Unable to breathe, choking and gasping, I woke up from a sound sleep, my heart racing, knowing I was about to die. I managed to nudge my honey and let him know I was pretty sure I was dying. I didn’t know why or how or what was going on – just that my heart was racing and I couldn’t slow it down or catch my breath. I was terrified.

We were away from home, visiting my mother-in-law, which both made the experience more scary and gave us a built in baby sitter. We left our sleeping two-year old with her and headed to the emergency room.

Despite my certain knowing, I did not die before we got there. After the full ticket of tests and measurements, I was pronounced healthy. A young woman my age, weight, and physical condition just was not a likely candidate for a heart attack. And they couldn’t find anything else wrong with me. A sedative and several hours later, my heart rate returned to normal. I was released with the instruction to see my own doc once I got home. Although I no longer felt like death was immanent, I did feel like I had been run over by a really big truck.

Multiple doctor visits and emergency room trips later I was told a version of “It’s all in your head. Take it easy. Get some rest. Don’t be so up tight.” For two years I attempted to make my body do what my head said to: relax, be at ease, don’t be so anxious. Mostly this resulted in more heart racing and almost no sleep. How do you slow down and get rest with a toddler, a marriage, a full life, a business of your own, the usual financial worries, and no time whatsoever to do anything but keep checking things off of the to-do list?

After a couple of years without sleep (Ok, I did usually fall asleep a few hours before dawn), and a heart that would just kick into racing mode for no apparent reason and would take hours to return to normal, I was finally at my doctor’s when the racing started. This time he referred me to a heart specialist. That dear heart expert, Dr. Marsh, gave me back my life. He diagnosed me as having dysautonomia (malfunctioning nervous system) and prescribed beta blockers to keep my heart from racing off the charts.

Finally, I had a description other than my own character flaws to give me some understanding of what was going on with me! I had a really helpful medicine to slow my system down enough for me to sleep and exercise. My relief was indescribable. I was not going to die from lack of sleep or die in my sleep or die any moment. I was going to live!

That first life shattering night was more than 25 years ago. Getting a western medicine diagnosis was just the beginning of my huge learning and healing process.

I tell you this to let you know that when it comes to conversations about running on empty, I’ve got real life experience with this. As my sister says, “BTDT. Got the t-shirt.” I’ve been there, done that, and have the souvenirs, perhaps in scar form, to show for it.

Yes, there really are ways out of running on empty, ways out of being constantly overwhelmed, ways out of living in scarcity mode, ways to thrive when our needs seem to continually exceed our resources. Yes, there are ways to avoid late night panic attacks and jacked up nervous systems. That’s the good news. The bad news, though, is that none of these ways out are all that easy.

More good news: we are naturally resilient, capable, whole, and creative. We absolutely can find ways to thrive in overwhelming situations.

One way no way

In my last post I described this bottom line:

~ Overwhelm and scarcity are intricate parts of our culture and individual lives now.
~ Our brains get high jacked so we have less capacity to find our way out of scarcity.
~ Our inner critic convinces us it’s all because we’re not good enough.
~ We work really hard and still stay stuck in the same old patters of scarcity and overwhelm.

The first not-so-easy way out of this pattern is to tell the truth, the radical truth.

This means looking at the situation as it is, not as I want it to be. My brilliant friend, Lynne Morrell, calls this magical thinking. I call it lying. Magical thinking sounds lovely and compassionate. What I do to myself when thinking like this is neither lovely nor compassionate. It’s downright mean.

My attention getting nervous system wouldn’t let me keep lying to myself any longer.

Consider these examples of lying (aka magical thinking) that promote running on empty:

I tell myself I really can and should get all 15+ things on my to-do list done today without allotting myself the time to actually do them. You know the this-will-only-take-a-minute syndrome.
I try to get just one more thing done before heading off to an appointment, so I’m often late.
I never ask for what I need in situations. Rather I focus on the needs of others because I want to make them happy.
I often say yes to requests for my time or expertise when I really want to say no.

I push my body all day long, often missing meals or giving up exercise or drinking water.
I’m always the one to do those pesky tasks because who else will do them if not me?

In each of these examples I’m lying, mostly to myself, but sometimes to others. I’m lying because I don’t like the truth. I don’t like admitting that there’s more to this than just imagining it can be. I don’t like acknowledging that there are limits I have to work within. I don’t want to really see the truth of the situation because the situation is not the one I want. Reality doesn’t fit my desires so I attempt to ignore reality.

If you’re still with me and want to explore radical truth telling, consider questions like these:

What’s one of your favorite lies to yourself, one that keeps you running on empty?
Think of one of your gifts, your natural strengths. How could you use this to help you see through illusions that get you caught in unsustainable situations?
What’s one limitation you like to deny, that if you acknowledged, without blame or judgment, would move you a bit closer to more balance in your life?
How does your body signal you that it would be good to make some different choices?

My toddler is now a brilliant and handsome man. My devoted husband and I are still together. He lived through my traumas, too, supporting me in more ways than I can name. I am thrilled to say I have not yet died in my sleep. (Whew!)  I have found many ways back to my healthy, whole self – which is a very good thing because I have to use these hard learned tools every day of my life.

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