It might seem a bit unconventional to read a post during Careers in Student Affairs Month written by a higher education administrator who left the profession to serve students as a social entrepreneur.
But that’s what happened, and here I am.
This post is a candid reflection on where I was then and what happened when I finally learned to love myself. This level of vulnerability requires a willingness to risk the comfort that comes from staying quiet, and I share openly so that others might find in this one thread a shred of insight that moves them toward greater health and happiness.
This is my love story.
I spent 12 years as a university administrator at several institutions in California and earned two advanced degrees while working at a level I had come to know as standard in the profession: 60+ hour work weeks with regular commitments in the evenings and on weekends.
I launched into my career with an unwavering commitment to student success. I presented at conferences and wrote articles, served on advisory boards and conference planning committees, and continued to add more and more to my plate so that I would always stand out above the competition.
But, life as an administrator meant back-to-back meetings and paperwork piled so high that I thought I would never get out from underneath it. I often arrived at 7am to tackle a long list of tasks before students stepped foot on campus, and I would leave at 7pm on a good day with a backpack full of items to tend to at home. Evenings and weekends were when I got the most work done so I could start the following week better prepared for whatever would come. I was focused on achievement and success to the detriment of what really mattered most, and I had become someone I did not want to be.
Hello, my name is Sara Kathleen Henry, and I was once a workaholic without an ounce of concern for my own health and happiness.
The stress manifested in a whole host of maladaptive coping behaviors that I had picked up over the years – anything that would temporarily alleviate the anxiety that accompanied the excessive and persistent demands for high-level performance. I ate unhealthy food, drank regularly and consumed too much at times, smoked cigarettes on occasion, and lost a lot of sleep due to many late nights of staying awake to take care of a few more things so I’d be ready for more in the morning. I was so exhausted that I rarely had any energy to do anything active, and the cycle repeated itself almost every single day.
I talked about how busy I was all the time, and so did every other student affairs professional I knew. Busyness was the badge of honor, not balance, health, or well-being. I spent years treating my body (and my life) like it belonged to someone I could care less about, and I knew I was not modeling what I hoped I could teach students. I was not living in congruence with my own values. I had to somehow find the strength to change.
But there was more weighing on my heart then that made for many challenging years. It was a pain too heavy for any one heart to hold.
I was carrying around in the world all the many emotions that accompany loss, or in my case, the eventual death of my parents. My mother had been diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer in January 2012, and her condition was terminal. Thirteen months later, my father went in for his colonoscopy results and walked out with stage IV colon cancer. He scheduled that exam a decade later than what is recommended by doctors.
Then one day in what seemed like the blink of an eye, everything changed. It was April 20, 2014. I checked my email (on a weekend morning) to see if there was anything work-related that I needed to attend to – the only email I opened was one from my dad.
He shared that my mom was feeling worn out from her recent chemo treatment and suggested I call the house, but only if I had time. He said to not bother calling if I was too busy – he did not want to burden me.
I had been so consumed planning the logistics for a campus-wide event that I’d completely lost sight of where my mother was in her treatment schedule. I never stopped what I was doing long enough to call the house.
Tears filled my eyes and I sat and cried. What happened next has been (so far) the single most important moment of my life:
I surrendered and started to listen. Love was calling me home.
Everything I’d built up around me suddenly seemed superfluous to what really mattered most: time with my parents. I stepped down from my position the next day, and a few weeks later I moved home to take care of them.
I had struggled for a long time to really experience steadiness in my life, or an easier way of being in the world, and I wanted my parents to see me at my best before they died. I somehow knew that the only way I would be able to really care for them and be fully present to what remained of our time together was to start taking care of myself so that I could carry them and our family through what would likely be the hardest year of our lives. Reverting to old ways of coping would have meant a selfish focus on numbing and washing away my pain, not strengthening my capacity to hold them as they dealt with their own.
I let go of alcohol at a time when I wanted it most, or thought I needed it, I walked or hiked every morning and practiced yoga while they napped in the afternoons, and I bought my own groceries at the market instead of eating the unhealthy food that filled the fridge and cupboards in my parent’s kitchen.
I started putting myself first so that I could show up as my best and strongest self for them, and in doing so, I uncovered the woman I’d always hoped I’d become – grounded, healthy, and whole.
In shedding all that was standing in the way of me being at my best, I started to see the depth of my own capacity to love wholeheartedly.
And I no longer saw putting myself first as a selfish act.
I learned in caring for my parents that when we care for ourselves in order to better serve others, putting our needs for health and wholeness first – practicing wellness as a way of life – is one of the most selfless things we can do for each other and the world.
We each have the power within us to make this commitment, to ourselves, to our friends and families, and to our students, not because we think we should but because we want to – for our own health and happiness and for each other.
I know now more than ever that the only way to build healthier communities is to start right where we are and learn to love ourselves.
Please join us on Tuesday, October 27th at 4pm EST for WORK-LIFE INTEGRATION, part of NASPA’s Careers in Student Affairs Month Webinar Series. As a result of participation in this webinar, attendees will:
- Learn about the importance of health and wellness to our role as professionals
- Identify methods for improving work-life integration as a student affairs professional
- Set specific action-oriented goals related to each area of wellness in their own life
This post is part of our #CSAM15 series, in partnership with NASPA. Through these posts, we hope to highlight what it means to have a career in Student Affairs with a diverse group of contributors. With a focus on the students, defining Student Affairs, hot topics, and Striving Towards Betterment, there will be a lot to learn about this month! For more information, check out the intro post by John Weng at NASPA. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Conor McLaughlin on SA Work-Life Balance