I don’t typically take pictures of my feet.
And I certainly don’t post them where people will see them.
Who does that? Why do that?
Allow me to explain…
I snapped this photo nearly three years ago, on the night before I was to undergo double-foot surgery. I wanted to capture the image before my feet were bandaged up and booted for a month. I’m happy to report that ugly protruding bunion on the right is now gone. On the left I addressed a painful neuroma, invisible to the eye and still not totally gone, but somewhat improved. Sorry, you didn’t really need to know all of that…
Thanks for caring. And still reading…
Here’s the point I’m trying to get to…
There’s more to this image than a blue-toed Winter Wonderland themed pedicure. It takes me back to a moment that I still feel deep in my soul (and in my soles – see what I did there?)
It’s a reminder of a dark chapter in my life, one in which I battled to get out of bed each day, fighting debilitating exhaustion and career frustration along with the growing sense that not only had I no idea what I was working towards but that I had lost myself along the way.
For someone who had always been so invested in her career and steadfast on success, it was unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.
Perhaps you can relate?
After years of putting it off (because who can afford to take any time off?), I finally decided to have the surgery that had been recommended years earlier. I planned it for the end of the calendar year since I had socked away money in a health care account to pay for it. It had to happen. I couldn’t push it off again.
It was more than a minor interruption. My surgeon recommended a medical leave from work of at least 3-4 weeks. The only other time in my career that I had taken that kind of time away from the office was a decade earlier while on maternity leave. That was a joyous occasion. This was not. It was not an easy surgery and would be a painful recovery during which time I’d need help taking care of myself, let alone the rest of life – a career, a house, two kids, a dog and two cats…
And yet, despite my concerns – complications, pain, being unable to walk – I eagerly awaited the procedure, counting down the days with a sense of gleeful relief.
I couldn’t wait.
You read that right. I couldn’t wait to have my feet sliced open and restructured.
There is something wrong with that.
Let me say it again so that we can all truly absorb it:
I couldn’t wait to have my feet sliced open and restructured.
Because it was the only way I could get a break.
I didn’t know how else to ask for one. I didn’t know how to admit I needed one. I didn’t know why nothing was working – only that nothing seemed to be. And though I kept trying – stubbornly, exhaustedly – I couldn’t fix it.
How bad was it? I longed to be put under with anesthesia. To take a deep sleep. To be unable to move (much). To stave off all forms of adult responsibility. To not have to go to work. At that point I was overseeing a morning show, waking up to a 3:30 alarm. Except I was often up at 1 a.m. with anxiety-induced insomnia. I hadn’t slept in months. I was so tired, I’d sometimes arrive at work wondering how I got there. I’d put on a smile and power through even though inside I felt like a power-cord that had lost all its juice.
For someone who had always loved her work, it was hard to find myself in the desperate person who was counting down the days until she could undergo a surgery that would force her to put her feet up.
This wasn’t me.
I wasn’t me, then.
I knew there was something wrong with feeling that way. But that didn’t stop me from feeling it.
There was a problem with my plan to enjoy this time “off”, of course. After being pulled out from the anesthesia and transported home, the meds wore off and I realized this recovery would be phenomenally painful and that – having opted to have surgery on both feet at the same time – I was more or less incapacitated. I had to crawl to the bathroom the first night. A week later, I applauded myself for being able to move from one side of the couch to the other, for a change of scenery. Changing clothes was an hour-long task that left me fatigued the rest of the day. The first shower – feet secured in plastic baggies with duct tape – was heaven, even if we had to pull a lawn chair into the shower for me to sit on.
I could do nothing but rest.
And, oh, how I needed that.
I checked email only occasionally (I wasn’t supposed to check it at all). I napped. I read. I watched TV (what a luxury!) and thanks to a friend who gave me and my crutches door-to-door transportation, I caught up on some movies. I hadn’t done that in years. Some days I just stared at the ceiling.
I spent a lot of time in quiet contemplation. I thought about what I might do if I did something else. What else could I do?
The month passed quickly. I returned to work – in one surgical boot and one oversized shoe – shuffling through an inch of slippery snow in early January.
I was rested. I was rejuvenated. I was ready.
It didn’t last.
72 hours later I was right back where I started. Fatigued just three days later. I couldn’t count on that bank of rest to get me any further. You can’t continue to withdraw what you’re not depositing. Exhausted again by the effort, I knew that the situation was simply not sustainable. I needed to find something else that would be.
It took cutting my feet open to realize that.
It took the depths of despair for me to rise out of it.
Maybe you already know that. Maybe you’ve crafted a work situation that works for you. I applaud you.
Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re racing around taking care of everything and everyone else and exhausting yourself in the process.
Why are you doing that?
Maybe you feel some of the quiet desperation I felt, the kind you never show and are unwilling to admit even to yourself. Maybe you’re pulled in so many directions you don’t know where you’re going. Who’s driving this bus? Where is it going? Why don’t you just get off? Are you underneath it?
Or maybe everything is “fine” except for that growing sense of unease that you’re not doing what you are supposed to be doing.
But you’re unsure of what to do next so you just keep doing what you’re doing. Just going through the motions, trying to get through it.
I hear you. Something’s not working and you don’t know why. If you knew why, maybe you could figure out what to do about it. But you don’t. Not yet.
I’m here to tell you that if you ever get to that low point, that point in which you are longing for anything to give you a breather and a break, that it’s OK to be there. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just time to address what you haven’t been willing to admit.
Why do we not admit when things are not working?
Because change is scary.
But change is better than suffering.
Only you can decide when you’re ready for it.
When I look at the photo of the blue toenail polish, I wish I could go back in time to the owner of those feet. I’d give her a hug. I’d tell her everything is going to be OK, that she’s braver and stronger than she thinks and smart enough to work her way out of what seem to be the most impossible of situations. The resolution will come with rest.
I’d tell her, once she has the surgery and recovery and some time to think, she’s going to be fine.
She’s going to stand on her own two feet. And walk away.
Valerie Gordon is a recovering television producer. She’s in her second act now as the founder and owner of Commander-in-She, a career and communications strategy firm. She offers presentations, workshops and individual coaching on how to use storytelling to enhance career success and satisfaction. She still works hard but makes time to nap and read and see movies because you shouldn’t need to slice your feet open to allow yourself to do so.