I’m standing in the grocery store and I’m about to lose it. I’m with my five- and three-year-old and no one’s screaming, no one’s crying. By all appearances everything’s normal. I should be normal. But I’m not. It’s been an hour of frustrations, divided attention, not being listened to, not finding what I’m looking for, and petty annoyances, such as the automatic soap dispenser in the store bathroom that will not dispense, no matter how I vary the position of my hand in front of the sensor. And then I give up and it’s suddenly Old Faithful into the empty sink. And I won’t even start on the kiddie shopping carts pitted against the narrow aisles and the unsuspecting ankles of sweet old ladies.
By themselves none of these things are anything close to a real problem. All together, constantly, and without chances to recover my calm before the next irritant sets in, I’m toast. My nerves are shot, a flash migraine has just blossomed in my head, the left side of my neck is locked up, and I’m about to start crying right there between the espresso stand and the deli cookies. It’s not the soap. It’s not the kids. It’s not the groceries. It’s the fact that whatever emotional reserves I had when I started this trip are now totally used up and I’m like a cat that’s been pet the wrong direction, bristling and ready to bolt.
I get home and feel like I’ve taken a tranquilizer. Deep exhaustion overtakes me and I can hardly get the cold groceries put away before I crash. I recognize this cycle. Angry cleaning followed by intense apathy. Peak stress followed by sitting on the couch for hours, hardly able to move. I google “stress crash” and “exhaustion after stress” and what comes up over and over is “Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome.” It’s a condition in which the adrenal glands don’t function at a normal level due to prolonged stress or illness. They produce the hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, that regulate metabolism and help us manage stressful situations. So if the adrenal glands aren’t pumping out the stuff, then you don’t have the literal physical resources to handle difficulties as they arise.
As I read up on Adrenal Fatigue, something clicks. Not two months ago I had some bloodwork done that showed very low levels of cortisol. My ND prescribed an adrenal support supplement, which seems to be giving me a boost, but I’m obviously still struggling.
Why am I seeing a naturopath? Since I became a mom, I haven’t felt like myself. (Understatement, anyone?) Most moms can resonate. There are sleepless nights, a rubber-band body, hormones, constant awareness for your child’s safety, and huge priority rearrangements. These new humans suddenly appear on the scene and you instantly feel you’d give your life for them, but you don’t even really know them yet. It takes some getting used to. I’ve also struggled with post partum depression and out of whack hormones, leaving me feeling like a totally different person from the one I was before I had kids. I have felt overwhelmed and alone, trapped in my own limitations and without the resources to recuperate.
But here’s the thing: I’m not willing to settle for a lesser version of myself. And that’s not in spite of being a mom, it’s because I’m a mom now. My emotional state is reflected in the happiness of my kids. I see it in their well of affection when I’m calm and in their restlessness when I’m overwhelmed. My life is not my own these days, and so neither is my relative health. So I’ve been working hard through diet, exercise and medical care to try to return to my old self again.
At the next appointment with my ND I tell her about the grocery store situation and we talk about further ways to support my hormonal state. She brings up the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems, which are highly affected by the adrenal glands. Simply getting into this frenzied fight or flight state, she explains, is causing a physiological shift affecting my heart rate, muscle tension, reflexes, and a host of other body functions.
And then it hits me: What if I start here? Choosing rest mode over flight mode. I can detox, exercise, take supplements and pharmaceuticals to compensate for all the physical challenges now facing me—and I should do all I can to be healthy. But what if I’m just undoing all that good by the way I relate to my life? I’ve always been an achiever, driven, and highly productive. But maybe I have to learn a different way of being. A way that accepts my limitations and chooses my own joy, and by extension my children’s. A way that values my heart over my to-do list.
I start to make some changes with one objective: don’t get stressed out. I’m used to trying to do everything at once, going buck wild on my to-do list and then, overwhelmed, zoning out when things are half-done. But zoning out isn’t rest, afraid the responsibilities I’m ignoring will swallow me whole if I don’t get back to them soon. It’s just momentary defeat.
Instead, I pick one thing at a time to accomplish. I go slow. When it’s done I pick the next thing. If the kids interrupt me, I try not to consider it an interruption. I stop to play Bug Bingo, or read the story, or label the drawing, and then go back to my task. And I do this all day. I’m starting to accept that life is a lot of hard work these days, but if I’m faithful in my work, there will be times to rest. I realize that the fable of the tortoise and the hare is painfully true. Slow and steady wins the race. Frenzy and exhaustion take you out.
I also decide that even though it’s more efficient to take the kids with me to the grocery store, I’m going to wait until my husband gets home and go by myself from now on.
It may seem like this solution is somehow opposite to the desire to get my old self back. After all, my old self macheted through challenges and tackled tasks like a linebacker. But I have to ask myself if those are actually qualities I want to reclaim. I think what I’m after is something less like a business-suited task-master and more like a rooted maple tree, my branches outstretched to give shelter to those in my shade. I’ll take back the strength and the purpose, but I’ll let the drivenness go.
Just this week, I’m taking the kids home from the pool and we’re all a little tired. I have cash that needs to be deposited in my wallet and the dashboard gas light is on. Before, I would have thought, “We’re all in the car, this stuff needs to get done. Just do it now and then you can cross it off your list and relax.” From the backseat, my three-year-old says, “I’m hungry. Let’s go home.” I pause and think. Can I do this later, after my husband gets home? Is there a pressing reason it has to be done now? Perhaps forcing myself through stressful situations isn’t a necessary evil to get things done. Maybe my peace can be anchored to something deeper than my accomplishments.
“Yes,” I say. “Let’s go home and have a snack. I need one too.”
J.M. Roddy is a domestic creative, food enthusiast, and children’s author.