Earlier this summer, a bout of existential void hit me. Sweat from the heat mixed with sweat from my anxiety. I knew something was missing, but I couldn’t figure out what. Paired with it was deep existential exhaustion—the kind that makes your hair feel tired. The kind you feel in your bones, even in the cells of your marrow. The weariness. The fragility of bones and spirit about to break.
“You don’t seem happy. You put too much pressure on yourself,” my husband said to me.
I tried to defend myself by muttering some kind of “But…but…” incoherently.
Damnit, why is he so astute? So unafraid to call things out when he sees it? Ah yes, this is one of the many reasons why I married him. I love his direct no-bullshit approach.
I took a long hard look at my life. My new role (one year in) as a mother. My marriage. My career. My relationship with work (and overwork), with money, and with myself.
For so long I chased my dreams. And I made them come true. That’s f*cking right. I DID IT. I designed my life and achieved so much already by age 38. On paper, my life looked like a shining example of success and overcoming the odds.
But why did I feel empty then? After years of therapy, coaching, and reading countless self-help books I thought I had reached a good place. For a long time I was happy. So ecstatically happy. Why was I kicked back to this emptiness again?
And why do I always push myself so hard? Even when I proudly announced to everyone that I’d take time off for maternity leave, I continued to work. True, I had temporarily paused my client work as an Empowerment Coach in my coaching business. But in place of that I worked on my memoir the whole time after giving birth. Obsessively.
Silly me. I didn’t cut my work—I doubled it. I was both a new mother and a first-time aspiring book author, stuck in a hole I dug myself. I felt guilty whenever I didn’t devote enough time to either endeavor. I pressured myself to race against unrealistic timelines, punishing myself when I couldn’t meet them. It was masochistic. No matter how many times I burnt out and recovered in the past, I would ultimately push myself back to overwork again.
But this time felt different. Beyond the self-inflicted pain of overwork, something bigger and darker emerged in parallel—my shadows. The shadows of my re-triggered and repressed childhood trauma. The deep dark demons I ignored for years through distraction and running in the endless hamster wheel of chasing achievements. Did you know that sometimes we repress things for years and even decades in order to survive? That repression and dissociation are trauma responses?
All that shit came up after I became a mom. In holding my son, loving him, and meeting his needs, I came to see the shocking truth of how in contrast I experienced emotional and physical neglect when I was a kid. How my Chinese immigrant parents did their very best to provide for us in America, but neglected me in ways that would haunt my psyche. How they left me alone as a small girl in our apartment for hours. How invisible and worthless I felt. I didn’t know when or if they’d come home.
By age four I learned to suppress my own needs, disconnect from my body, and stop crying for myself because it felt futile. Two things can co-exist: Our parents’ incredible love, and our painful trauma.
Whew. The repressed trauma was a lot to process. I had known of the trauma. I had rehearsed the story many times in therapy over the years. Made excuses for it. Intellectualized it. But I always held the pain at a distance. Unfortunately, by ignoring the pain I let it grow. I let it act out in subconscious ways.
This would explain the emptiness. The void. The cycles of overwork and still not feeling good enough. I fell deep in the hole and couldn’t figure out how to climb out.
Until…we went to Ibiza in June on a family vacation and didn’t have proper internet in the hotel. Disconnected from my laptop, I learned to reconnect with the present, with rest, with relaxation and play.
OMG. To FINALLY let go on the dance floor again after two years of a pandemic! To be with my son as he learned to walk for the first time! To not stress about work! I felt like a new woman. And I didn’t want the joy to end.
When we came back from Ibiza, I postponed my return to work. Then…kept postponing it. I didn’t take on new clients. I didn’t touch my memoir and couldn’t even if I wanted to. I hit a psychological block.
Luckily, we had saved enough money so that I could take some time off. I realize that being able to take an extended break is a luxury that many can’t afford. But after working for the past two decades (I’ve been busting my ass since I was 15 years old) I felt it was time to chill the f*ck out. I traveled, went to festivals, and met-up spontaneously with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.
However, I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t feel resistance nor shame in taking a break. I grew up thinking that hard work and achievements were a way to measure my self-worth. That taking breaks makes you lazy. That relentless self-sacrifice makes you a noble person. “Look at all that I’ve done for youuu,” my mom would wail during the guilt trips.
So much shame came up at the beginning of my break. But in July (over a month into said break), I let that shame go.
“When will we have this opportunity again? We’re both healthy. Our son is happy. We have the means right now. But it could all change,” my husband said.
He was right. It could all change. After losing both of my parents by the time I was 33, I know all too well how uncertain life can be with its painful twists and turns.
I decided to call it a mental health break. A break to rest and allow space to heal. I learned that a life of busy meant that I didn’t have the time to fully process the trauma I needed to. But I also learned that I wasn’t ready before. I needed to feel some level of security in my life before diving into the real heavy shit. I also needed to do the years of foundational healing work to get to this place. This place where I could finally feel safe enough and strong enough to face my shadows without annihilating myself.
For once, I allowed myself to actually feel the pain of my childhood trauma. To connect with the truth of my experience.
During this mental health break I cried so many tears in therapy. My jaw dropped in awe of the pain I ignored. I saw my inner child, my child self, that small girl sitting on the carpet of our living room feeling abandoned.
It was so damn painful. So scary to feel unmoored. But it was deeply healing. Paradoxically in not working, I was working—just in subconscious and profoundly important ways. I was doing transformative inner work, confronting shadows many people refuse to face for fear of the darkness.
I didn’t know how long this break would be. I didn’t want to rush it.
But early October, I started to see the light again. My shoulders felt less heavy. Activities felt more fulfilling again. I began to reconnect with and love parts of myself I dissociated from. At the same time, a dream coaching client reached out. It was a sign from the Universe. Hello Jenn, it’s time to emerge from the hole.
I crawled out. Slowly at first. Then my energy and motivation came surging back. Now I feel strong and confident, back on my two feet, smiling from inside out.
Is my mental health break over? In a way yes. But also in a way no. What I mean by that is now I’m balancing both:
1) Working on the things that bring me joy and others empowerment and impact (without burning myself out)
2) Working on my mental health and trauma recovery (with self-compassion)
Though I went through one of the hardest periods of my life, I’m incredibly grateful. I love myself now more than ever.
It’s also become crystal clear that my memoir goes far beyond healing the grief of losing both parents and breaking the cycle of generational trauma through becoming a mother. It is at its heart a story of finding self-worth as a child of immigrants…of healing the inner child, the small girl caged in the past, and breaking free.
I’m sharing this story with you in the hopes that it’ll inspire you to take a mental health break one day. To face the shadows you need to. To know that it’s not shameful to work on your mental health. Sometimes darkness brings even more light.
With love and light,
P.S. If you enjoyed reading this, please be sure to subscribe to my newsletter here. Also, I’m finally on Tiktok now! I talk about healing trauma, how to design a life you love, and share fun little life tidbits as an expat and parent. You can watch my TikTok videos here.
P.P.S. If you or anyone you know is looking for a coach, feel free to reach out to me. My coaching info is here. I’d be delighted to chat further.