IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Stress landed me in the hospital. The prescription was my first 'me-cation'.

After a devastating divorce and both parents dying within a year, I've learned that a vacation away from work and the kids is powerful medicine.
Kathleen Kenehan
Kathleen Kenehan on a hike in the desert in Arizona.Courtesy Kathleen Kenehan

A recent divorce. The death of both parents in 3 months. A firstborn child heading off to her first year of college. A family pet dying.

I had dealt with all four of these life-altering situations over the past year and, coupled with me running a thriving business and single parenting five children, my stressful life had finally caught up with me. After dropping off my daughter Emily at college, my 47-year-old heart wasn’t feeling right. And, I don’t mean I felt heartbroken from missing her (which I did). I actually had some nagging chest pain and other symptoms that I kept putting off due to my hectic pace. With a family history of heart disease, I knew stress could be a factor in causing some valid cardiac concerns. After an unexpected ER visit and an overnight stay at the hospital to double check that running on emotional and physical “empty” hadn’t caused me actual lasting damage (which thankfully it didn’t), my trusted family doctor prescribed me something: some much-needed and ongoing self-care.

An offer I couldn't refuse

Concerned about the compounding ramifications of my past few years of grief, a longtime client of mine presented a very generous offer. They booked a trip for me to get away from my busy agency and five kids over a long weekend. The condition? I needed to rest and recover for four days alone. The pragmatic side of me had avoided such luxuries of late because I have a second child beginning college next fall and self-care of this magnitude seemed frivolous to a working single mother. However, this kind gift and unusual opportunity was one that came at the most perfect time for me and I seized the moment. My kids were all in full support and some wonderful friends were more than happy to ensure my children were well cared for during my retreat.

I packed 12 self-help books (that I wanted to read but never could in my “real” life), several swimsuits, some work out attire and definitely no makeup or stilettos and began my mini self-discovery trip.

Upon landing in Scottsdale, Arizona, I headed to a place called Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain. I was immediately transfixed by the hot dry air, the bright blue skies, cacti and vivid florals in every direction. I immediately felt myself exhaling for probably the first time in three long years of loss. In reflecting back about that first day, I had some anxiety and trepidation about my ability to just completely turn my brain off. Could I possibly like being by myself? In my entire life, I had never traveled for pleasure or self-care alone. I always had a spouse or children tagging along so this was quite foreign to me. The first night I was alone, I got a bit panicky. I texted a close girlfriend and told her I wasn’t sure I was cut out for solo vacationing. Her advice? She asked me what I would have been doing anyway that night if I’d been back at home in Chicago. I answered: likely watching a show on Netflix or reading. So, she said, get over myself and do it there. And that’s just what I did. I embraced her candidness and took a bath and watched TV in the tub and smiled. Maybe this wasn’t half bad?

Coming back to life

Over the next several days, I began to notice myself coming to life again in a way I hadn’t in a long, long time. I started just being very grateful to be in a quiet, beautiful place. I ate delicious healthy breakfasts each day. I embraced (and somewhat feared) hiking up a mountain with a guide who kept me from falling over the edge and well-hydrated in the 100-degree heat. I read four (yes four!) books during the trip. I tried an aerial yoga class that sounded fun and different to me (let’s just say P!NK does it better than I do!). I meditated and prayed. I became my own favorite companion. It was incredibly freeing and just what I needed after my losses and busy life.

As I was flying home, I began to create a list on my iPhone (I’m still type A when relaxed) and began to make personal commitments to myself. I would get more rest, I would exercise more, I would eat healthier foods. So what was top of the list, you ask? I would invest in myself and always plan to take a me-cation each year. I found that after my inaugural trip, I was more relaxed, reflective and inspired which has helped me immensely.

A 'me-cation' with lasting effects

In fact, in the month or two since returning, I have found myself being so much more peaceful and balanced in work and life. I have also had a renewed energy and joy about me that others are noticing both in photos and when they see me out and about. Considering a solo trip? I’d like to offer the following tips to anyone who has experienced loss, deals with anxiety or just has a stressful life like me:

  • Don't feel guilty. Of course my first reaction to the suggestion of my trip to Arizona was to say a firm no due to my responsibilities to my children and my employees. Guess what? Everyone was not only happy to help but admitted I needed to go. That gave me the self-permission to accept a blessing and just go enjoy myself.
  • Document the journey. I promised myself I wouldn’t look at email or do any calls during my “me-cation” and I kept that promise. However, I did take tons of shots of beauty that I saw all around me. I have found myself looking back on those photos often since and it centers me and reminds me of why it was such a good idea to go in the first place. Document your trip in some way by journaling or photography so you can reflect later.
  • Make a commitment to do it again. It had never occurred to me that I needed this trip so badly until I went. Now, I will always commit to better self-care and self-discovery to help me continue to evolve and become a “better version of me,” as one dear friend of mine likes to say. I also think it’s really good role modeling for my children to see the importance of self-care and nurturing for their future, likely stressful, lives.

I’ve continued to be busier than ever at work and my every-minute-of-the-day job as a mom of five wonderful kids. My kids weren’t sorry I went. My team felt thankful that I was more focused and happier than I was before I left. Ultimately, I feel more connected to myself and God than ever before because I took time to feed my mind, body and soul. Don’t wait until you are in the hospital to recognize you need to love yourself first before you can love others. Travel agents are standing by.


Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.