When self-care is the last thing you want to do, that's exactly the time to do it.

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This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.

After her son was stillborn, Danette May hit rock bottom at age 29. But instead of staying down, she chose to rebuild her life. Now the motivational speaker and fitness influencer is inspiring others to do the same with her new book, The Rise: An Unforgettable Journey of Self-Love, Forgiveness, and Transformation. Here, May shares how her healing process began.

You know that feeling you get about something deep down in your gut? That’s your intuition, and often you can feel it, physically, in your body. These days I’m hypervigilant about honoring mine. But it wasn’t always that way.

Ten years ago, I lost my son at birth. But it wasn’t just that I lost him that was so hard to overcome. It was the fact that I wasn't listening to my inner knowing, and if I had, everything might have been different.

Tuning myself out started early in my relationship with my then-husband. I met him in college, and he was just the kind of guy you wanted to be around—nice, a loyal friend, happy, sure of himself, and likeable. I had always considered myself the good girl—the type who did everything right—so I wanted to marry someone who was equally well-liked, and a good person.

Like a “good” couple, we waited until marriage to have sex. But once we started being intimate, I felt limited sexual attraction or desire. Sex was actually painful. But instead of listening to my body—and considering that it might have been telling me I was on the wrong path—I just assumed there was something wrong with me. 

Deep down, I hadn't wanted to get married. I had a feeling it wasn't right. But I had ignored that gut feeling and kept moving forward.

RELATED: 30 Signs You're in a Toxic Relationship

I continued on cruise control for years. I committed to my marriage, and had a daughter, who made my life blissful. My husband was a great dad and a fun partner. Of course, like all couples, we had challenges. I struggled with the fact that my husband seemed to lose job after job, without much explanation.

Eventually, I got pregnant again  And when I was seven months along, my intuition became more important than ever. I was sitting down, trying to feel the baby move. I was nudging my belly, trying to wake him. But nothing was happening. I had a feeling that something was wrong, that I should go to the hospital. But then there was this other voice that told me not to overreact, or be paranoid. So instead I got up and did the dishes.

On the day of my next doctor's appointment, I began to bleed, and then have contractions. We rushed to the hospital, where they hooked me up to an ultrasound machine. It was there that I heard every mother’s worst nightmare: silence. We were told there was no heartbeat, and they needed to induce me.

I prayed to be strong, and that I could accept whatever was going to happen. I had an epidural so I didn’t feel any pain. The drugs were keeping me calm, but I was also in emotional and mental shock. I heard someone say, “He’s coming.” And once he arrived, my doctor said, “Your son is not here. He has passed on. Would you like to hold him?”

They placed him in my arms. He had a little hat on, and was wrapped so tenderly. He was so tiny, with soft skin, perfect lips, and his father’s nose. I held him for hours and hours. Eventually, nurses told me they needed to take him, and I had to say goodbye.

We went home to a house filled with clothes my son would never wear, and most nights, I would cry myself to sleep. My heart was breaking. My body ached from having delivered a baby, and longing to release milk that no child would drink. I sunk into a deep depression, and I didn’t leave my home for three months. 

RELATED: Suicidal After Her Daughter’s Birth, This Mom Spent 10 Days in a Psych Ward

Things continued to unravel as I tried to pull myself out of the darkest place I’d ever been. I had heard, of course, that movement can help with depression, so I started walking around our neighborhood every day. And I went to the library and researched nutrition, and started making superfood meals that I could eat. Slowly, the fog lifted. And as it did, it was clearer to me that my relationship wasn’t improving.

My husband had lost his job a week after we lost our son, and I realized it was the seventh job he’d lost in two years. I began to suspect that my husband wasn’t who I thought he was. But there was so much chaos in this time, nothing made sense. Then I got pregnant again, with a baby girl due on the exact same day we lost our son—I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a true miracle.

I had a healthy baby girl. With her birth, the fog lifted even more, and I started trusting myself to listen to my inner calling. I felt more and more awake each day, and could hear my inner voice telling me that my marriage wasn’t right for me.

I remember a defining moment, when I was standing in my kitchen, hunched over the counter, trying to decide whether to get a divorce. I said to myself, “I can stay in this marriage and pretend it’s amazing, or I can leave.”

Staying felt so much harder. It felt like strapping on a 100-pound backpack and hiking Mount Kilimanjaro. So I decided to leave. I assumed everything would be amicable, as it had been so far in our marriage. But I was wrong. After my husband and I separated, I found myself at the grocery store with a declined credit card. I went to the bank, and found out that he had drained our joint accounts. I had two hungry children, and no money for food. I went home and had my children comb the house for every dime they could find, and we scrounged up $47.63. That was all I had to my name. And that’s when I made the choice to do the work to ensure that I never betrayed my intuition again.

courtesy of Danette May

The lotus flower literally grows in the mud and the muck. It sucks up the mud and the muck, and grows into this beautiful, delicate bloom. That’s how I think about the healing process. It’s using your pain as a gift to help you grow.

I started focusing on three things I could do every day that would help me heal. The first was to eat something green. I ate at least one vegetable. 

Then I made sure to move my body every day, with a healing intention. I wasn’t doing it to look good, or because I’d heard HIIT or SoulCycle or Zumba was “the answer.” I was doing it to stay in touch with my inner self.

The third thing I did was say loving words to myself, every single day—even if I didn’t believe them.

One morning, I sat down and wrote out everything I wanted to be: “I am a good mom. I am a financial success. I’m making money whether I’m working sleeping or playing. I am increasing in success, love, and abundance.” And then I said those things aloud. It was the difficult work of listening to myself that taught me to trust the new path I was on.

RELATED: 5 Powerful Mantras to Help You Quiet Anxiety, Beat Self-Doubt, Manage Stress, and More

After years of radically practicing all of this self-love, I was feeling better. My business had started to take off, and I was in a happy relationship with a new man whom my kids adored. Things weren’t so heavy, and I was getting some air. But I still needed to forgive myself. So I spent time visualizing forgiveness. I would look myself in the eye in the mirror, and say these affirmations: “I forgive you for not listening. I forgive you for marrying someone you shouldn’t have."

That was really, really powerful. It took me five years, but I eventually made it to a place I could be proud of.

When we’re going through tough times, it seems hard to practice self-care, to make that green drink, to move our bodies, or do the work of forgiveness. But that’s not hard. Feeling like you’re not worthy is hard. Feeling like you don’t matter is hard.

Small hinges move big doors. You can rise from wherever you are right now. I did, and you can too. 

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