The Business of Life: Self-Care for Soloists

Recently, my world came to a standstill. I know it sounds dramatic, but the upheaval was intense. Out of nowhere my little poodle began experiencing extreme pain episodes, and for the next three weeks he needed all my energy and attention. Now that we have come out the other side and things are settling back to normal, I have been reflecting on just how important it is to prioritise self-care for soloists, small business owners, healthpreneurs, entrepreneurs – whichever your preferred term. When you’re the only one in charge of the business, what happens when the business of life takes over?

The Wellness Editor's toy poodle, Cooper

Cooper Kamahl Vanilla-Bean Magilla Muppet-King

The Day My Business Took A Back Seat

In case you think I’m just a crazy poodle lady who is way too attached to her spoilt little lap dog (disclaimer: I am indeed, and indeed he is, but still, these were exceptional circumstances), let me describe what happened.

It was an ordinary day. Cooper was burying a disgusting dried meat treat in the couch cushions, which is how urban indoor hounds deal with the reality of a life not surrounded by dirt and prairies. I resolved to discourage him from doing so right after I’d finished what I was doing in the kitchen. After all, unearthing a moist jerky stick while watching the evening news is not everybody’s idea of a good time.

Suddenly, he began to scream. I rushed in from the kitchen and found him on the couch beside the cushions, his left paw in mid-air, screaming and screaming and screaming. I know it sounds odd to think of a dog screaming – you’re thinking I mean yelping, right? Or howling? But screaming is the word that best suits what he was doing. Just going off like a car alarm, and just as loud.

He tried to come to me when I rushed to him, but he fell to the floor. Still holding one paw in the air, screaming at the ceiling, a look of terror in his eyes. When I instinctively reached out to him, he bit me viciously. He had my hand in his jaw and was devouring it, not letting go. He has never bitten anyone like that before. It was only later I noticed my skin ripped to shreds and bleeding.

I tried again to reach out to him and he bit my other hand in the same way. At the same time he was coming to me, standing up to be picked up. I was in shock. I had no idea what was happening. My first thought was that he’d broken his leg.

Finally on the third try, I was able to pick him up. I held him. As suddenly as the screaming started, it stopped. He fell silent and went very still. His eyes were open but he would not look at me when I said his name. By this stage I was sick with terror.

I placed him gently on the floor to see if he could stand. He stood awkwardly in the exact position I’d placed him in. His eyes looked up at me but he would not move. I had no clue what was happening.

I took him to my bed and placed him there. He sat, staring straight ahead. I tried to get him to walk to me, but he would not. I called his name, over and over, but he would not look toward me unless I stood directly in his line of vision. Then he began to tremble.

I gathered him into the car as gently as I could and rushed to the nearest vet. I burst through the door, but the desk was deserted and no one was in the waiting room. The receptionist soon appeared and asked if she could help me. Then the tears came. “Please help,” I said. “There is something wrong with my dog.”

The vet could not see him immediately so I held him while we waited. Again I placed him on the ground to see if he could stand. Having almost lost him to tick paralysis three years ago I know to watch for his back legs buckling, and yet tick paralysis did not fit his symptoms. That vile poison is a slow-burner. When it happened to Cooper, his symptoms didn’t appear for a week. There was no instance of screaming pain. We don’t live in a tick area and we haven’t recently been to the coast.

Still, I feared he’d been bitten by something insidious and I needed to see that his legs were holding up. I placed him on the floor and he seemed kind of ok. He sniffed around a bit. He avoided putting his left paw on the floor. Maybe it’s something minor, I thought. An injury from digging around in the couch cushions. A pin in his foot. A broken toenail. But I knew it was something more. The screaming, the look in his eyes… This was no paper cut.

The vet’s theory was that he’d wrenched his arm while digging, and gave him a cortisone injection to reduce inflammation. She gave his paw some cursory squeezes and sent us on our way after a five-minute examination. To be perfectly frank, she was pretty incompetent. She barely listened to what I had to say. She dismissed my concern that perhaps it was spinal. I believe she was wrong.

The next day, Cooper had not improved. All day he just lay there, so still, panting and trembling. He had a second episode of severe pain, just like the first. When I phoned the vet to report, she was surprised that he had not improved and that in fact he appeared worse. I took him in for a second visit. I wondered again if it could be his spine – a ruptured disc, causing referred pain down his leg. “If the problem was in his spine, he wouldn’t be holding one foot in the air, would he?” she said. This seemed to me an incredibly ignorant thing to say, since having suffered a herniated disc myself I know first-hand that pretty much all of the pain I felt was down my leg. Not knowing a whole lot about dog anatomy, I decided to trust that she knew her stuff. She gave me anti-inflammatories ($109 for the box – insane) and again sent us away.

By this stage, I’d lost two days of work. I’m in the startup phase of business where not only am I doing client work, I’m also setting up my website, managing social media, marketing, putting processes in place, doing bookkeeping, generating content, setting up software, attending seminars and webinars, enrolling in courses – fellow soloists and freelancers, you know how it is. I’ve been in frenetic build-up phase since August, often online from 7am to 10pm, and to be honest I was already at the top end of my stress tolerance.

Not only were the tasks and to-dos building up, but I was neglecting the self-care tactics that are important to keep me healthy and balanced. It’s so easy when you’re extremely busy to skip the morning meditation, grab the easy instant food at lunch time, forget the fitness regime, the green smoothies, the probiotics, the five-minute stretch sessions. And routine? There was barely time to write a to-do list, nevermind carefully scheduling each task into its ideal time slot and planning out my weeks. What was in recent times a solid (though imperfect, but good enough) daily regime became a race toward a finish line that was nowhere in sight.

In short, I was in danger of burnout. And then Cooper got sick.

 

I Had To Let Things Go

When Cooper was still in severe pain by day three, I had some big decisions to make, and I needed to make them quickly. A client’s project was well underway and its deadline was looming. I had already invested considerable time in it and there was not a lot of wiggle room for time extensions. I made the decision to offer this client a full refund, which she accepted. Was this a costly decision for my business? Of course. But the alternative was to attempt to do the quality work that is the hallmark of my services with a mindset of uncertainty, distraction, fear and extreme anxiety. That’s not a likely outcome. It’s not fair to give a client anything but my best work. So I had to let that project go.

Another client was at the finishing stage of her project, and a third client’s weekly ongoing work needed attention too. They were both happy for me to pause for a little while and look after my pet. For that I am so grateful.

All three of these clients are soulful, genuine and respectful women who I believe I have attracted by creating this new and improved version of my business that I call The Wellness Editor. I’ve found that by aligning my professional approach with the values and interests that make my heart sing, I began to attract others with the same passion and heart-led vision. Once upon a time, putting a pause on my business activities would have meant losing the work to another freelancer, because I was sub-contracting to content agencies and never having any personal interaction with the client whose content I was working on. The client had no idea who I was – as far as they were concerned, I was an employee of the agency who was handling their project – and they could not have given a rat’s bum if their editor or content writer had a sick dog to care for. So although my pet-related upheaval has had an impact on my business, it has also shown me and reinforced the difference between working for invisible entities, and working directly for clients who I personally care about, and who show the same concern and empathy for me.

Aside from what was best for my clients, I needed to admit that my load was full. I was already stressed and bit by bit my self-care had been collateral damage in the quest to accelerate my business. Add to that the unshakeable fear that my dog was dying (that is genuinely what I thought was happening), it was time to be ok with giving myself a break. To allow for the fact that right now, emotions were raw and I simply had nothing left to give anything that was not directly related to Cooper’s wellbeing.

By the fourth day, I understood that although putting the brakes on my work was a big backward step for income and productivity, it was absolutely the right decision. It’s the only way this could have gone.

Things Didn’t Get Better For Some Time

Every day for seven days, Cooper screamed. At least once, sometimes twice a day, he would raise his head or lean slightly in one direction and suddenly the screaming would start. If you can imagine a cross between a yelp and a howl but repetitive and laced with unmistakeable panic and terror, you’re getting close to hearing that heartbreaking sound. He began to lose bladder control when it happened. It seemed to occur around the same time each evening, between 7–8pm, so at around 6pm I began to feel significant anxiety. I’d feel sick in my gut. I’d watch my dog intently. And when it started, there was nothing I could do for him and I would just have to wait it out.

When he stopped screaming, he became very still and would shake. He’d stay that way for up to an hour. And I would cry.

After a week, we’d made five visits to three separate vets and spent $800 on vet bills and medication. Cooper was taking Cortisone, Tramadol, Gabapentin, Codeine and Valium. Two out of the three vets (bar the original, who I have never seen before and never will again) agreed that his symptoms seemed to fit a ruptured disc in his neck, causing referred pain down his leg. Our options were to get an MRI (at a cost of 3 grand), followed by possible surgery (risky and difficult, with no guarantee of success, at a further cost of 4 grand), or to treat his pain with medication, use sedatives to keep him still, and hope that his body heals itself.

While there was still a chance that he could get better on his own, we decided to give him that chance. It would mean guarding him constantly to keep him from moving as much as possible. It would mean potentially more daily pain episodes – and believe me, they were taking their toll. I’m not sure how much longer I could have watched him suffer through those.

 

Everything Came To A Halt

In between the vet visits, the harrowing pain and the constant fear I was feeling, I still had a lot of guilt about letting my business activities slip. I wasn’t online at all. I kept thinking, “While he’s sleeping quietly, I’ll get some work done”, and indeed I did manage some snippets – 30 minutes here and there. But then he would try to rise to a standing position and the pain would trigger and I’d need to stop everything.

He wasn’t just in pain. The medication he was taking was ripping his guts in half. He had diarrhea every couple of hours. We have a garden but no yard, so taking him out to poo meant lifting him carefully, carrying him up the back lane and watching with horror as his insides came outside. I’d then place him in the bath to rinse him off – carefully, because he was having trouble standing and moving – and I watched blood and membrane and tissue float down the drain. I’d dry him carefully then set him on a towel to rest. This happened night and day. I was in a dark and deserted lane in my pyjamas every two hours all night, and then again all day, for days. I was giving him pain medication and sedatives every few hours, and keeping a detailed diary of times: medicine, poo, wee, water, food. I slept when he slept. I was exhausted.

Then he went off his food and would not drink. I was giving him his medicine in his food so when he stopped eating I tried to give it orally. Usually I have no trouble popping a pill down his throat but throughout all this, he was trying to avoid moving his head to the left. He slept curled toward the right. To see where I was in the room, rather than look even slightly to his left he would turn in a full circle to the right. So whereas putting medicine into his mouth might have normally been fine, the risk of him jerking his head around was too great. I had no choice but to stop giving him medication altogether.

 

The Recovery – Thanks To Coconut Water!

For a few days he was naturally sedate. He stayed very still, so I saw no need to sedate him further. He was still trembling and panting (pain symptoms), but less and less, so I saw no need for pain meds. Taking Cooper off all that abrasive medication turned out to be the best thing for him.

After two days with no food and a day and a half with no water, he took a few licks of coconut water from my fingertips. Those few licks turned into some enthusiastic sips. Where water was of no interest, coconut water started his journey of recovery! For the rest of that day I kept offering coconut water. He started hydrating himself just in time because I was on the verge of putting him on a drip at the animal hospital. I love coconuts and now I love them even more. “Miracle fruit”, I call them.

Cooper’s diarrhea began to diminish. He drank some of the chicken bone broth I’d made for him. Soon, he ate some food. I cried – this time, with relief.

His pain episodes retreated. The diarrhea stopped, only to be replaced by constipation. He still had minor yelps when moving and especially during the night, but they became fewer and fewer. At one point we both slept through the whole night. Oh the salvation.

I put him on a recovery diet. Small meals three times per day with fresh meat, vegetables, bone broth, probiotics and psyllium husks. When that first solid poo arrived, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

For me, if I was exhausted before, it was nothing compared to how I felt once I could see he was on the mend. It’s as if my body was sustaining itself in fight-or-flight mode while I had to remain vigilant and alert, but once I could relax a little, I ground to a halt. I slept. I slept a lot. I cried. A lot. Still scared but also hopeful. That little bundle of fluff means the world to me.

Gemma King, The Wellness Editor, and her toy poodle Cooper

Picture James Horan

Back On Track

And now? The house is rearranged to encourage Cooper’s full recovery. For two weeks I slept in the loungeroom on the fold-out couch because it is lower to the ground than my bed and I did not want Cooper jumping up and down from the height of the bed (as he has always done. He is allowed on all furniture – that’s how it goes when you have a poodle). But then there were times when he jumped from the couch before I could stop him, and on those days his pain was worse. So we moved the base out from under the couch and I camped in the loungeroom on the couch mattress, on the floor.

That arrangement was not ideal – the couch mattress on the floor is a little uncomfortable. So a couple of days ago we moved the base out from under my bed. My bed is now a mattress on the floor also. I have a fitness step at the base of my bed mattress so that Cooper has a bit of an extra level to get up and down. We have a second bedroom with a full-size bed and we keep that door closed. He is not allowed in there for now.

There is a small step that leads from the loungeroom to the hallway. I have another fitness step there, which essentially cuts the drop in half. Ideally he should not go up or down any steps at all, but realistically I can’t stop him all the time.

We have stairs at both the front and back entrance of our house. I carry him up and down. He comes with me for little walks to the park and back now – and he seems happy and is moving easily, though he isn’t keen to walk for long stretches at a time. Just around the block for the next little while.

And I haven’t left him alone for a second. I have some wonderful support in my life, especially my mum, who has come to babysit on the couple of occasions I have needed to leave the house, but for the most part I have been house-bound. I’d say that my little guy is about 75% better. And I think he will make a complete recovery.

So I am back on track with my business. Cooper is snoozing quietly beside me as I write and I am catching up on all the stuff that’s been on hold for almost 3 weeks. As I put the bits of my professional life back into place, I am realising that self-care, while the first thing to suffer, is also the last thing to be reignited. Maybe that’s just the way it needs to be. But now that I have some space to get back into balance, it’s time to make a list of the things that help me stay on top of business, and on top of the business of life.

 

Self-Care For Soloists

These things help me. Maybe they can help you too. My current mission is to reinstate these good things into my world – slowly if necessary, because I don’t need the added pressure of doing it all at once.

Meditation

If you’re sick and tired of being told to meditate, you have two options:

1. Suck it up.

2. Try it.

If you're sick and tired of being told to #meditate, you have 2 options: 1 Suck it up. 2 Try it. Click To Tweet

I tried unsuccessfully for many years to make meditation a daily practice, and it just wouldn’t stick. I tried many times. I tried setting alarms on my phone, and they would sound after 5 or 10 minutes and the little alarm sound would be dainty and gentle and lovely, but still after a while I’d just quit.

This year, I tried an app. For some reason, this simple app – which is really just a timer with a nice sounding bell – worked for me. Maybe it’s the nature of the bell sound, which I imagine sounds a bit like a gong in a Tibetan monastery. Whatever. I set it for 20 minutes, with a bell that sounds after 10. If I want to keep going after 10 minutes, I know I’m halfway. If I want to stop, I stop.

I meditate first thing in the morning before I even get out of bed. I’m the kind of person who’s flooded with thoughts of the day’s to-dos as soon as I’m awake, so that little moment of pre-emptive peace means I don’t enter the day feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes I meditate at night too, to clear the slate before I sleep. I sleep better when I do.

I am also ok with being crap at meditating. It’s hard. It’s supposed to be. If it were easy, the results wouldn’t be so rewarding. I invent my own ways of meditating too. Any way I like. I usually half sit in a kind of reclining position, listen to my breath and feel it in my throat. My legs are usually outstretched and my hands are wherever they damn well please. That’s all. When my mind wanders, I bring it back. Some days I do it well; other days I might as well have just flicked a switch called ‘random chatter’ and just laid back and listened to it for 20 minutes. That’s ok too. It is what it is.

Try the Zazen app if you like. It’s free.

Get Zazen for Android

Get Zazen for iOS

 

Self-compassion

Self-compassion is one of those things you hear mentioned a lot, and you agree that it makes perfect sense to give yourself a break and speak kind words to yourself, but unless you make some dedicated effort to really make that shift, you fall back on your usual self-battering ways.

I’m a perfectionist. It’s not a good thing – it’s a hindrance. I have unrealistically high standards for myself and quite a severe intolerance for when I don’t quite meet the grade. The amusing thing about not meeting the grade is that I never meet it. It’s not possible. With each small achievement, I simply set the bar higher and admonish myself for not instantly being the best at everything, all the time.

So I started looking into self-compassion. For soloists and small business owners it’s especially important (because of the enormous pressure to succeed) to really pay attention to the things you’re telling yourself, and then change them until they sound like words you’d say to a precious friend. When I first started saying things to myself like “You gentle soul, you try so hard every day and you do so many things that you forget are amazing”, and “You are doing so well, just remember how beautiful you are at your core”, it felt super weird, and kind of dishonest. It still does, but it’s getting less weird.

Forgiving yourself for those times when you do stuff up is so important too. Self-compassion became my power phrase for 2015 (just a word that I focus on, like a mantra. I have now also added “resilience” to that equation) and it does make a difference, in life and in business.

Forgive yourself when you stuff up. You're human. #selfcompassion Click To Tweet

Not sure how the hell to start being more self-compassionate? Try these self-compassion exercises.

 

Arrange Your Day in a Way that Pleases You

If you’re a soloist or healthpreneur, chances are you have a fair bit of freedom to choose your own hours. If you’ve had that freedom for long enough you’ve also probably figured out which times of the day are best and worst for you for certain types of tasks.

For some time, I had quite the conundrum. I have never been a morning person, and yet the first half of the day is when I am best at tackling creative tasks, and tasks that demand a lot of brain focus. When you become self-employed and you’re suddenly free to sleep in until 9 or 10am, it can feel pretty amazing, but in reality that 3pm slump comes around much faster (and no, it doesn’t magically become a 5pm slump just because you’ve slept in) and it robs you of the most quality mind-hours you have at your disposal.

This year, I had an epiphany. After years of struggling to find the magic formula that would get me out of bed earlier (I’ve tried so many things, the list is kinda hilarious), I discovered that I don’t actually mind waking up early: I JUST DON’T LIKE TO GET OUT OF BED!

It was winter at the time, so there’s a double whammy in terms of waking up early. I invented an experiment. To my astonishment, it worked! Until I fell out of my routine, here’s what I was doing:

6am – First alarm goes off. I turn on the heater next to my bed, turn on my lamp and go back to sleep.

6:30am – Second alarm. I sit up. I put on the jumper that’s been warming on the heater. By now, the room is warm. I set my meditation app. I close my eyes and meditate for 20 minutes.

6:50am – I turn on the electric kettle that’s next to my bed. I pop a teabag into a mug, also kept next to my bed. I grab my laptop and fire it up. I make tea. I visit the bathroom. I hop back into bed. I work, cosy and warm and snug, from 7am–9am.

9am – I get out of bed and get on with my day.

I discovered that I don’t abhor waking up at all. I abhor being cold and moving before I’m ready. I’m a petal. I’m a reptile. I hate the shock of moving from a warm place to a cold one. Even in summer, though the agony is markedly less when it’s warm. It’s traumatic enough for me to just shut my eyes and hope it all goes away, which I did – for many years. And to think that I could have been using my fresh morning brain to get in a couple of hours of my best work, all before getting out of bed! I just wish I’d discovered this sooner!

My point is, if you’re self-employed, take advantage of the luxury of non-traditional working hours, no matter what others think. If you do your best work at night when the world is quiet, so be it – plan the rest of your time around that.

Not sure when you’re most productive? Read:

How to Figure Out Your Most Productive Time of Day

What’s Your Most Productive Work Time?

 

Probiotics

Nutrition-wise, the one thing I always come back to when taking care of my wellbeing is gut health. If there is one blanket rule that applies to every human being on the planet in terms of health, I believe it’s that If you take care of the gut, everything else follows. Click To Tweet

There are loads of ways to get good bacteria into your belly. In recent times, fermented foods and drinks have made their way into Australian bellies, whereas they’ve been part of the diets of other cultures for hundreds and even thousands of years. I’m talking about:

  • kombucha
  • kefir
  • sauerkraut
  • kimchi

All of them contain beneficial bacteria that help colonise your gut with friendly bugs (your microbiome), which is so important for immunity and overall health. Having gone through phases of making fermented drinks and cultured vegetables myself, I can say that I absolutely love it, but it is time-consuming. So as a minimum and a shortcut, when I’m not making my own kombucha or kimchi, I try to take a probiotic supplement. I can tell you with certainty that it does make a difference.

One thing I know about probiotics is that they aren’t all the same. Each brand features different strains of bacteria in differing concentration. The best way to good health is to have as much variety of gut bacteria as possible, so it’s a good idea to vary your brand of probiotic capsule rather than stick to the same kind every time. Most chemists stock just one or two kinds. You’ll find different options in health food stores, and I think the best ones come from specialist stockists like the ones recommended by holistic wellness practitioners, so consult your nutritionist, naturopath or Chinese herbalist.

Happily, taking a daily probiotic is the one self-care practice I’ve managed to reinstate after my crisis period.

If you’re not yet au fait with why gut health, probiotics and prebiotics are so important, do yourself a favour and watch this outstanding documentary from ABC’s Catalyst:

Gut Reaction – Catalyst – Part 1

Gut Reaction – Catalyst – Part 2

 

Even though I’m not yet firing-on-all-cylinders-guns-blazing-arse-kickingly 100% back in the game yet, I am well on the way. It will take a little bit of conscious self-care for this soloist to reclaim some lost mojo and get back in the groove, but that’s ok. I’m on my way. And then I’ll be all like, COME AT ME, LIFE! Yeah.


 

Got some self-care tips for soloists? I’m all ears. Comment below. 🙂

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