A Brush With Death — But Not How You Think

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I made my debut into full-time management this summer. Some very good friends of mine who own a store in High Level bought another one in Grouard. It is a convenience store with a liquor store as well, and since it’s right along the highway, we knew that it had huge potential. Down the road a little ways are two cottage/camping areas (Hilliard’s Bay Estates and Shaw’s Point Resort) and Hilliard’s Bay Provincial Park — all very busy throughout the summer months.
I agreed to be the manager for the summer to get the store off the ground, and then in the fall, my husband and I would move to my parents’ farm so they could retire. They had found and were arranging to buy their “dream house” and back in February, Darren and I had decided to take over the farm — but I’ll leave that excitement for another post!
Since April, I’ve been so incredibly busy (hence only one blog post), but nothing compares to managing the store in Grouard. I left my job at the Fort Simpson airport earlier than planned because breakup was coming — that period of time when you can only helicopter across the Liard River. So, I gave just 2 weeks notice to my job and was outta there. For the rest of April and the first half of May, I helped a friend by working at her greenhouse. I know I talked about this in my previous post, but I gotta say again how I loved working at Sunscape! It was hard work at times, but I loved being surrounded by living things and Alex was so great to work for! Not to mention that whenever the sun was out, the greenhouse became gloriously warm and tropical — I could have just moved in there! But, just after Mother’s Day, I was done there and had to quickly get ready for Grouard.
My friends had bought the store weeks earlier, and they’d hired a small army of men to renovate it in order to open for May long weekend. I had been out to the store twice — the first time was to help with inventory, just after they’d purchased the store and then later to help load and move some new counters and shelving to the store. The whole place was painted (even the floor), a back room was opened up and converted into the liquor store, the washrooms were moved and redone, and lots of additional lighting and electrical outlets were installed. When I got there 2 days before we were to open, there was a ridiculous amount of work to do! We had to put stock out, price and arrange it, program the tills, set up the internet and interac machines, clean everything, train the staff, make up price lists for things that weren’t stickered, and on and on. If you’ve ever opened a store, you are probably twitching right now and curling up into a ball on the floor! It is so hectic. And it didn’t let up much for over a month.
The really; long days only went on for a couple of weeks; I opened the store at 8 AM and closed the store at 10 PM and then worked for an extra 2 hours on planning, scheduling and other tasks. But there was always so much to do and no one else to do it, so I worked 14- to 15-hour days all summer. All summer. I did not go paddling until the end of August, and only because someone asked me to teach them how to kayak. I did not have a single day off or away from Grouard from the middle of May to the middle of June when I made a quick trip to Edmonton to pick up the York boat!
york boat grouardMy anxiety increased considerably after getting the York boat. Sure, it was a thrill to drive down the highway towing it, and I felt awesome taking corners really wide! I was pretty damn good at towing it. But once I had it in Grouard, I had to do something with it. For a couple of weeks, I towed it to the store every day so people could ogle it and ask questions about it. I boldly put up a sign that revealed my big idea: “York boat day tours, July and Aug.” But I just couldn’t make it happen.
I was exhausted. Every day, I kept the store running — some days, I kept it open, because when staff cancelled or called in sick, I didn’t have anyone else to replace them. So I stayed. I worked double shifts almost every day, for one reason or another. At the end of every day, I was wiped out. I was “keeping it together” by staying diplomatic, polite, friendly, and dealing well with my challenging staff members, but I didn’t have any extra energy — mental or physical energy — to give to the York boat and my dream of offering day tours for the general public.
One time in mid-July, I had a short reprieve. I snuck away to go to my sister’s (a 2-hour drive) for a spa party. I thought it would be good to see some family and get away from the store — maybe get some perspective. But what did that perspective show me? I had become a shell of a person. The chronic sleep deprivation was stealing my humanity. I was a zombie. Everyone around me was cheerful and responsive — or sassy or skeptical, whatever their personality was — and I was just sitting there. I was trying to absorb what was going on around me, but I couldn’t interact properly. I was lagging a few seconds behind everyone else and I just wasn’t myself.
I felt a little better the next morning when I went into town to buy a few things I needed. My runners were completely wearing out after being on my feet so much, so I got some new shoes and sandals. But, I drove straight back to the store and got back into it. Before long, though, I arranged to have a week off at the end of July. The store owners — my friends — could see I needed a break and I couldn’t argue. I knew I needed one too, but how could I take it? We were still having staffing troubles and there was still so much that only I knew how to do! So, I started training the full-time staff on what to do and I started working on the store manual, which I had thought up back in the beginning so everything would run smoothly when I left in September. So, more long hours working on that.
sunsetIn many ways, the summer was a blur and I have very few clear memories, but a couple stand out. One evening, I came back to the cabin where I was staying, sat down by the fire and broke down. I just cried and cried. Out of exhaustion, frustration, for opportunities lost. A couple of days later, it happened again, and I started to think that maybe I should just quit. Then I could finally get some sleep! Then I could go canoeing or kayaking on the water. But I couldn’t. There was no one to replace me, and I  couldn’t let my friends down. Summer is a key window of opportunity for a business like this, and this first summer even moreso to set the stage for what the store would be like with these new owners. You never get another chance to make a first impression, and all that. So there was no way out. I had to finish this gig, or at least, get the staff trained on how to run things without me.
But the brutal scheduled continued, and by the last week of July, I started to think about the ultimate way out, suicide. I just couldn’t go on. I was so exhausted, and I wasn’t myself. I actually broke down in my office at the store one night, the last night before I was to start my week off. I was supposed to go see a friend that night (about an hour and half drive away), but store duties had taken up my time and it was too late to make the drive now. So I cried. I missed her, and I needed to see her so badly, but you can’t argue with time.
Burned in my clearest memory is that night: I cried on the bed, knowing how I could end myself, knowing I had what I needed to do it, but knowing that it would cause such pain to my family and friends, that I couldn’t. But I wanted to. Oh, I really wanted to.
But the battling voices in my head reminded me that I wanted to go to Europe with my honey. I wanted to see those quaint villages in Italy and Greece, perched on hillsides above the ocean. There were places I wanted to see. So, I decided not to check out yet.
The next day, I guess I got up and drove home to High Level. It’s a blur. I don’t really remember how I felt. I know I worked on renovations on the house that week, and saw my honey and got a bit more sleep. Things improved and I never felt as low as I did that night in July. At times I felt outright happy I was still here, that I hadn’t killed myself. I had a changed perspective — that customer who was annoyed because we ran out of Clamato didn’t matter much (we ran out of things lots, we had such great sales). The trees looked more lovely, and the York boat was a non-issue. I still thought about that night in July at times, and it took me a while to shake the experience off. I mean, I had nearly killed myself. I couldn’t just go along like nothing happened, or nothing was wrong.
And the thing is, nothing was wrong with me. The only explanation was my awful lack of sleep. I slept a lot in September and October, and I am back to my old self again — optimistic, positive, easy-going… Very easy-going, if I may say so!
So, that was my summer. 🙂 It was one in a hundred (I hope) and never to happen again. It was an experiment in sleep-deprivation that I would never want replicated. It was an experiment in working 9 days a week — 5 shifts/week on the floor, 2 shifts/week of management stuff and then every weekend is 5 + 2 + 2 = 9. I had so much banked overtime, I am being paid well into the fall, at a full-time rate, to use it all up. It was an exercise in people management but most importantly, it was an opportunity to know myself better. And I met some of the nicest people in the whole world up there, and made many new friends.
I think I lost something that night in July. I’m not sure what it is, but now that I’ve caught up on my sleep, I am more serene and unperturbable. I was already pretty level-headed (although a few staff pushed me a lot!), but now I am different. Maybe my whole emotional scale has been shifted up — I just don’t get angry or afraid for anything now. I am so grateful for where I am now, maybe just because I’m grateful to still be here! Eckhart Tolle writes about losing his ego when he had his near-suicide experience, so maybe that’s true for me too. All I know, is I am grateful for everything that happened this summer, and excited about the future.

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2 thoughts on “A Brush With Death — But Not How You Think

    Ruth Laakso said:
    November 7, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Wow! Sounds so impossible that cheery, positive Teresa should ever get to that point. Perhaps mental health researchers should be looking into the effects of extensive sleep deprivation on mental health.

    I often stay up late into the night planning lessons, responding to emails and Facebook, and get up early, exhausted and teary before I’ve even begun the day. What you’ve described is far more dangerous, because you felt you had no choice, but to work the extra shifts and deprive yourself of rest instead of demanding more from others or closing shop for a few hours.

    That’s one of the ways we deceive ourselves into poor health or an early grave: convincing ourselves that our health, our sleep, our meals, our downtime, are not as important as the job.

    And now, with that lesson learned, I’m going to log out and get my sleep. Good night all !

      Teresa responded:
      November 8, 2014 at 8:13 pm

      Hi Ruth,
      You are very right — it was the feeling I had no way out that, combined with the incredible sleep deprivation, led me down that road. It is known that lack of sleep can lead to depression, so…

      I nearly closed the store a few times, but in the end we stayed open. Usually, when I was with customers it was good, because I would wish them a good night, and they’d reciprocate, and I would take it to heart. 🙂

      I am definitely taking better care of myself now. I knew going in that the job had the potential to be all-consuming, but wow. For two weeks in September, I slept 9-12 hours a night to catch up. I am noticing as (a residual effect perhaps?) that I don’t function very well on 8 or less hours and my new minimum (for a cheery, positive Teresa!) is 9 hours. Thankfully, I don’t have *trouble* sleeping. I can’t imagine if I did…

      Thanks so much for your sweet comment, Ruth! 🙂 Take care!

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