It took me a really long time to admit that I was a financially insecure person. My father kicked me out of my home at 17 years old. And looking back now, I think I handled it fairly well. Survival mode kicked in. Survival mode is when you sacrifice the present for the future. It’s when you ignore your needs (physical, emotional, mental, etc.) at the current moment, temporarily, for the promise that the future would look better in return. I knew the best way out of my situation was education. I committed to teaching myself the skills I would need to be a version of Harvey Specter. I wanted to become someone who would never need to rely on someone else again. I wanted to make sure that nobody could ever call me a burden. I wanted to be self-made.
To be honest, I haven’t spoken much about that time in my life until now. I kept to myself mostly. There was no chance I would have awarded myself the compassion of going through a hard time. The survival mode made it feel like an all-or-nothing game. I found smarter ways of earning money but I was ignorant about the bad habits I was developing. I remember discovering that I can lose my appetite when I’m focused on learning something. I remember discovering that eating less can make my stomach organ shrink and therefore require less calories for my body to operate efficiently. I started skipping dinners. It felt like a hack at the time. The more focused I was, the less hungry I would be, and the less money I would need to spend.
But ignorance wasn’t the start of my financial insecurity. I can trace the roots of this thinking pattern to when I was 5 years old. Wednesdays in Kindergarten were pizza days, where all the students could opt in to buy pizza for lunch at a dollar per slice. My mom would pack me a toonie (see: canadian $2 coin) in my backpack every week for pizza day to order 2 slices of pizza for lunch. And unbeknownst to her, I would ask my teacher, Miss Johal, for change back so that I could order 1 slice instead and pocket the remaining dollar. My intention was to save it. My parents used to get into violent fights arguing about money and I guess this was my naive way to trying to help them. I would eat my single slice slowly. I discovered the slower I ate, the more I would have to chew, which helped me feel less hungry with less food. It was another hack.
Those bad habits of ignoring my bodily needs stuck with me for years. Part of what made it so hard to break these habits is 1) not understanding the impact they had on me - I truly didn’t think that it was important to eat or drink water if my body didn’t make me feel like I had to, and 2) there was almost always something that made feel more secure about staying in survival mode and continuing to ignore my body. Being in survival mode meant that I didn’t need to think about anything else except surviving the current problem. It meant that I could have shrewd focus for stockpiling enough money to go to school, or helping my younger brother escape our abusive family, or helping my schizophrenic uncle get medical attention, monitoring my suicidal mother, or coping with an abusive ex-boyfriend. There seemed to always be another reason to activate survival mode.
I relocated to San Francisco 5 months ago now. It was a chaotic relocation. From the intense US Customs interviews, to United Airlines losing all my luggage, to a really unpleasant living situation, to starting a completely new job while couch surfing and having no other clothes than the ones I wore on my flight. It didn’t feel too crazy in the moment and I owe that to my survival mode kicking in. My body, however, went through a lot. And I didn’t realize it. I started having these blinding headaches. I could not sit upright without feeling dizzy. During one of those episode, I noticed that slowly, over the course of a few hours, the left side of my body started to become numb. I noticed it in my hands first. I tried to shake it off. I ignored it. I noticed my forearms next. I still didn’t think I needed to do anything about it. Panic didn’t set in until a couple hours later when i put my hand on my left cheek and realized I couldn’t feel it at all.
I took an Uber to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. On the ride there, I learned that Urgent Care in America is not meant for urgent situations, but rather Emergency Care is where I needed to be. I told the nurse at the hospital entrance about my numbness and she immediately escorted me to a private room where multiple doctors would come in and out to examine me for the next 10 hours. I didn’t even see what the waiting room looked like. One nurse put me in a hospital gown, and another put me on an IV, and another drew blood from the same arm. A radiologist came in to perform an EKG. Two neurologists came in with the Attending Supervisor and ran multiple tests on me: asking me if I remembered certain parts of my life, if I could count backwards from 100 skipping every 7th number, and if I could spell the name of the hospital. The doctors didn’t say anything for a long time but I realized soon after that the process seemed pretty similar to a stroke workup.
I was alone, but I don’t remember feeling scared. I just tried to read the book I had brought with me. I was in survival mode. I knew I just had to wait and that time would pass and I may or may not get more information about my body. Around the 8th hour mark, the team of neurologists took me to get an MRI. The time I spent inside the MRI machine was the slowest 40 minutes I have ever experienced in my life. My head banged against the plastic encasing they put me inside as the machine took several scans of my brain. I decided to meditate and take 1000 deep breaths to distract myself. I kept losing count at the 200-something mark.
I ordered some DoorDash to the hospital. I called a friend. Time did pass and a doctor came by to show me the results of my MRI. They didn’t find the tumor they predicted was there. They said that it was likely that stress levels resulted in this health incident. I didn’t believe what the doctor said. I didn’t feel stressed. I remember thinking - I workout, I meditate, I journal, so there’s no way I could be stressed. I went home that night shrugging off this incident, and went back to work the next day. I made no changes to my lifestyle.
I got a $21,674.47 bill in the mail a few weeks later. I was annoyed. I owed that much money and yet I was still having those blinding headaches. I wish I had a cure that would justify the amount of money the hospital visit costed.
I found myself in the exact same position again in mid-September. I woke up to the left side of my body being numb. This time I cried. I was scared. I was alone. I called an Uber straight to the airport and booked a 1-way flight to Vancouver, Canada. My sister picked me up at the airport and we went to the hospital together. The doctors ran more tests and looked at all my results from the previous visit at Zuckerberg SF General Hospital and came to the same conclusion as the doctors there. I was experiencing stress-induced complex migraines. She further explained that the side effects of continuously experiencing this could lead to future complications like strokes, seizures, and brain damage. The doctor sat with me asking questions about my lifestyle and hit me with a much needed reality check. I was still operating in survival mode under extreme stress and I didn’t have to do that anymore. She reminded me that I was now in control of my life. I was no longer financially unstable, without a home, or in an abusive situation. The bad habits I developed to cope with that stress in survival mode was what led me to this health condition.
Breaking Bad Habits
I ended up taking a couple weeks off from work after that second hospital experience - which by the way, cost $0. I think I’ll write my thoughts on the American vs. Canadian healthcare systems in a different piece. I took those weeks to turn off my phone and did some cold hard reflections on my life choices. I have worked way too hard to still be living in the body of my homeless self. I needed to treat myself like someone I was responsible for helping too. Survival mode was meant to be temporary but it was the only feeling that felt comfortable after having been in it for so long. Survival mode was meant to help me focus on the promise of a brighter future while sacrificing the present, but I didn’t need to continue sacrificing. The bright future that my past self sacrificed so much for is already here. I need to cherish it by awarding myself the fulfillment of my physical, emotional, mental, and bodily needs. I can’t be doing the bare minimum to survive anymore. My newer dreams require much more than that.
To be completely transparent, I’m still not at that point where I take care of myself before anyone else but I’m learning to. I don’t skip breakfast or dinner anymore. I try to spend more time appreciating the present moment - to remind myself that I’ve survived and it was worth it