Ever had the kind of day where you just collapse face-first into the couch, pull a blanket over yourself, and cry?
I was having that kind of day. A nine-hour workday including four hours of meetings, a half-hour gap, and then a two-hour meeting for my volunteer commitment. So tired I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t get warm and my hand tremors were back, one of the lingering after-effects of COVID.
I had hit the wall.
It’s the same thing in marathon training. You hit your physical limits, and just when you’re already exhausted and in pain, a whole new set of fun symptoms pops out of the closet. Oh, you thought that was a wall? Nope, it turns out it there’s an entire room on the other side!
There I lay, trying to will myself to get up and get camera-ready (which did not, in the end, happen. Take me as I am). My hubby came over and started rubbing my back.
“It’s only Wednesday!” I wailed.
I’m not a crier, as a rule, unless I’m running a distance race. For some reason, running sets off all my emotions. I cry because I love my friends so much, I cry because the weather is so beautiful, I cry because I just set a PR, I cry because I can already imagine the giant meal I’m going to eat at the finish line. None of that bothers me.
Crying when I’m ill, though, is something I find humiliating and pathetic. One more thing that makes me feel worse when I really don’t need anything else.
I got up after ten minutes - which feels like a long time when you’re bottoming out - and started getting my equipment set up. I was so tired I kept forgetting stuff. “I just made eight trips back and forth for four things!”
Then I logged on to my meeting, and everything changed.
There were the faces of my friends, colleagues, and companions. This is what gets me through, the same as it does on the race course. Connecting with people I care about somehow taps into a well of energy, even when I’m at my lowest physical ebb.
This was a transition meeting, a sort of farewell to the previous year, passing the torch to the new team. Everything is a relay when you think about it.
I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer that night. What advice did I have? Uh, try not to die in office? Don’t be me? I felt like I had failed at every single one of the big plans I had at the beginning of the program year. I had campaigned on a platform, and I hadn’t made progress on any of the grand plans I had, nary a one.
When I looked back over the past year, I didn’t know how to avoid cataloguing my woes and tribulations:
“Let’s see, I started this journey with a root canal and sutures in my mouth, we moved, our dog died, I had an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, had surgery and four stitches in my midsection, was on four separate courses of antibiotics, my husband almost went blind in one eye, and then I almost died of COVID-19. Any questions?”
(You’d never guess from looking at me that I recently developed the medical file of an elderly person)
But then we went into discussion, and here were the new recruits, so bright and ambitious and excited about the year before them. I welcomed them to start asking questions, and that’s when it turned around for me.
Because it wasn’t about me.
I never had to rattle off my piteous tale because it was irrelevant to the discussion. Nobody was asking me to explain myself or make excuses for why I didn’t reach all my personal goals. Nobody likely even remembered my platform from last year.
What mattered was that somehow or other, we made it. We made it as a team. We kept things together well enough to pass them on to a new group, a new group who wanted only one thing from us: information.
Well, actually something more, something that a new group never really realizes they are asking for, which is encouragement. This is one thing I can claim about my leadership skills, that I work hard to make an emotional connection with my team and help reinforce their confidence in their own intuition, their own judgment, their right to lead in their own style.
It helps to start out with the assumption that the people you are leading are smarter and more talented than you are, that they’ll surpass you, and that when they inevitably have your job they’ll do it better than you do. If any of that is true, it will mean that you’ve done the most you can do, which is to make others stronger and better than they started.
At the beginning of the year, I probably would have pictured myself in full makeup, dazzling everyone with a packet of materials and a carefully polished inspirational speech. Instead I sat at my dining table, wrapped in an old afghan. It was fine.
It turns out that what inspires people, one way or another, is all the parts of your personal example that you can’t control. People will form impressions of your behavior that you may never know. (And may prefer not to find out!) What my team shared about working with me was how lucky they felt to be a part of a tight-knit group. In my mind, they built that, and in their minds, I did.
Looking back, I have to remind myself of how far I’ve come in four years. I started out so afraid to stand up and speak that my whole body would shake - and now I’m worried about a little hand tremor? I had never even heard of any of the offices I wound up holding or any of the awards I would go on to win. I never dreamed I would serve in a leadership role at all, much less one during a time of such turbulence.
I’m still tired, about as tired as I’ve ever been. I still doubt myself and whether I can handle whatever it is I’m currently trying to handle, just as much as I’ve ever doubted myself. Somehow, though, it seems that I keep feeling tired and doubting myself after bigger and bigger accomplishments.
This is why it’s important to acknowledge the wall. There is definitely a wall and it definitely feels as materially tangible as any other physical object. Walls, though, can be climbed. They can be toppled. They can serve as infrastructure and you can paint them and grow vines on them.
I hit a wall, because I was worn out and feeling sorry for myself. Connecting with other people helped remind me that sometimes we wear ourselves out for good reasons. Just because I’m tired doesn’t mean it’s time to quit, or that I have nothing left.
The next time I hit the wall, I wonder where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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