it to be.
When I set out to start my own company in 2011, I had two major goals in mind: 1) to produce smart, engaging content on financial topics that a younger generation of (mostly) women could relate to, and 2) to hire a killer team of (mostly) women who not only always had my best interests in mind, but were also just as ambitious and smart as I was, if not more so. I (mostly) succeeded on both accounts.
I had just turned twenty-seven when I started my company, and my future burnout and subsequent breakdown wasn’t remotely on my radar. I couldn’t even comprehend them as possibilities. It was full speed ahead, baby. Business bossdom or bust.
I have never been a Devil Wears Prada– type boss, but from the beginning, I was strict about wanting to be scheduled up to the minute. My team worked their booties off to make sure I was, indeed, overbooked the way I wanted, even though I know they often questioned the value in it, and, after all, were the ones who had to deal with the sometimes-ugly ramifications of that schedule—like me getting sick because I was running myself down and then having to reschedule everything as a result. (Not to mention, the days when I was just plain exhausted and a cranky lady to be around.)
I just went where my calendar told me to go, and I wanted that calendar to be full, from a breakfast meeting to start the day to another one for drinks at its close. The more jam-packed my day, the more I felt like I was accomplishing, and the happier I thought I was. When I traveled and found myself with even a thirty-minute break, I was not happy. When I wasn’t on the optimal flights for defying the space-time continuum (like red-eyes and super early departures between NYC and LA), I was not happy. When I had basically any free time at all, I was not happy.
Working harder, being “busier” than everyone else seemed like the only way to succeed. I imagined myself as the most conditioned athlete on the field, with more of a chance to win than those less used to a frantic pace. Living in a state of breathlessness was how I felt most comfortable and secure. I was running fast and hard to get “there,” to “success,” where I thought I would be happy. And if the way to get “there” was to grind, I would grind myself into the ground.
And, I did. I barely left time to shower and was running on at least two venti Americanos a day and little else. I was no longer just running but running out—of breath and fuel. And the pace wore on me not only physically, but mentally; I couldn’t think straight anymore. I didn’t stop to gain perspective on what I was doing, whom I was meeting with, and why, because I was always trying to get to the next thing on my schedule. I wasn’t busy with purpose, I was just . . . busy and on the doorstep of burnout. My shrink would tell you that I was running from my PTSD diagnosis and distracting myself with work. Well, guess what? My shrink is a shrink because she knows a lot about this stuff. And she was right, as she often is, even though I’m always telling her, “Don’t go all Freudian on me and psychoanalyze everything.” She laughs and does it anyway, which I appreciate—well, eventually.
To reset after things fell apart, I ran away (briefly) not to distract myself from, but to confront, what went wrong. I peaced out to the most peaceful place I could find outside the city. I told the team to put a pause on scheduling (they looked at me like I had three heads and probably thought, “Who are you and what have you done with Nicole?”) until I came back to them with more direction. As much as I loved and trusted my work squad, relinquishing total control of my time and not paying attention to where I was going until I was in a car or on a plane on the way there wasn’t going to work anymore.
I’ll Never Forget My First
. . . “mental health day.” I had heard of this magical thing, but it wasn’t something I had ever tried before. I drove out of the city and went on a hike in the Catskills. Yes, like on a school day. I had never been to the Catskills—or anywhere in the state outside of New York City. I had actually been to very few places “just because.”
When I arrived, the nice lady in the tourism office gave me a map. Apparently, just to get to the trailhead to start my hike, I had to first take a “picturesque” mile-long trail. Ugh. My penchant for maximum efficiency was already being put to the test.
“It’s so beautiful, it’s almost meditative,” she assured me. “It’s down an old rail track.”
Another ugh. I hated meditation. But, “Okay,” I said. “All aboard!” (No one found that funny but me.)
“Picturesque” didn’t do the trail justice. The old wooden tracks looked like the world’s tallest ladder had lain flat on its back, looking up at a canopy of trees whose leaves had just started changing into a million brilliant shades of orange. The sun was out, but inside the tunnel of forest that enclosed the railroad track, it was cool, fresh, and dewy.
No one was on the trail as far ahead as I could see, and no one followed me. I started walking awkwardly on the uneven planks. To find my stride, I tried to focus only on the track beneath me. When I felt my mind drifting off to my calendar or my to-do list, I would force my focus back to the tracks. One step and then the next. One foot, then the other. Repeat.
Ohhhhh, I get it. I guess you don’t have to be in a yoga studio saying “om” to meditate, I thought to myself.
I didn’t think I was going to see anyone along my journey, but around the halfway mark, I heard a giggle. And it grew closer. I looked back and saw a bubbly little girl atop the shoulders of a man who looked to be a little younger than me. He was running down the tracks, off into the woods, and back onto the tracks, which seemed impossible considering how much trouble I was having just walking slowly along them on my own.
As they approached, I said, “Well, hello there! How do you do all that running and jumping on this trail?” I could barely walk on it.
Before her dad could say a word, the little girl replied, “We do this all the time when I’m at his house.” She pointed down at his head from above it.
“That’s so great! This is my first time; I live in the city. Where do you live?”
“I live right around here, sometimes, but I live at my mom’s house, too, other times,” said the girl, in this matter-of-fact way that made me feel like she was probably going to be a Supreme Court justice when she grew up.
“Ah—well, that’s pretty cool that you have two houses,” I said, trying to keep it light, as a child of divorce myself.
“Well, yes,” her dad replied to her, looking uncomfortable and glancing at me. “For a while at least, while we work out our issues.”
“Yeah, a lot of issues,” the girl said without a hint of awkwardness, as basically the most grown-up of the three of us.
“What’s your name, missy?” I asked, looking up at her.
“I’m Cadence,” she said with confidence. “And I’m this many.” She held up an open palm to show me five fingers.
And then with a wave, they were off down the trail, bobbing and weaving their way on and off the tracks together.
It was a five-minute conversation with a five-year-old. But it made me think: If this little girl has issues, then we all have issues. And her name was Cadence. Because of course it was. Cadence. Exactly what I needed.
Until this point I had bought into the stigma that “mental health” days are just an excuse to skip work and slack off. But somewhere in the middle of my first one (and the woods), I figured out what I’d been missing: my cadence, or a greater sense of my internal rhythm. With that in mind, I drove back into the city feeling rejuvenated and ready to develop, and stick to, a totally new type of schedule.
A version of this article was originally published on Thrive.