I was a superhero. In 2010, at 38 years old, I was the CEO of a $5 million non-profit, mom of 3, community leader, and triathlete. I was, in many ways, bulletproof. Or at least I thought so, and I was proud of my abilities. I felt like I had earned my superpowers through hard work and life experience.
By 43 years old, I found myself in a full-on crisis in every aspect of my life. And I didn’t have a safety net. I had been a hyper-achiever since college. And by the end, it felt like I had nothing to show for it.
With the value of hindsight, I know that my life showed "symptoms" that I was running on empty for years, long before the "crash" began. There were lots of red flags. In fact, those red flags were used to develop the Running on Empty Quiz.
This is my story.
I was emotionally absent from my life. I was flat. I didn’t get angry. I didn’t get emotional. I was physically unable to cry. I wasn’t sad, but I wasn’t happy either. I didn’t have joy.
In hindsight, one of the first indicators that something wasn’t quite right was when I started developing chronic infections. One year I was on antibiotics for 9 months out of 12. Doctors even ran tests on two different occasions to see if I had an immune deficiency or disorder because I was sick so much.
I have completed 3 Olympic distance triathlons. I was sick, and on antibiotics, for two of them.
I had relatively minor surgery in 2005, and it took me six months to heal. The inflammation just wouldn’t resolve.
There were other indicators that I wasn’t “normal” that I was actually proud of--I was a workaholic. In my first career, I got to the point that I would try to beat my boss to the office . . . which sometimes meant getting there at 5 am. When I went into pre-term labor with my second child at 30 weeks (likely stress induced), I remember walking the halls of the maternity ward (they were trying to see if my contractions worsened when I walked) and being relieved to see the wifi routers attached to the ceiling grid. If I was going to be admitted to the hospital, at least I could work!
I self-medicated with coffee. When I went back to work after having my second child, there were days that I drank Starbucks mochas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I remember thinking one time that if I was going to be “this miserable,” then I was going to drink whatever I wanted, damnit. It was one of the few times I remember having an awareness of being unhappy. My husband and I actually fought one time over him trying to buy a cheaper brand of coffee. I was livid. GIVE ME MY COFFEE!!!
And wine. Sometimes on weekends, I alternated the two. Coffee, wine, coffee, wine. It wasn’t unusual for me to be excited about the next morning only for the coffee. Yes, I had an unnatural, emotional attachment to coffee.
I didn’t shop often, but when I did, I spent hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars in one day, driven in part by compulsion. I would shop like it was my last chance to fill the emptiness inside me and the fear of not having my needs met. Of course, I wasn’t aware of the dynamic at the time. But I was often aware that I was putting myself in an untenable financial situation. Even if I knew I didn’t have the funds--I didn’t care.
When I left my first career, people kept asking me what I wanted to do . . . what I cared about. I couldn’t answer the question. That question had been “irrelevant” to me for as long as I could remember. It took me 6 months to develop an answer. Because I had been wholly consumed by trying to meet the expectations of a perfectionist boss for 10 years. I did what was logical. What was expected. “I” wasn’t part of the equation.
The next indicator I recall was the panic I felt when I found out I was pregnant with my third child. I really, really, really wanted him, but I was terrified. It had been a long time since I felt completely terrified about something.
I spent most of my pregnancy trying to figure out how I was going to “survive” my life as the mother of three and a CEO. I asked my housekeeper to come more often and to start doing some of the laundry when he came. I purged my small house of all of the excess stuff and had a contractor come take care of all of the things about the inside of the house that bugged me: new floors, new paint, minor repairs. I bought new furniture to replace all of the hand-me-downs. I interviewed personal chefs, but decided it was too cost prohibitive to pay someone else to cook dinner for my family. I spent about $10,000 in about two months. These changes weren’t necessarily bad or wrong, even if they were expensive, but they were driven out of a sense of being completely overwhelmed with my life and just trying to make it feel better. And in the midst of all of this, it didn’t really occur to me to sit down with my husband and talk about my fears of not being able to manage it all or to problem-solve together how to navigate bringing this third little person into our lives.
I went into pre-term labor with my third child in the summer of 2010 and was on bedrest for about 8 weeks. I drove myself to the hospital in hard labor at 2am because it had not occurred to me to make a plan not to have to do that alone. My oldest started her first day at a new school that day, and I wanted her to have a parent with her as she embarked on that transition. I didn’t even consider what kind of support I needed--okay, maybe I considered it, but I decided there was no solution and kept moving forward. And then, I was sitting in the hospital room all alone looking at my newborn son--petrified and thinking I didn’t know how to “do this” even though I was already the mother of two other children.
In the Spring of 2011, my son was six months old and still not sleeping through the night. By this time, between having a 3 year-old who loved company over sleeping alone, medication I had to take every 4 hours for pre-term labor leading up to the birth of my son, and nursing a very hungry newborn, I had not slept through the night in a very long time.
My mom had been diagnosed with cancer in 1999, but her cancer mutated into a much more aggressive form; meaning that we would lose her sooner rather than later. I suddenly started having anxiety attacks. I didn’t know what they were at the time. It felt like an energetic black hole settled on my chest. I couldn't breathe. And some days, it seemed like it would be so much easier to let myself be swallowed up by that hole.
I had this image of Pandora's box deep buried deep inside me, and it felt like the lid was about to blow off the box. I had the distinct feeling that if the lid came off the box, I wasn't ever going to be able to put it back on. I didn't know what was in the box, but I was terrified.
I threw myself into my work, added a half-marathon and triathlon to my training regimen, and ran up and down the road between Knoxville, where I live, and Nashville, where my Mom was, trying to divide myself between my role as a Daughter, Mom, CEO, and Wife. Every day was an exercise in survival. I didn’t know how to play. I didn’t know how to rest. I didn’t know how to stop moving. So I didn’t.
I missed my Mom’s last Christmas because I was sick and could not expose her to the infection. My Mom passed away in April 2012. When she died, I couldn’t cry. What I didn’t realize then, that I do now, is that Mom was my lifeline. She was the person I called when the exhaustion, shame, anxiety, and fear began to take hold. When my brain spiraled away from me.
Mom had been that person since I was in law school. I would call Mom and she would help me find my way back to myself and back to the sense of a greater power in the world. And I would go again until I went splat against the wall again. I lived my life in this cycle for seventeen years without really ever being aware that this was my coping mechanism.
I felt Mom’s spirit pass through me when she died. And my sense of connection to the greater energy in the universe--really my sense of connection to any energy outside of my own--vanished with her.
I was dropping weight for no apparent reason. People began to comment that I didn't look healthy.
In July of 2012,the house of cards collapsed. In the face of financial insecurity related to my husband’s work, the anxiety gave way to crushing depression, bringing me to a sudden, overpowering standstill. I would go to work and then come home and collapse onto the couch. I disappeared into my phone, desperate for connection and hiding all at the same time.
I was still trying to train for endurance events. But I started hyperventilating when I ran, and my insides starting to revolt against the endurance training. Even after I stopped running, if I exercised three days in one week, I would come down with an infection of some sort. I started medication for stomach acid issues. Between no longer being able to maintain exercise, turning 40, and the overwhelming stress, the extreme weight loss became rapid weight gain.
I started taking a common antidepressant in August as prescribed by my OB/GYN and started trying to find a therapist. I didn't go looking for a prescription. I think I had a regular check-up and when they asked me "how I was," I fell apart. I was terrified of the medication, but I was also terrified of trying to carry on without it.
Maybe six weeks later, I found myself, with my infant son on my hip, looking at my life insurance policies to see if they would pay in the event of suicide. Tears streaming down my face,I reached out to the only person I could think of, maybe one of 2-3 people who knew I was on medication for depression, and simply texted, “I don’t think the medication is working.” I didn’t tell her I wanted to die.
I would collapse in bed at night only to wake up after about 4 hours, unable to sleep. When I did sleep, I had nightmares that I was being hunted by an assassin; his target already locked in on my forehead, ready to pull the trigger. I would wake up in full adrenaline rush, hairs on my body standing on end, heart racing, sweating, trembling.
In October 2012, I consulted a psychiatric nurse and was finally prescribed medication for anxiety and depression that worked. We didn’t get the sleep medication right until the next February. I didn’t tell anyone at work what I was going through, and only a tiny handful of people in my personal life knew.
I would slink into my therapist’s office and the psychiatric nurse’s office and keep my head down in the waiting room. I was ashamed and afraid of the fall-out if anyone found out. I didn’t want anyone to know I was “broken.”
Sharing that information with my work was simply out of the question.
That Thanksgiving, I had 4 infections at the same time.
I was able to keep my mental health journey and my work compartmentalized for a couple of years. I thrived at work and struggled at home, out of the sight of my team, my Board, and my peers. On the exit ramp to my house, the anxiety would take hold. I was still sick a lot, but I would get some antibiotics and keep going. I would take a Xanax to get through a conference call or a Board meeting.
Almost every Sunday I spent in the throes of terror, overwhelmed with anxiety and despair. What good was I to anyone, especially my children, if I lost my mind?!
Once I was on the right sleep medication, sleep became my refuge. I didn't have to "do" or "be" anything for anyone while I was sleeping. I could easily sleep 10 hours a night and many nights I did.
I had been in therapy for just over two years before the anxiety that had propelled me forward for years started to subside. As it did, I was faced with the question, what do “normal” people do? What do “normal” expectations look like? How much do “normal” people work? I had no benchmarks for “normal.” Frankly, I had prided myself on being anything but “normal.”
My therapist told me to google the word "play." I dyed my hair pink. I dressed up for Halloween at the office along with our staff. We had snowball fights at work with plush snowballs. I worked with my team to begin to carve out, fight for, and defend a "safe space" for our employees and the girls and volunteers we served. I was passionate, hopeful, and defiant.
I continued to peel back the layers of me--all of the things that I had shoved aside, hidden away, locked into my cells over the years. Embedded in the healing process are peaks, flat roads, valleys, pits and pools of terror, anger, anxiety, and despair. There is also quicksand. The process isn’t linear or constant. Some days feel almost normal. And then, almost as if the things you have locked away inside of you sense the space, they bubble up to the surface, and the process begins all over again. You can sink without warning or explanation. I remember a Board meeting that left me with a two-week PTSD hangover. I am pretty sure I didn't tell anyone but my therapist.
Somewhere along the way, I lost my ability to keep my mental health journey separate from the person I was at work. In some respects, it was a deliberate choice. If I was going to have to learn to be “human,” I needed to learn to be human at work. But it is also true that when a pendulum swings away from an extreme position, it generally swings just as far the other direction. I started to lose my filter. I didn’t know where the boundaries needed to be and, frankly, was out of energy to hold them in place.
I shared with some of my Board and my staff that I had been diagnosed with depression and was in therapy. But I never shared the full extent of what I was going through, nor did it occur to me to ask for help or accommodation from my employer.
My “not okay-ness” started to spill out. My alcohol consumption was at an all-time high. I couldn’t muster the energy to “dress the part” for work. I struggled to get out of bed, to focus, to be productive and present. The periods when I was physically, mentally, and emotionally sick got longer and closer together. And the periods when I was functional were fewer and further between.
I made some very poor, uncharacteristic decisions. Decisions that were inconsistent with my values. Some of these decisions jeopardized everything I had worked to build, both personally and professionally.
In the fall of 2014, an onslaught of emotions that had been locked into my cells for more than a decade erupted to the surface--including a raging anger--and my body went toxic. It felt like I swelled up like a balloon. I was so nauseous from the anxiety, I couldn’t eat. The weight gain continued. My clothes really didn’t fit anymore. The infections continued. I developed high blood pressure. I had a full heart work-up to rule out a heart attack because my heart actually, physically “hurt.” A case of flu plus bronchitis knocked me out for weeks in the winter of 2015.
With every setback, I would do what I thought I “had” to do to get back on my feet, and then I would go at it again. I felt like I was coming apart at the seams, and in complete desperation, went on a two-week “retreat” to an undisclosed location with multiple daily counseling sessions. I only called the retreat center because I had texted one of my friends in the throes of a complete come-apart and she met me at Starbucks. She asked me if I was going to call. I told her my phone battery was dead. She handed me her phone and sat there while I called.
The respite helped briefly, but my own personal chaos had spilled out everywhere.
By the third week of March 2015, I was empty and out of lifelines.
emp·ti·ness: the state of containing nothing; "the vast emptiness of space"; synonyms: void, vacuum, empty space, vacuity, gap, vacancy, hollowness, hole, lack
I was certain I had nothing left to give. NOTHING. Nothing left to give to my children. Nothing else to give to my team. People had always asked how I had "done it all." I decided I had burned up my life in 43 years--that I had lived 80 years in half the time. I was depleted past the point of restoration. I believed--truly believed--that everyone would be better off without me. And I just wanted the pain to go away. I couldn’t suffer anymore. My will was gone. My belief in a better tomorrow was gone. Exhausted and depleted to my core. And it was unbearable.
The nightmares had been back for a while, but these were different. In these dreams, I would be walking down the street and suddenly my legs wouldn't work, or I couldn't breathe, or I couldn't get my eyes to open even when I was awake, or I was talking but no one could hear me, or my voice wouldn't come. I would be surrounded by people, but completely helpless and alone.
Empty. And Stuck. No Way Out. No. Hope.
I decided that I would die. I decided how I would die. I wrote two letters. And, I began.
Within 24 hours, I found myself in therapy twice in one day: in a solo session with the marriage counselor my husband and I had been seeing for about 6 months and in a session with my own therapist. I told them I wanted to die.
Both of them said the same thing to me: “Your children will NEVER recover if you kill yourself.” Of all of the things they treated people for, suicide of a parent was the absolute, most damaging, wholly unrecoverable act. “They will never recover.”
Sitting on the couch in my therapist’s office that afternoon I said, “well, [expletive] I guess that means I have to live."
If you sense that there was no joy in that moment, you would be correct. I didn’t want to have to live. I wanted to be done. Not because I didn’t love my little people. But because I just didn’t know how I was going to withstand any more pain. Any more hopelessness.
My therapist made me promise that I would call 911 if I couldn’t “not” kill myself.
There were days that I simply got through the day by saying to myself, "you can always die tomorrow." It sounds awful, but that was my comfort. If I just couldn't do it, if I didn't have the strength to survive, I could always give up tomorrow.
NO ONE KNEW. Except for the therapists. NO ONE KNEW HOW MUCH I WAS STRUGGLING. NO ONE KNEW HOW CLOSE I WAS TO TAKING MY OWN LIFE. Maybe after the fact. But not in the moment. Not when I really, really, really, really needed help.
I couldn’t tell them. I was terrified of these dark and terrible parts of me. I was certain that the people I loved would walk away if I showed them the truth. And even if they wanted to help, I didn’t know what help would feel like. I couldn’t tell them HOW to help me. I didn’t trust myself, and I didn’t trust them.
My husband and I agreed to end our 18-year marriage.
Even after everything, I still didn’t know how to stop pushing myself. Get on a plane for two-day work meeting while running a fever and later be diagnosed with strep? Yep. Run a Board Retreat and then go straight to mediation for the divorce. Yep. Show up for a public speaking engagement with bronchitis? Yep.
I kept trying to show up in all of the right places and check the boxes, hoping no one would notice how much I was struggling. Guess what? People noticed.
In the midst of everything going on personally, my organization began to grapple with critical questions of sustainability. And I buckled. My physical and mental illness kept me out of the office for longer and longer periods of time. When I was there, I couldn’t find “myself”--the leader who had led a strategic and cultural transformation in her organization, who was able to maintain calm, composure, confidence and perspective in the face of constant, complex challenges. I became so emotional that I couldn’t stop crying--and I wouldn’t show myself in the office if I couldn’t stop crying. I became frustrated and angry with decisions I was being strongly encouraged to make. I kept trying to find my footing, but even when I did, it seemed to turn to quicksand under my feet. I didn’t even recognize myself.
I resigned my position in October 2015, the same week my divorce was finalized.
I was shunned by some people I cared about; which triggered a six-month PTSD episode. I felt like I was being chased by a bear. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes I could feel buzzing in my spinal cord. The nightmares were back.
At this point, the compound mental illness--depression, anxiety and PTSD--made it impossible for me to a commit to a 40-hour per week job, much less a job that might require more. Another CEO role was out of the question. I could barely function. I couldn’t process information in the same way. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t remember things. Sometimes leaving my apartment was more than I could bear. I experienced overwhelming social anxiety. I didn’t want to be noticed. Some days I would take my kids to school and then come home for a 3-hour nap. Some days I would have to bail out on commitments I had made. I still wasn’t eating regularly due to the nausea. I never knew how I would feel the from one minute or day to the next. I couldn’t count on myself to be able to “show up” and meet the responsibility and expectations of an organization, and I wasn’t willing to set myself or the organization up for failure.
I found myself unemployed as a now-single Mom who had taken debt, and few assets, out of the marriage. I almost filed bankruptcy. I liquidated my retirement accounts because I was drowning in debt service. I had to get help to get financed for a car.
It isn’t that I didn’t work, because I had no other choice. But I worked only on a project basis. On a project basis, I could manage around a “bad day” or a “bad week.”
I qualified for long-term disability payments from my insurer for the maximum two-year benefit. I didn’t even remember that I had long-term disability coverage until I almost filed for bankruptcy and had to fill out a list of all of my assets and insurance coverages.
I went from earning six figures a year in two different careers to not knowing how I was going to afford groceries, or gas, or my medication. I now know what it is like to spend a significant portion of each day coming up with creative solutions to meet basic needs.
My credit score plummeted. My car was totaled in an accident that was not my fault, and I had to borrow a truck for 6 months. The truck I was grateful to borrow didn’t even have seatbelts for my three children. Again, only with the help of a friend was I able to get financed for a new car.
I will be forever grateful to the people who did step in by my side to help "hold me up" when I couldn't hold myself up. People who sent work my way, shared their resources with me, and have given of their time, energy, belief and love when I didn't love or believe in myself.
As I began to come out of the fog, even briefly, I was clear that I wanted to use everything I have experienced somehow to benefit other people.
It was October 2016 before I had a whole week (7 days in a row) of “good days.”
In the Summer of 2017, I re-discovered my ability to imagine and create new things and new opportunities.
And now, I have launched this new business to help other people; grounded in my more than 20 years of strategic leadership experience and my personal story.
What is clear to me in hindsight is that I was on a path to destruction for years before the crash. The signs were there. Many of those signs didn’t register with me at all. They were my “normal.” They were my competitive advantage. Until the very skills, habits, and capacity that made me successful--my ability to endure, persist, compartmentalize, and outwork most everyone one around me--became my undoing. I shoved down the scary parts. The angry parts. The sad parts. The empty parts. The lonely parts.
And when all of the parts of me that I had shoved away over decades forced their way into the light, it seemed too overwhelming and too impossible to make fundamental changes to the way I lived and worked. I thought I “couldn’t afford” to step away or to step back and re-calibrate. I had three children. I was the primary wage earner. I loved my job and was passionate about carrying the organization forward toward my vision of the future. In many ways, I didn’t know how to be anyone but the person who tried to do it all on her own. I was riding on a bullet train of my own creation. I could not figure out how to safely exit the train.
We can only survive the dissonance in our lives for so long before something starts to give.
We can only shove our fundamental needs and values aside for so long. We can only live in denial for so long.
When we are running on empty, we start to believe that we have no options. We may even have realized the way we are living and working isn’t sustainable, but we have also developed tunnel vision and an inability to problem-solve on our own behalf. Which is ironic since there is a good chance we are exceptional problem-solvers or we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are in life. We cannot see a way out, so we just keep going. Until we reach a breaking point. One day, we look up and we are frog in boiling water.
In the midst of the struggle we feel terribly, horribly alone. If we are in a leadership position, as I was, we are acutely aware of the potential risk in admitting that we need help or that we cannot continue to live and work in the same way. Others have high expectations of us, and we set the bar there ourselves.
I want you to live a life full of passion, clarity, purpose, energy and hope. I don’t want you to have to crash or face a massive personal or professional crisis before you make changes critical to your well-being.
My mission is to step alongside you, as your mentor and guide, as you create a road map for life and work that allows you to be fully present, clear, peaceful, and free--a life that is anchored in your values and your own well-being so that you are able to bring your best to your work, family, community, and the world.