I worked as a nurse practitioner in a specialized hospital-based practice, caring for patients in the advanced stages of chronic illness. Though I loved my job, it was emotionally draining. Over the years, I began to realize how defeated and depleted it made me feel. I’d spent my whole career caring for people, but I’d rarely focused on taking care of myself.
And then my life took a sudden turn that pushed my health and well-being even lower on my to-do list. In 2007 our daughter Charlotte was born with a rare chromosomal variance. The geneticist, who met with my husband and me after delivery, was not encouraging about her prognosis.
Charlotte had multiple surgeries during those first months and spent many days in the hospital. At home, her bedroom looked like an intensive-care unit, equipped with oxygen tanks, heart and breathing monitors, feeding tubes, and other medical devices. I trusted only myself to care for her, so I refused outside services, didn’t return to work, and became her full-time nurse.
My husband and I were lucky to have friends and family who supported us. They delivered food, helped with household chores, and provided care for our 3-year-old twin girls. While we were grateful to them, I also felt indebted. Accepting help meant admitting weakness, and I pressured myself to see my family through the crisis as independently as possible.
Once Charlotte’s health began to improve, I went into an emotional tailspin — a posttraumatic stress response of sorts — and I didn’t quite know how to pull myself out.
We had dealt with Charlotte’s health crisis for two years, and I was running on empty. I wanted to return the generosity that our friends had shown us, or at least pay it forward to those in need. This came at a cost: I continued to ignore my own health.
I fed my children well, but when it came to my own diet, I thought of food only as sustenance. I skipped meals, and relied on high-carbohydrate packaged foods to sustain my energy. We often turned to fast food for dinner; I couldn’t take the time to plan or prepare quality meals for my husband and myself. My sole focus was caring for my daughters. But my own health was suffering.
We’d had a Life Time Fitness membership for years, and I was active before Charlotte was born; I’d go to group cycling class and take the twins to the childcare center. But Charlotte was too fragile to go to childcare, so for almost two years my gym bag sat idle in a corner of my closet. Exercise seemed like a luxury I couldn’t afford.
I knew this was a recipe for disaster. My genetic pool is littered with chronic health issues: I lost my father to pancreatic cancer when he was 52, and my mother developed breast cancer at 54. Hypertension, stroke, type 2 -diabetes, and high cholesterol all run in my family.
One day, after the crisis had subsided, I made it to the gym with my husband’s encouragement. I was feeling distressed and disheartened, and was searching for inspiration. That day triggered a powerful realization for me: I needed to start taking care of myself or I wouldn’t be around to care for my children.
Finally admitting that I couldn’t continue in this direction, I reached out to two Twin Cities–based life coaches who had helped others rebalance their own priorities. First I met with Maryanne O’Brien of Live Dynamite, who helped me acknowledge that I was existing in a hyper-stressed state and that I needed to get comfortable with doing less, given my limited time and energy.
Next, Kate Larsen of Winning Lifestyles helped me examine my priorities and recognize that putting my personal health close to the top of the list was paramount to everything else I was trying to do.
It felt liberating to have these two inspirational women look at my life and recommend in no uncertain terms that I slow down, offload electives, and say “no.” They provided something I’d been desperately needing: the permission to take care of me.
Self-care, I learned, was not selfish but a necessary part of being a parent and a caregiver. That was a colossal mind shift — as many of my fellow parents and caregivers can attest.
A Fresh Perspective
Empowered by these life-coaching sessions, I began to decline unnecessary commitments. I slowly edged my way back to the gym. I set realistic health goals, and I began focusing on food that would nourish my body.
After reading The Blood Sugar Solution by Mark Hyman, MD, I persuaded some of my extended family to try an elimination diet: no gluten, dairy, soy, or processed foods. We ate only organic meat and produce, mostly vegetables. My husband and I felt amazing, and other family members with chronic health issues were able to reduce their medication load. It was a case study with incredible results. In two months, my cholesterol levels dropped from 265 to 215, an almost 20 percent improvement — simply by changing my diet.
“Food is medicine,” as Dr. Hyman puts it, became my new conviction. I owed it to my family and my patients to walk my new talk. So I switched gears, personally and professionally, to guide my new preventive healthcare focus: As a nurse practitioner, I now practice from a functional-medicine perspective.
It took considerable self-reflection. But, little by little, I made progress.
In the past, I often set the bar so high that I was destined for failure. In some aspects of life now, I’ve had to become comfortable with turning in a less-than-stellar performance in one area to show up more fully in another.
Despite many physical challenges, Charlotte is happy and thriving. Raising a child who struggles with things that many of us take for granted has put life into perspective — it’s inspiring. I am much more appreciative now of what my own body can do and what I need to do to help it function optimally.
If there’s any lesson that has come out of this for me, it’s this: Accept help when it is offered, or ask for it when you need it. Know that your success may depend on it. I know mine certainly did
Meet: Jenn Mears, 44, a nurse practitioner, wife, and mother of three who lives in St. Paul, Minn.
- Big Achievements: Reprioritizing her personal health after a long period of caring solely for the needs of others; improvement in her health panels; and better work–life balance.
- Big Inspiration: Wanting to be there for her family’s future. Realizing that self-care is an essential part of being a parent and caregiver.
- What Worked: Consulting with seasoned life coaches, saying no to unnecessary commitments, going on an elimination diet, and thinking of food as medicine.
- What Didn’t Work: Ignoring her own health needs to care for others, overloading her schedule with too many commitments, setting unrealistic goals for herself, and refusing to ask for help when she needed it.
- Words of Wisdom: “Think in terms of baby steps, keep the bar within reach, and have the sense to acknowledge when you need help along the way.”