Karoshi.. My story

We talk a lot about work/life balance, networking, and making money.

Because that’s what you think you want.

You do, but there is more.

Let me tell you another kind of business story– one a little more vulnerable and serious.

It was only a year ago I sat at my desk at work. Well, more like holding onto it, trying to keep myself from feeling sick from the spinning.

You see, for weeks I was having these little episodes where I couldn’t see straight. When they started they would last a few seconds and happen a few times a week. Then they started to last a minute. Then they started to happen several times an hour.

Remember when you were young and you went to the carnival with your friends? The best way I can describe my sickness is that feeling in the Gravitron. That huge spaceship-looking ride that would spin so fast that your body pressed against the walls and you couldn’t move. That’s the way it felt inside my head.

I pushed it aside. ‘Suck it up,’ I’d tell myself. I’d fight through it like it was a stuffy nose or allergies.

One day I almost took a header off a treadmill. I caught myself on the rails while my head was still spinning. I had slept maybe three hours that night, which was probably the most I’d slept in weeks. I had a lot of work to do. I had to have orders shipped out from California the night before and then get work prepped for the morning before the UK office opened. Working in EST but responsible for work in PST and GMT meant I had about 3 hours per night that were uninterrupted.

‘Stop making excuses, you’re not done’ yet I told myself as I jumped back on the treadmill and increased the speed.

It turned out they weren’t excuses, but I wasn’t at a point in my life that I understood there were limitations. In fact, I was constantly praised and given large bonuses for my fantastic work ethic.

But just 48 hours after that close call on the treadmill my life changed dramatically.

Have you heard the term “karoshi” before?

In Japan the work culture is so intense they have the word karoshi which means “death by overwork”.

I am not a stranger to hard work and so this sort of idea would make me roll my eyes. My thought being– just suck it up and get the work done. There’s plenty of time to sleep when you die.

It turns out the universe knew I needed to be knocked down a notch and put in my place.

Earlier in the year I had set intentions to start my own business as the next step in my career. Creating my own next step in the ladder. It was really tough to do while I was managing to raise two toddlers, commute seventy miles a day and manage supply chain operations in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. But I was doing it in my spare time. You know, that 3 hours per night when I had time to myself.

The day after the treadmill incident the vertigo continued to get much worse. Luckily my co-worker was driving our carpool that morning because I could barely walk straight let alone drive.

I remember interviewing someone for a job that day. I remember thinking he was nice and also that I was trying to pretend I didn’t feel like throwing up in the office.

I was so deliriously dizzy. I chalked it up to the stress of not having a clear path to get my business going even though I wanted to so bad.
So I did what absolutely no sane six figure breadwinner would do. I walked into my CFOs office and told him I wanted to transition out of the company. You might be surprised that he actually didn’t tell me to get the hell out of there.. After all I did have a great work ethic, so he listened to me and the conversation went well. I laid out my idea to have a 3-4 month transition period where I would help hire and onboard a replacement for myself.

What were my plans to replace my income? Funny. I had none. I just knew that I couldn’t continue to focus on starting my consulting business when I was going full speed as director of global supply chain.

When I got home I still felt sick, but I felt so relieved. I finally didn’t feel like I was hiding my “side gig” and I had a transition plan in the works now. I had this perfect idea that I would pick up clients as my timeline from work was winding down and my income would be consistent. 😅

My always supportive husband tried to play cool with the fact that I just quit my job without a substantial plan.
I told him I needed to lay down for a minute.

But once I did, I couldn’t get up. I was full force inside that Gravitron and couldn’t pull my body up. I couldn’t focus my eyes. I couldn’t pick my arms up. I couldn’t stop throwing up.

A few hours later I was in the emergency room, and then admitted.

At the hospital they ran several tests.. CT scan, blood work, MRI, spinal tap. Did I have a stroke? Do I have MS? Maybe a brain tumor? I still couldn’t see straight and I still couldn’t walk.

A few days in I spent the night in tears to the nurse who was on duty. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong. I was
beginning to think I had lost my mind. That night I felt like she was the only person at the hospital who would listen to me.

After having my husband help type up a Facebook post asking for anyone with ideas to help, an old college friend gave me the name of a doctor she trusted who worked in the hospital I was in. I had him called. He consulted with my neurologist and they came to the conclusion that I had developed vestibular neuritis.

I was well on my way to karoshi– I had stressed my body so badly that the nerve in my inner ear had swollen and was affecting my balance and my vision.

It caused me to develop nystagmus– involuntary eye movements– that were so bad they were compared to that of someone with a blood alcohol level well exceeding the legal limit. The doctor would hold his finger in front of my eyes and slowly move it from side to side. I would try so hard to follow it but my eyes couldn’t stop. They rapidly moved from side to side so much that it hurt and only felt better when I closed my eyes and laid my head down.

Karoshi. I wanted to excel and climb the corporate ladder so bad it almost killed me. I didn’t walk out of the hospital. I went home with a walker, with a home health care nurse, and on disability. Because karoshi– I wanted to show that I could be everything– a mother, an executive, a business owner.

We try to prove things to ourselves and to our families. We live between the generation that worked at a company for thirty years and got a pension and another generation that mines bitcoins. I wanted to prove I could climb the ladder so badly that I didn’t take a step back and think about if I should.

I’ve realized mine– and your– struggles with work ARE NOT because that’s just the way life is.

We grew up in a time where our titles mattered. Whoever got promoted fastest was winning. In the age when technology quickly turned from having a flip phone in college into allowing your employer 24/7/365 access to you. It was a way to get rewarded and promoted. For answering calls at 4am and emails in the middle of the night, because we thought we were supposed to, we thought that was how people got raises and promotions.

I remember being praised for that responsiveness. At every corporate job– from the time I was 22 until I was 33. Those responses and actions became ingrained in me until it caused me to not be able to function.

And so…

To the boss who says things like “I don’t know what happened to real work ethic” and gives five figure bonuses and VP promotions to people for working around the clock..

I know what happened to that “real work ethic.” The measurement for it disappeared when we unknowingly set the bar to allow you access to us at all times. We prioritized your company over family, over vacation, over sleep, over ourselves.

And I believe that I got sick for a reason. Not just as a sign that I needed to slow down. But as a sign that our generation is wildly out of wack. We are ready to take back control over our days, our attention, our lives— We can leave the corporate ladder and make money on our terms.

Hell yes, it is time for a new chapter and a new workforce.
You don’t need to know what comes next yet. You just have to recognize that the time is here to start.

The best time to get started was two years ago. The next best time is right now. 

Return to ericaq.com

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2 thoughts on “Karoshi.. My story

  1. First timing reading this story Erica ! I had no idea and yet I’m so humbled and relieved to read the transparency in this because I can relate on so many levels. My body and my mind warned me many years ago as well back when we worked together ..my family suffered I suffered many things fell apart for me before it all got better .. .. you may be surprised to know how similar our journeys have been and are headed even now as I build my entrepreneurial efforts ..thank God for his ability to help us see clearly and get us back on track !


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