When I heard about Naomi Osaka bravely saying no to the French Open, I was standing on my patio holding a cup of coffee close under my nose, working on closing my own stress cycle. The story wafted out of an open window from the radio in the kitchen. Ms Osaka, all of twenty-three years old, identified her greatest fears and dared to say no to the leaders of the Grand Slam tournaments.

Pink Text overlayed on a tennis court that says "Naomi Osaka and Lessons from the Universe"

My reaction was to feel such deep empathy, pride, sympathy, and concern, that my chest tightened up. You’ve felt this. Your chest tightens up because something inside you wants to cry, shout, scream but you’re a good person so you tighten up and shut that sucker down. Fortunately I was able to see what was happening, I was alone, and I just let the tears come.

I don’t think it’s a risk at all to say that in the world there are about a trillion people who tend to be introverted, highly-sensitive and introspective who can relate to Ms. Osaka’s story. According to her Instagram announcement on May 31, she’s been “suffering from long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018”.

She won that damn tournament.

Success does not make anyone immune to hurt, mental anguish, or emotional distress. Depression, burnout, anxiety are all equal opportunity afflictions. 

Naomi Osaka Says No!

About a week before Ms Osaka said no, I woke up and sat on the edge of bed as I usually do to start the day when I got bitch slapped by the Universe. She just took the palm of her hand, smacked it solidly in the center of my forehead, knocked me straight back, face up on my bed. Well, I thought, watching the ceiling spin, a surprise and yet, somehow, not a surprise.

What had hit me was vertigo. Ever experience vertigo? Spin around like a three year old and stop suddenly. That dizziness is vertigo and when adults have it for no apparent reason it’s not fun. I had it about three years ago, only that time I had no idea what it was and it scared the living shit out of me. That time I woke up (why this presents itself in the morning I don’t know) and getting to the bathroom was suddenly like walking across the deck of a small vessel caught in a Nor-easter. In fact, I was so dizzy and nauseous the only thing that made it stop was complete upright motionlessness. 

There are several different kinds of vertigo, so if you ever find yourself, for no reason, feeling as if you just drank three pitchers of margaritas all at once, I strongly recommend you call your primary doc and get hooked up with an expert who can properly diagnose which of the vertigo conditions you have. After a complete full-day work-up with a neurologist who specializes in this kind of thing. I got good news. Even though it was serious to me, mine was the most benign type of vertigo. My brain was not happy with all the stress it was dealing with. The neurologist offered a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication and suggested I take some time off work. Ugh.

It took about six weeks for that first episode of dizziness to fully subside. Since then I didn’t give it much thought until I found myself once again waiting for the world to stop spinning so that I could venture another try at an upright position. At least this time I knew what it was. So no panic, no reckoning that I had a brain tumor in my cerebellum, or inner ear disease. Nope, I knew what had happened. The Universe had bitch slapped me into waking up and smelling the stress! And when that happens the only thing a reasonable person can do is listen.

Naomi Osaka listened. Whatever therapeutic treatment she’s been doing since 2018, it is working for her. She is healthy and wants to remain healthy, mentally and physically. She knew that attending the news conference meant jeopardizing her health. But the miracle was, she also knew she didn’t have to go. She heard the Universe, her own body and mind, tell her that she had a choice.

We Always Have A Choice…

That is paramount for all of us who feel surrounded by stressors. We always have a choice. There are always options, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard would say to his crew. 

Naomi accepted that there would be consequences but she did what was best for her. The French Open also has responsibilities and they have to do what’s best for them. Sometimes priorities don’t line up clearly but at the end of the day, you have to take care of your own health, which is what Naomi Osaka and I both did. Her choice was to say yes to her mental health and no to critical media gauntlets in the form of news conferences (which I can’t even imagine confronting; the critics in my head are daunting enough).

She knew perfectly well that she would have to pay a fine. She accepted that she had a contract and she would be expected to honor it. This is what I find so awesome! Naomi weighed the consequences of breaking the rules on one hand and taking care of her mental health on the other. Mental health won. We could use the reminder that we all have that choice, not just celebrity athletes.

When I gave myself the time to listen to my own not so subtle message from the Universe, I realized I had not taken any time off for myself since the first of the year. In one week’s time I had about four major points of stress converge all at once like a perfect storm. I was burning out. Paradoxically, in order to tend to my work as best I could, I needed time away from the work.

After much reflection, I said no to a week’s worth of scheduled appointments, meetings, everything. This was not an easy decision, which is why it took the world literally spinning off its axis for me to do it. I know there will be consequences. Taking time away from a stressor doesn’t necessarily mean it goes away. Often it means the stressor will still be there waiting for my attention when I come back. But in the meantime, it was clear I had to deal with being stressed all the time.

It took an hour or so to notify people who would be affected by my decision and reschedule appointments to free up a week. Even as I was making calls and writing emails, I could feel the weight on my shoulders lighten. The feedback I got from everyone, from my clients, colleagues, to associates and staff, everyone, was positive, saying their own version of “Good for you! You deserve it! Enjoy!”

Naomi Osaka, too, is getting showered with love and support from friends, fans, sponsors, journalists who might have been at those news conferences, and from people like us. We can relate to her brave, difficult decision and the rightness of it. I hope she is hearing those nurturing, kind voices and letting the goodness sink in to strengthen her emotional bones. I promise to do the same.

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover...
...battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
~From The Hill We Climb, by Amanda Gorman
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