I’ve heard it said before that when you work within your sphere of grace, amazing things can happen. I didn’t understand what that truly meant until I heard Anna’s story.
Mother to two beautiful girls and owner of online Etsy shop Obsidian Dreams. Anna’s story is one of overcoming trials that are not common for many. Her method of overcoming was to take a step back.
We often don’t think to take a step back from the chaos of to-do lists and the business of life. This is especially true for mothers. We often think that the trick is to develop a better plan.
However, the idea of working within your sphere of grace, means to accept the moments when a situation is not suitable for you. When an environment is causing more harm to your mind and body than it is bringing joy and life.
I have requested that Anna tell her story the way that came naturally to her. English is her second language, so I ask that you patiently and with an open heart, receive her story and accept what can be applied to your own journey.
Now here is Anna’s story:
Five years ago everything changed. In hindsight I can see that it was not a sudden change as I felt it was back then. I had, in fact, been working towards a total collapse for years. Ignoring the signs, not resting and believing I could rest later.
I thought it was normal to have insomnia, constant headaches and body tremors. That it was normal to have to exert enormous amounts of energy just to keep hold of a train of thought. But that time for rest never came. There was always something new needing my attention. Needing to be handled, before I could take a break.
One day I could no longer perform my job. I could not remember what I read following the 10 seconds after reading it. My short-term memory had stopped working. What had been a gradual decline of health, due to years of non-stop stress, had suddenly taken a giant leap. My body’s cognitive abilities we’re shutting down. I could no longer function as a normal human being. I was completely exhausted.
I since learnt that science shows a long time exposure of high levels of the stress hormones can change the frontal lobe on a cellular level. Some of that damage is then permanent, while some damage can heal slowly. For this reason, someone who has developed this height of exhaustion, can not simply pull themselves together. It’s not possible. Even if it is not visible from the outside, they are sick. They can not function properly. They can not put thoughts together properly, can not remember things, can not summon the energy to do things. The battery is depleted and broken.
Burnout syndrome is not depression. One can be burned out and also have depression or not have depression. For me it was the latter. That is not to say that depression is not debilitating also. I have suffered from depression at an earlier time in my life and that was a truly horrible place to be. But chronic fatigue feels different. It is not ‘only’ a mental health issue, it is a physical health issue, which also effects the mental capacity.
It’s truly frightening, to no longer recognise who you are with ¾ of your cognitive abilities gone. The hardest part, for me personally, was the effect it had on my kids. I had no energy to socialize with them and be present as they needed. I could hear myself being irritated and rejecting them. My system was so over-whelmed and damaged that I no longer had the capacity to be the mom I wanted to be. This is something that will stay with me and affect the way I relate to them in the future. I have vowed that I will never let it come to that point ever again. I will learn from this experience, change my behaviour and take care of myself. Not only for my own sake, but also for the sake of my kids.
Even though I sometimes curse the health issues I’ve struggled with, I would not change a thing.
Because, however tough it was to go through such an ordeal, it was the catalyst for positive change. I was forced to re-examine how I lived my life. I had to do a lot of soul-searching and transform my life into what it is today. I left a job where I was not happy, I left a relationship that was not good for me and I left a city that was constantly over-whelming my senses. Today I live in a small house, with my two daughters and our cats, in the beautiful Swedish country side. We have meadows and trees and a rich animal life just outside our windows. It is peaceful and soothing and a very healing environment to live in.
This is the place where I started to put the broken pieces of my old life together to form a completely new picture. One where I was not only surviving, but where I could build a foundation for us to thrive on our own terms.
Around the same time that I burned out I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is on the autistic spectrum. Getting diagnosed was actually a big relief. It was an acknowledgement that my struggles were real. That it was in fact more strenuous for me to do a lot of the things that came naturally to others.
So what is Asperger’s Syndrome? There are a lot of misconceptions. Many think one has to be like ‘Rainman’. That it’s easily spotted from the outside, or that we are all the same.
A normal misconception is that we are not empathetic. This is not the case. We might just have difficulty communicating that empathy in the ‘correct’ way.
There is a lot of variations within the autistic spectrum. We all have our own individuality, just like everybody else. But still there is some commonality.
People on the autistic spectrum think differently than those that are neuro-typical (‘normal’). Our brains are simply wired differently. One could say that we are almost hardwired to think outside the box and at times it’s very hard to adapt to the social norm because we simply don’t understand the rules of the social game. This has in my case led to others thinking me odd, shy or socially awkward.
Some general things that is true for most aspies (people diagnosed with Asperger’s):
- We tend to be very honest, to the degree that some aspies are taken as rude.
- We tend to take things very literally. Making things like irony and sarcasm hard for us to detect. Leaving us confused and perplexed in many social situations.
- We tend to be very interested in a few certain areas and don’t have much energy for things outside of that. This is called special interests. This can make us seem extremely passionate some times and almost apathetic in our disinterest other times.
- We tend to be very good at focusing on what we are doing. Especially when it’s connected to our special interests. Multitasking, however, is not often our strength.
- We tend to be very detail oriented and can have a hard time not over-working things.
- We tend to thrive on structure and order, not needing much variation to our routines. Changes can on the other hand be very distressing, especially quick, unannounced changes.
- We tend to be highly sensitive to all sensory input, making us easily over-stimulated and tired. Needing a lot of time to digest and process input.
- We tend to be introverted, preferring our own company or the company of a few close friends rather than larger crowds. This goes back to being easily over-stimulated.
- We tend to be very observant. Seeing a lot, sensing a lot, but not always good at communicating or at understanding all we observe.
- We tend to feel a lot, sometimes too much and might have a hard time sorting through all that emotional turmoil.
Seeing my life through the lens of having Asperger’s changed a lot for me. I suddenly understood why I had to exert so much effort just to try to function the way I’ve observed others do. I could see why I always felt like the odd one out. Why I never quite managed to fit in, however hard I had tried. But I could also see why things that seemed so easy for me was hard for others. I was different. My thought patterns were different. I was perfectly fine just the way I was. I was just made from a mould less used.
I sometimes see it like this. If we all get an equal share of strengths allotted, most people get their strengths fairly equally distributed through their personal makeup. I have however had my strengths very unequally allotted, making certain things very easy, while other things that people may take for granted is hard work for me.
Before my burnout and my diagnoses, I spent copious amounts of energy on trying to be like others. After my burnout, my outlook on life changed. The old way of trying to fit in did obviously not work. So I had to try another way of doing things, a way that is based on how I actually function.
In the beginning I did not know how to do this, I was so used to ignore my own needs. Not to mention I was feeling the full effect of my recent collapse. But slowly, one step after the other I found my way. Hesitantly at first, then gaining momentum as I found my stride and direction. I’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t work for me and I adapted my life to that.
For example I don’t go to the grocery store at times when I know it’s crowded. I prepare rigorously for every excertion. I follow the routines that I know is good for me and I plan a lot of time for recuperation.
Early on I realised I would never be able to go back to any sort of normalcy again. I would never again be able to work in the graphic industry. I would never be able to be employed again. Not without risking a full burnout. So what could I do instead? How could I support myself and my children? I could not continue living on disability pay for the rest of my life. I did not want to either.
The solution was to work with in the parameters I had. I needed to be able to work out of my home and I needed to do something that would not drain me and make me sick again. In the end the answer was simple. I made my passion and hobby in to a business.
I have always loved to create beautiful things with my hands. The thrill I get from being in a creative flow of ideas and the calm I find in the tactile sensation of certain materials, makes my work a perfect mix for me. I don’t wear a lot of jewellery or accessories myself, but selling my designs to others makes it possible to continue creating without filling my house to the point of bursting with my creations.
I also get a certain thrill out of knowing that what I have created has become a gift of love or treasured thing for someone else. Since I am fascinated with subcultures in general, where people choose to live outside the norm, this is whom I’ve chosen to create for. Combining the clean lines of Scandinavian design with influences from art nouveau, dark arts, as well as goth, steampunk, burlesque and kink fashion.
My business, selling my designs via my Etsy shop Obsidian Dreams, has slowly grown, since I started in the spring of 2016. I found that this type of online business suits me perfectly. It plays to all my strengths. I am really good at the routines of sorting through both materials and orders. I like making, as well as, packing and sending them off to their new home.
All communication is in writing which is my preferred way of corresponding with others. I could not have imagined a better line of work for me than this small business. And I feel both pride in what I have accomplished and gratitude for the opportunity to do something that fills me with such balance and joy.
Moreover, my business lets me get the time I need to be that mother I want to be. Especially since one of my daughter’s is, (just as I am), on the autistic spectrum, and needs a lot of extra attention because of it. Even though we are two different individuals, with different challenges (she is a lot more prone to anxiety and phobias and a lot less independent than I ever was) my own inside understanding of the spectrum helps a lot with me being supportive to her.
I understand that she can feel overwhelmed and exhausted just by a day at school or that she needs her clothes to fit in a certain way as to not to feel creases against the skin. Or that certain foods are just impossible for her to eat. She feels that I understand her, that I listen, respect and support her.
I can help her with communicating to the school about those things that are challenging for her, and I can help her sort through her jumbled thoughts and emotions. Often she feels that there is something wrong with her because she does not have the same capacity to handle sensory input as other children without getting completely overwhelmed. But then I can be there to display the positives in being different. I can express the things that she does very well and focus on her beautiful unique qualities.
I don’t know if I could do that without having experienced this journey for myself. I am grateful for what I’ve been through, for how it has shaped me, for how it has helped me to become who I feel I am meant to be.
I still have a long way to go. I’m still extremely stress sensitive and there are still things that are not optimal for my kids or myself. But now I can honestly say that I am on the right track. I live as myself, for myself – for myself and for my kids. I create my own path as I walk it, step by step, from my conviction, true to my heart and soul. And if that is not the right way to live life, then I don’t know what is.
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