The Expectation Hangover. It was February 2013. There were signs that things weren’t right. One of my staff members had shared with me how he was struggling. He was getting physically sick and professionally off his game due to the stress of the past few years. As an organization, industry, and community/country, we had been going through a lot: huge financial losses, deepening recession, and little signal that things would change for the positive in the short term. I told him that as his colleague and boss I didn’t want to see him leave. But as a friend, I told him his physical and mental health was more important than this job. We cried. He left and I kept moving on. Handling one crisis after the next: fighting to be heard and taken seriously; making tough decisions about where and how we’d show up; and trying to be positive in deeply troubling and uncertain times.
I was an executive director after all. Aren’t I supposed to live and breathe my organization? Wasn’t I supposed to have all the answers? I should be prepared, decisive, and inspiring. That’s how all the other leaders are, right?
I took this home every night. I’d physically be there but so drained I had little to give my husband and young son or I’d already be focused on the next day or week. I also couldn’t take off my professional battle armor, mostly because I hadn’t realized it was on…and so thick and impenetrable. I was growing numb to it. I was having a hard time finding joy. I actually lost my taste buds for a while. And, I was angry and starting to get mean.
So fast forward to today—a year into my Bush Fellowship—and what have I learned? My “big idea” to connect health and community development and my development of leadership skills, relationships and experiences certainly feed my head. Professionally, I haven’t been this energized in years. However, this intellectual pursuit could keep me in the same level of overdrive that I have found myself in since taking on the executive director role. For the long haul, in all my roles (i.e. organizational leader, mother, wife, daughter, friend, artist, etc.) I need to feed my heart and soul or potentially suffer severe health consequences.
I started intentionally reading more about individual health, particularly from a more integrative and naturopathic perspective. Chronic stress and the effects on the body and the mind is not a new concept. Toxic thoughts and their release of chemicals in the body that raises blood pressure, heart rate, and blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol – has been documented in medical journals and generally acknowledged that our emotional and mental wellbeing has an impact on our physical health. Researchers are finding that stress, rage, hostility are cardio-toxic; for example, the Cleveland Clinic produces a “Hostility Index” for helping patients gauge their stress levels.
But even more than research, I started listening. I started really hearing the stories people around me were telling. Early in my fellowship, we took a family vacation to start to reweave the connections, relax and step away from my professional duties to “reset.” I had three goals that I wanted to make sure I intentionally took away from the experience. These included personal relaxation and renewal, enjoying family, and reconnecting with nature.
One clear example from that trip was learning that my cousin’s wife has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and she and I spent a lot of time talking about her experience with both the conventional medical care system and naturopathic health practitioners. She has had to spend an inordinate amount of time managing her own care and attempting to decipher and manage conflicts between health practitioners who dismiss each other. In result, some of the naturopathic concepts I’ve gleaned from this conversation and a very cursory look at integrative health was the role of adrenal system and gut health, particularly in relation to processed food and toxins in the environment; plus the need for vitamin D, hydration, and connections to mental wellbeing. Armed with this knowledge, I also started listening to my own body.
Doing the Personal Work
As much as I throw myself energetically into new intellectual pursuits, I made several key commitments to myself for this fellowship. I would seek greater alignment of my personal values and life experiences with my current leadership position and life. I would explore how my own culture, history and relationships both to bring a lens to the work I do but also to identify how that world view may enhance (or deter) others who are struggling to make a difference in their communities. Lastly, I wanted to recover my bold, creative self.
There would need to be a number of key actions that would move me in the direction where I could make real, positive steps toward re-wiring my brain for positive thoughts and practicing loving kindness. Luckily, I stumbled into a network of people through Tula Health and Wellness who were in some ways seeking the same. I also began journaling more frequently and with some regularity. I sought more “how – to’s” for mindfulness, yoga, and meditation. Some of this has even stuck.
Why is this important? I don’t think I would have been as open to receiving new information and learning if I was still in my same routines without any change of perspective. I also made a commitment to get more tactile with my activities: to immerse myself in the practice of art, to change my scenery, and to take new risks.
In turn, as I end my first twelve months of my fellowship, my work in connecting community development and health is starting to accelerate. I feel I’m at a new level in my leadership skills, and it’s only getting better.