Food, Fitness, Sleep and Connection: Coping With a Mother’s Illness
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This recently appeared on USNews.com’s Eat + Run blog.
As an Eat + Run blogger, I’ve written about everything from sleep to fitness trackers and apps, from food and fitness trends to so much more. Today, I decided to get personal and share what recently happened to my mother, how it impacted me and how I got through it without falling apart.
Exactly five weeks and two days after my mother reveled in my glory at the launch of my latest book, “Younger Next Week,” at our local Barnes & Noble, she developed a sudden and severe headache and passed out. My father, who was by her side, immediately called 911. In minutes, an ambulance took my mother to a local New York City hospital. And within the next few hours, my mother underwent – and survived – one surgery to relieve pressure in her brain and another to coil a brain aneurysm that had leaked. We later learned that half the people who go through what my mother went through don’t make it to the hospital. So I guess you’d say that she – and we – are truly blessed.
Of course, all this happened the night after my husband and I and our two sons landed in Utah for President’s Day weekend. Earlier that day, I had spoken with both my parents. In fact, my mother – being the Jewish mother that she is – warned me about avalanches. Now we joke that the real avalanche any of us needed to worry about was the one that would erupt in her head!
Although my father called me when my mother was at the hospital, we were out to dinner and I didn’t answer the phone. When we got back to the hotel, I fell asleep early, forgetting to check my phone (talk about Jewish guilt). Since my father had just gotten his very first iPhone and didn’t input my husband’s cell phone number or know the name of our hotel, he wasn’t able to reach me until early the next morning. When we finally spoke, my mother had just gone in for a second surgery. (I’ve since learned it was then the surgeon told my father that he might want to say his goodbyes. Instead, he simply said, “See you later, sweetie.”) Not wanting to end my boys’ vacation just when it was getting started, and knowing that it would be easier for me to fly home solo, my husband immediately bought me a plane ticket. After a quick breakfast together, I headed back home to be with my parents.
Before my mom had the aneurysm (“BA,” as I like to call it), I was a wife, a mother of two, a daughter and a self-professed workaholic. As a registered dietitian nutritionist and the founder and president of my own nutrition communications company, Zied Health Communications, LLC, I – like many women – was a champion multitasker at work and in life. For years, I had written several books, blogs and presentations, did spokesperson work, shot videos and TV segments, and granted interviews for newspapers, magazines and websites, all while raising my sons. While I rarely took a full day off, I’ve always had a very flexible work schedule that has enabled me to spend a good amount of time with my children. Even if that meant working late at night, on weekends and on vacation, I always seemed to get a lot done on all fronts. Did I do it gracefully? Did I smell the roses? Probably not. But that’s because, for better or worse, my work – which I have always been so passionate about – defined me, at least in my own mind. To my surprise, when my mother fell ill (I call this period “AA” for “after the aneurysm”) – my all-important work suddenly wasn’t. Without hesitation, I immediately bowed out of several upcoming projects and told my editors that I needed to take a hiatus to be there for my parents. I also vowed that I would care for myself the best I could and without guilt, not only to preserve my own health and sanity but to be there in mind, body and spirit for my parents, husband and children.
Before any of this happened – and not long after my 40th birthday – I suffered from “post-traumatic 40 disorder.” While I’ve always embraced and enjoyed each of my birthdays, a few things threw me for a loop – a painful wrist injury that led to six months of physical therapy, surgery and then more physical therapy; the first of several breast biopsies (all benign); and the removal of a suspicious (but benign) mole from my back. While I was going through these personal challenges, several close friends struggled with health scares, job losses, marital troubles, deaths of family members and money problems. It all made me wonder: “How are we all going to get through these tough times without letting our health and well-being go to pot?”
Always one to care for myself, I eventually snapped out of my funk. When I did, I realized that no matter how good things may seem, for any of us the ceiling can crash down and life can change at any time. But no matter what, we owe it to ourselves and everyone around us to find a way not only to survive, but to learn from the challenges – and even thrive – in spite of them. So for the next two years, I would use my personal and professional experiences to create a roadmap to help women nurture themselves nutritionally, physically and emotionally, and to look and feel their very best no matter how stressful life becomes. That roadmap became “Younger Next Week.”
While I’m extremely proud of my book and its messages, it wasn’t until now that it truly resonated with me. Little did I know while researching and writing the book that it would provide me with my own personal GPS to stay centered and relatively sane during my most challenging time yet.
I feel fortunate every day that I was and am still able to be there for my parents and the rest of my family. When this all began two months ago, I knew that I could financially afford to put my professional work aside. I’ve also had weekday household help (which includes cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare when needed) for most of my boys’ lives. During this especially tough time, having help has truly been a gift that has enabled me to spend a lot of time with my mother without disrupting my family’s daily routines. But like anyone going through a crisis, I cried a lot (usually late at night or while showering) and had moments of utter exhaustion (like when I lost forever, without even realizing it, one of the earrings my husband gave me 10 years ago that I had worn every day since). Nutritionally, I didn’t always eat the way you think an expert like me would – sometimes, only chocolate, French fries or frozen yogurt topped with peanut butter cups, whipped cream and chocolate sauce would do for dinner or otherwise. And dare I say, after breaking up with Diet Coke two years ago, I went back to drinking one 20-ounce bottle a day, both for the caffeine and the comfort. Still, during this time, I did the best I could to care for myself even though I had what many would consider the perfect excuse to let my eating, fitness and lifestyle habits completely unravel.
I’ve shared below some of the ways I was able to cope during my mother’s five-week hospitalization and stint in rehab. I hope that if and when you’re confronted with similar challenges or circumstances, you too will feel empowered – and give yourself permission – to care for you. It’s vital!
I ate regularly. Even though lunch and dinner times varied daily, my usual routine of having breakfast with my kids stayed intact, mainly because my dad usually took the first shift (8 a.m. to noon) to care for my mother. Some of my favorite easy breakfasts included whole grain, high-fiber cereal, nonfat milk and banana; scrambled eggs with cheese and low fat chocolate milk; or Triscuits with cheddar cheese and grapefruit sections. For days when I was with my mother from noon to 5 p.m., I’d bring some snack foods (such as mixed unsalted nuts, granola bars, bananas and single-serve portions of peanut butter) to nosh on as well as bottle water. On days that I took the earlier and/or later shift, I’d have a more hearty lunch that I’d make at home or grab out with a friend followed by a light snack-like dinner (sometimes just a simple bowl of cereal). Lunches included things like a tuna salad or turkey and cheese sandwich on whole grain or seedless rye bread, smoked salmon and cream cheese on a scooped out whole wheat bagel, or a romaine salad with turkey, cheese, tomato and other vegetables). On those days, dinner might be any combination of a banana or apple slices with peanut butter or a few nuts, a low-fat chocolate milk, popcorn popped in canola oil, and/or a cup of cooked carrots or Brussels sprouts. As for treats, sometimes I’d have mini chocolate bars or Swedish fish (sold in the hospital gift shop), enjoy an occasional bag of Doritos, or have some ice cream. But I usually paired these high-calorie, nutrient-poor comfort foods with something nutritious (such as nuts or fruit), and I’d make sure to consume small portions.
I fit in fitness. Because I rely on exercise – especially power walking – to stay calm and carry on, preserve my bones and muscles, energize myself and manage stress, I knew it was vital for me to continue to move it – #moveitorloseit as I like to say – especially while I’d spend hours and hours each day hovering over my mother who mostly laid in a hospital bed. Always one to sport wedge heels, I immediately switched to flat boots – a fashion flip that enabled me to comfortably walk to and from the hospital (a 14-minute walk each way from my apartment) and to run errands or simply clear my mind without hurting my shins and calves. Score! I also walked on my treadmill, walked in the park when the weather permitted (sometimes with a friend) and walked long distances to run an errand or get a yogurt and clear my head. I also continued with my usual fitness routine that included lifting weights, working my core, doing leg exercises and hula hooping. I even did lunges and squats or danced to music I played in my mother’s room. I also took a few hip-hop dance classes with friends. In January, I signed up to walk at a comfortable walking pace my second More/Fitness Half Marathon – and my third half-marathon. Because I registered with a friend – fellow Eat + Run blogger Rebecca Scritchfield – I decided that as long as my mother was on the road to recovery by race day, I wouldn’t let Rebecca – or myself – down. On Sunday, April 13 – eight weeks after my mom landed in the hospital – Rebecca and I proudly crossed the finish line in less than 3.5 hours.
I stayed connected. When I headed to the airport after learning about my mother’s hospitalization, I took to Facebook. Without getting into details, I asked my friends to pray that her surgery (her second that morning) would be successful. Although I wasn’t up to talking about it in person or by phone for several days, I texted and emailed my nearest and dearest friends and family members to get support and to apprise them of what was happening. Not wanting to go it alone, having the support of others – even a simple text – really helped. As that first and very long week progressed, I began to accept some requests from friends to come to the hospital – even for just a few minutes – or to meet for a quick meal or a walk. I eventually made myself go for a manicure, have a nice dinner out or go to a ballgame, and do some other usual activities in-between hospital visits. Although I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my mother, and be there for my father as well, staying connected with the world, whether in person or via email, text and sometimes telephone, really helped me refresh and rejuvenate in-between hospital visits. At times, I did retreat and be by myself. But I knew that staying connected with others – but on my own terms (which sometimes meant not answering the phone or getting back to others right away) – was important. Allowing others to show their love and support also made me – and my family – feel like we weren’t alone. It also helped my mom recover.
I slept. Ever since I gave birth to my sons almost 16 and 12 years ago, sleep has been a very high priority. When one of my best friends picked me up from the hospital on day three of my mother’s 2.5 week stay in the ICU, I mentioned that my dad and I didn’t want to leave her side for even a minute but that we’d get next to no sleep there at night because of all the sounds and alarms in her room and in the unit. When my BFF suggested we look into getting an overnight aide, it was like a light bulb lit up! The next day, we contracted with the hospital nursing service to have an aide nightly from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. This was a godsend and allowed both my father and I to go home at night, decompress and get the sleep we desperately needed. This no doubt kept us feeling energized and on a more even keel so that we could help my mother as she recovered.
Very lucky to be alive, my mother is doing amazingly well. I continue to see her and spend time with her daily – how lucky we are to live across the street from one another! As she heals and gets accustomed to her “new normal,” I continue to eat, move and live the best way I can and to manage my stress in mostly positive and productive ways. I’ve learned to slow down, smell the roses and be in the moment. And I’m back to blogging and will figure the rest out work-wise as I go along. Although my mother didn’t choose to have a significant brain bleed, I look at it as a gift for both of us. It allowed me to become the less selfish and more attentive daughter I always should have been. It showed me what remarkable people both my parents are. It also allowed me to put into real action and really practice the self-care that I preach in my new book and in all the work I do. I’m happy to say that, at least for me, I’m convinced there’s something to all of it.
Have you recently had a transformative life experience? How did you cope?
Elisa Zied, MS, RDN, CDN, is the founder and president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, based in New York City. She’s an award-winning registered dietitian, nutritionist and author of the new book “Younger Next Week,” along with three other books, including “Nutrition At Your Fingertips.” A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, Zied inspires others to make more healthful food choices and find enjoyable ways to “move it or lose it” through writing, public speaking and media appearances. She writes the twice-weekly blog, The Scoop on Food, for Parents.com. You can connect with her on Twitter (@elisazied) and through her website www.elisazied.com.
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