At what point do you finally admit to yourself that you’re really not okay? And even if you can admit it, what can you do about it? Or what if your baseline is so low, you don’t even know that how you are feeling is actually not okay. You have now entered the vortex of my brain for the past two years.
After having my second son, I started to feel…ummm, overwhelmed. Ha! Of course I would feel overwhelmed. I already had the most active, power hungry 2.75 year old on the planet, who was more intelligent and manipulative than I imagined humanly possible, yet still somehow couldn’t manage to make his way to the toilet before relieving himself all over the everything. Add to that the exhaustion of having a newborn, a recent move to a new country, and a big art show just around the corner with a 30 foot wall waiting to be filled with paintings that mostly didn’t exist yet. I know it’s normal to feel exhausted and overwhelmed as a young mom…I guess I just thought it would pass. It usually passes right?
One would think that at this point I would slow down…take it easy for a bit. Collect myself. That sounds smart. Or… I could do the art show, start a website, start an Etsy shop, start a monthly art critique group, start a partnership with a cool interiors company and create two full art series for their website, start a cool painting series about art and motherhood, start a cool blog about art and motherhood, start a painting series about Stanley Park, start a second Etsy shop with a designer friend, participate in group shows, write proposals, submissions, and artist statements, try to post to my art page on Facebook, and even started considering illustrating a children’s book. And that’s all while the kids were sleeping.
Let’s not forget the rest of my life...joining a parent participation preschool, making play dates, planning amazing activities for my kids (or rather, feeling guilty for not doing this as much as other people seem to), trying to put the kids in classes, trying not to choke the kids when they are driving me CRAZY. Trying to cook occasionally, and feeling guilty for using too many processed foods, and not enough vegetables. Trying to clean occasionally, sort of, when somebody was coming over. Trying to afford living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Trying to do yoga, and jog occasionally. Trying to ignore the fact that I was basically fueling my body on carbs, sugar, and whatever was left on my kid’s plates after lunch. Trying to actually do my hair once a month, and maybe put on mascara once every other month. Trying to be a nice wife that occasionally puts her husband first, even though he’s way too nice to demand it. Trying to be a good church member and youth group leader that would single-handedly save every teenage girl and ensure her a successful and beautiful life. Trying to stay informed about the world, (or rather, feeling guilty for not doing this). Trying to keep in touch with parents and siblings, and old friends. Trying to be there for others in need. Trying not to choke my kids when they are driving me CRAZY. Trying to 'soak in this time, and enjoy this stage with my children'. Trying not to feel guilty about how infrequently I actually did this. Trying to be in bed before 2am and often failing. Trying. Trying. Trying.
One would think that at THIS point, I would definitely recognize that I had a problem. Slow down a bit. Collect myself. Instead, I just kept wondering why I was so tired. Why was I always feeling like I was on my last nerve with my kids? Why did I constantly feel like my efforts were not enough. I just assumed it was one of life’s mysteries.
It took the tragic disappearance and death of one of my dearest friends, followed by a nine month sinus infection to finally take me down. By this time I literally felt like a zombie. I was still doing EVERYTHING listed above...but in a blurry, weird, slow-mo, zombie mode. I was exhausted beyond belief, I couldn't kick this recurring sinus infection, I was clearly grieving, but sort of in denial, and hilariously enough, I was still thinking...I wonder if something is wrong? Maybe I should see a doctor??
I finally made an appointment with my doctor and discovered right away that I had a pretty serious issue with my thyroid (no wonder I was so exhausted), which I started treatment for right away. I did a couple of counseling sessions to talk about grief, as well as my tendency to always push too hard and still feel it's never enough. I worked with a naturopath who got me going to bed by 11:00, (I haven't done this since I was ten years old), eating way healthier, and fine tuned the treatment for my thyroid. She is the one who helped me put everything together: postpartum depression + stress about art/overcommitting myself+ untreated thyroid problem + no sleep + bad food + grief = crashing your system. I really wasn't okay.
You might be reading this and thinking, 'Big deal, there are lot's of people out there with real problems. Big Problems.' I couldn't agree more! That's sort of the point, though. So many factors that contributed to my eventual burn-out were self inflicted. I chose to take on a hundred different art projects. I chose to overcommit myself, and stay up all night to get it all done. I chose to put off going to the doctor. I put too much pressure on my own self to be successful, to be perfect, to be enough for everyone. I see these same tendencies in so many people. Life is hard enough, and enough real challenges will come our way without us creating more for ourselves. I have made HUGE changes in my life this past year, and learned a lot about balance and priorities. Here's a brief summary of what I've learned.
SELF CARE: You are your own #1 asset. Your ability to do all that you need to do is dependent on your own health, and your own energy. Go to bed way before midnight!! This was so hard for me, because I had to give up a lot of my late night studio time/TV time and I felt like I was losing myself. But now I am a whole person during the day, with more energy, patience, and ability to actually enjoy my kids more fully. It has been a sacrifice, but still worth the pay off. Eat more protein!! Drink water. Feed yourself good food that will fuel your body and help you accomplish all that you need to accomplish. Exercise...even just a few times a week. Take time to breathe. If you don't feel well, go to a doctor. If something about your health, physical or mental, doesn't seem right, go to a doctor! Do some research. Take action. Take care of yourself. Protect your #1 asset with everything you have. Obviously some physical and mental health conditions are incredibly complex and not easily overcome, but keep at it. Make the most of what you have. Prioritize yourself.
DON'T COMPARE: There will always be somebody out there doing more than you, doing things differently than you, doing things you can't do. That's okay! You are likely doing things they can't do. Focus on yourself, your own abilities and circumstances, your own goals...and be realistic. Whenever I think I'm doing really well as a mother, or as an artist, I come across a website/Instagram feed/Facebook post of someone who seems to be doing it all, and doing it better. I immediately take note of my own failings and my own weaknesses. It can be heartbreaking to see others my age who are literally years ahead of me in their career. I have to remind myself that their life is not my life. Their journey is not my journey. I am building a life and a career in a way that works for me. It's a LONG game...a marathon, not a sprint. I can achieve all that I want to achieve in time. Let others motivate and inspire you but don't make them your measuring stick.
STICK TO THE ESSENTIALS: If you look back to all of the things I was killing myself to achieve...how many of them were actually essential? Basically none. I read an amazing book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Although it takes sort of a business/professional angle, it's principles can be applied to every aspect of life. In a nutshell, it teaches that we need decide what few things are essential, and be willing to let everything else go. All of the time and energy that we spread so thin among the non-essential many, can be funneled into the essential few, and our efforts in those areas will be magnified. We can do less. We can say no to things. We can simplify...and as we do, we will make progress in the areas that count. This was one of the hardest things for me, because everything I was doing felt absolutely essential. I had a thousand different projects, but I was barely inching along in most of them. I knew I needed to make a change. I listed out all of my projects, roles and responsibilities, and literally went through one by one crossing things out, leaving only the things that mattered very most. It was a painful process, but when I finished I was lighter and my head felt more clear. I felt more sense of purpose. I am now able to use my time more wisely because I have decided what my time is for. It's for family, and people in my life who matter...to really be there for them and ENJOY them. It's for me...my health, my happiness. It's for my God. It's for my painting...not a thousand art projects and business ventures, but simply painting, and the rest will come in time. I am still working on my series Art After, which is all about balancing art and motherhood. I am also continuing to work on my larger series, Stanley Park. All of my other creative projects I am either cutting out entirely or taking an extremely minimal role.
I know this is long, and pretty personal, but I hope that in these words, others will find a nugget of truth that speaks to them. I look around me and see how so many of us are anxious, depressed, exhausted, stressed, fighting to keep our heads above water, feeling like as much as we try, it's never enough. Why? Why is this so normal in our culture? How many of the things that drain our physical and emotional energy are even worth doing in the first place? How many of us are really taking care of ourselves? How can we be more kind to ourselves? I know some problems are huge, and lasting, and won't be solved with a few simple solutions. But whatever your struggle, healthier habits, kindness to yourself, and simplifying your life can only help. I definitely don't have all the answers, and my journey is nowhere near complete...but I think this is a place to start.