How having a stroke at age 30 taught me how to prioritize my time

Sage Grazer
·6 mins read

Sage Grazer is a licensed clinical social worker and the co-founder of Frame, a mental health platform. But it was her own experience with a painful injury and then a stroke that caused her to take a hard look at her personal well-being. In this essay, she tells TMRW how she learned to prioritize her life and put herself first — and the tips she has for other people who might be struggling to do the same.

In 2018, I had a complex sports injury (to my neck) that led to months of really debilitating pain. I was having severe headaches that were relentless 24/7. My doctors were saying it was migraines or a muscle strain. They didn’t know what was wrong.

Little did I know that I had a vertebral artery dissection — essentially a tear in my artery.

It became extremely difficult for me to do the things that I loved doing, like spending time with friends and family. I spent more than a year going to so many doctor’s appointments and still having all this chronic pain. There was such little time that I felt well enough to do something. Factor in the exhaustion, trying to work and all of the doctors’ appointments, and that left maybe only a handful of hours in any given week to pursue the things that brought me joy.

It really caused me to prioritize what was important to me. One of the exercises I would do is ask myself, “If all other people’s judgments disappeared, is this something I want to do?” Would I rather go to this friend of a friend’s birthday drinks, or would I rather stay home and just be OK with being alone and taking care of my pain?

I had a stroke at the chiropractor’s office in January 2019. The chiropractor didn't know I had a dissection in my artery, so she was doing muscle work, digging into the area and it broke loose the clotting, which landed in my brain. The experience was terrifying. I felt like I was going to die. A lot of people think they’re having a stroke when they’re actually having a panic attack; it’s not uncommon. So when I was having a stroke, I was thinking that I was having a panic attack. But then my whole right side went numb. The chiropractor said it was a response to the muscle work. I laid there until I felt okay enough to stand up. I was dizzy and nauseous and in debilitating pain.

When I went to the doctor afterward, they said, "You’re lucky to be alive."

I've been in therapy since I was a teenager, which inspired me to become a therapist myself — I started working in the field in 2012, so mental health has always been important to me. But after my stroke, I had to really work with my own therapist to process what happened. When doctors tell you, you are so lucky to be alive, you’re like, yes, that’s great, but it’s also really scary, because I had not realized how close I was to not being alive, or to not being able to walk or talk or breathe.

After my stroke, I realized I needed to prioritize what’s important. I left the job where I was working so I could just do my private practice and focus on building Frame. That’s when I took that leap.

I think a lot of people struggle with ... what the milestones in life are supposed to look like based on cultural ideas. ... I work with a lot of people who do things in life because they think that's what they’re supposed to do.

I think a lot of people struggle with societal pressures and norms of success or what the milestones in life are supposed to look like based on cultural ideas. They worry people will judge them. I work with a lot of people who do things in life because they think that's what they’re supposed to do.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned in the past couple years, in a really hard way, is that time is the most valuable asset I have, so I need to think about how to spend it wisely. Really cherish the things and people and places you have while you have them, because you never know how long you will. It sounds dark, but it’s about being more appreciative and asking yourself what’s important and what you want to invest your time in.

Grazer’s tips for prioritizing yourself:

Ask yourself what you really want to be doing.

But first, take away all the external pressures and fear of judgment from other people.

“It was my friend’s birthday and I really wanted to be there but I was in so much pain, and I thought, ‘Am I going to enjoy myself? Or am I going because I’m worried that if I don’t, people will say, ‘Where’s Sage? She’s not being a good friend,’” Grazer said, adding that her decision to connect with her friend at a later time was the right choice for her in that moment.

Don’t let other people’s choices affect you.

FOMO hasn’t gone away during the pandemic, and it’s easy to get jealous of people who look like they’re having more fun than you are on Instagram. But Grazer wants people to remember that social media never tells the whole story — and, besides, it’s OK for people to do different things and have different priorities.

“Maybe you look at one person and what is important to them is going out to eat and being at a restaurant,” she said. “But maybe what’s important to you is being home with your family.”

Have compassion for yourself — but also for other people

“The flip side of not allowing other people's judgments to impact your decisions is to not put your judgment on other people and not assume you know what that person is going through,” Grazer said. “I walked through the world and everyone said I looked fine, and they thought that was a compliment. But it felt incredibly invalidating because I was miserable and in so much pain."

And if someone turns down your invitation, be kind — especially right now. “Believe them when they say no thank you and trust that they are doing what’s best for them,” Grazer said.

As told to Rheana Murray. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.