In 2016, I was at what most people would consider the height of my career. I had produced and been featured in a documentary film about female entrepreneurs called Dream, Girl that premiered at the Obama White House. I had been named to Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100 list. I was on my first magazine cover, in a white suit and a power pose. I’d moved myself and my fiancé from Ottawa, Canada, to New York City on a mission to hustle harder, brush shoulders with industry giants, and build a movement for female entrepreneurs.
In Dream, Girl, I’m pictured as a confident, over-achieving 25-year-old new business owner on a decidedly upward trajectory. In my interview, I talked about understanding the realities of this entrepreneurial life I’d chosen. I said I sometimes struggled with work-life balance, but that I knew if I continued to work on implementing self-care, I was destined for a life of success and happiness.
Looking back now, I can see that I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. And, sure enough, my carefully constructed world would soon come swiftly crashing down.
Weeks before we were set to premiere Dream, Girl, I had to make a quick trip back to Ottawa for some routine blood work, which felt like an inconvenience at the time. We were in the middle of building a movement! There was very little time for distractions.
So as I sat on the crinkly paper in the doctor’s office, swinging my legs and staring off into space, I felt restless. When my doctor finally returned with some papers in his hand and asked me if I’d been contacted about a small biopsy I’d had done a few months prior, I said no, I assumed no news was good news and promptly forgot about it.
That’s when he told me I had dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans. I had cancer.
You’d think this was my moment—the moment that shook me at my core and convinced me to slow down. But it wasn’t.
Immediately after being told I had a rare form of skin cancer, my brain said to me, You need to get better as soon as possible so you can get back to New York and back to work. It helped that my cancer was treatable, and that my prognosis was positive—it was easier to try and brush off. Getting well for the sake of being well didn’t cross my mind for a second.
And that’s how I operated for a while. We went ahead with the film’s premiere and got to work creating an international distribution plan, all while I was making trips back to Ottawa for two invasive surgeries and recovery. It was a mix of the highest highs and the lowest lows of my life. Five months later, I was finally cancer free and in the clear.
I dove back into travel, overtime work, and my fast paced life in New York. To me, everything was back to normal.
Then, one cold New York morning in early 2017, I woke up with no vision in my left eye.
I had a painful neurological illness called optic neuritis that was unrelated to my cancer but harder to ignore. I was constantly disoriented, nauseous, and extremely sensitive to light and sound. Busy Manhattan streets and blurry subway rides were all but impossible. I couldn’t focus on writing an email, let alone leading a company and movement.
I truly believe it was my body telling me I needed to leave.
So, finally, I listened. I packed up my Brooklyn apartment and headed back to Canada. We moved in with my fiance’s father on his rural Ontario acreage complete with wild turkeys outside my window and access to universal health care down the road, a very real privilege, I know.
Without work to occupy my thoughts, I began the painful, uncomfortable, necessary work of healing from the trauma of my experience with cancer and everything that led to that moment. From facing unresolved childhood trauma to deeply examining my work addiction, it was the first time I experienced and understood what true self-care looks like.
During these months of quiet and stillness, I realized there were three fundamental flaws in my existing definition of self-care. It’s safe to say my perspective completely shifted in ways that will serve me well for the rest of my life.
Self-care is not a productivity hack.
Say that ten times. And then ten times more. And then again and again until the idea that we are only worth what we produce is totally erased from your self-care philosophy.
Now, here’s where there needs to be some nuance: I still love to work. I still take a lot of pride in contributing meaningfully to the world. But I’m able to recognize that if my reason for taking care of my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual self is to boost my career, it’ll never be enough. There will always be one more milestone, one more achievement to add to the list. I’ll never feel whole because we are not what we do; we are not the outputs we create. That kind of self-care isn’t self-care at all, it’s work under a different name.
Instead, I’m choosing to practice self-care because I want to be healthy and happy and able to enjoy everything that life has to offer, including but not limited to work. I see myself as implicitly worthy of self love, regardless of the work I’m producing.
Band-aid fixes won’t help in the long run.
Before my illnesses, I relied on meditation for 30 minutes a day, and while it was by no means a bad practice to have, what I’ve come to realize now is that meditation served as a temporary escape from the chaos of my life.
It was kind of like the rise of face masks and bubble baths labelled as #selfcare. I’ve tried a lot of face masks. None of them cured my cancer and depression.
But in all seriousness, these kinds of temporary acts of care can bring us a lot of joy and help train our brains to see our physical and emotional selves as worth taking care of. They absolutely can have a place in effective self-care practices. But what I learned was that if your self-care practice stops here, it won’t do what you need it to do.
Which brings me to…
Self-care is actually really uncomfortable.
The idea that self-care is the philosophical equivalent of a security blanket is nice, but it really doesn’t actually do much for us in practice.
Self-care can include doing things for the pure joy or comfort that comes with them, like those face masks and bubble baths we talked about, but it also needs to include tasks that can feel uncomfortable, tedious, or downright painful. Things like booking that doctor’s appointment even though the thought of potential bad news is deeply terrifying. Like making long term financial plans and budgets. Like working with a therapist or coach to work through painful childhood traumas.
It’s not easy to do the work involved in true self-care. It requires sacrifices. Leaving behind the production company I was fiercely proud of and a co-founder and team I love was a profoundly difficult decision. Starting over was earth-shattering.
But, here on the other side, I can say that it was the best and only decision I could have made.
I’m now starting to produce more work I’m equally proud of, and at a more intentional pace. I’m making time to see the healthcare professionals I need to see to feel great in my body. I’m working with a mindset coach to help me uncover why my brain was wired for burnout for so long. I’m establishing new, healthier habits that I know will serve me for the rest of my life.
I’m fulfilled in a way that I’ve never been before, because this time I know I’ve finally built a solid foundation under me.