DALLAS — Every success has a story behind it. This holds true for the backstory of Brittani Rettig, owner of Dallas-based Grit Fitness studios.
"I was really interested in boutique fitness, but every time I went somewhere, I was too big, too young and too poor to be able to work out there," Rettig said, recalling her days in corporate life.
Rettig, who lived outside of Texas at the time, struggled with her weight, and also struggled to find gyms that made her feel welcome, comfortable and supported. So, she quit her corporate job and decided to create a place in Dallas for people like her.
"I just wanted to make it more accessible without compromising the quality," Rettig said from her Design District studio. It's the second of three locations now open across North Texas.
The Grit Fitness concept took off, especially with women. The fitness studio offers a variety of classes but is rooted in Rettig's personal belief that "mental grit or passion and perseverance for long-term goals is the key to both fitness success and to living our best lives."
Rettig's own passion for helping others to stay inspired and healthy had no limits. "I was teaching 13 classes a week in addition to running the company," Rettig, 35, said. "I was getting no sleep, and I was just working, working, working. It's egotistical and really kind of sad, but I was proud that I was doing it all."
In late 2018, her mindset changed. "One day, I just started to have this horrible pain in my ear," Rettig recalled. Not thinking much of it, she pressed on with her normal life routine. Then one day she woke up and knew something was terribly wrong.
"The left side of my face just stopped moving," Rettig said. "My eye was just stuck open and I couldn't press my lips together and my face was just totally paralyzed."
Doctors diagnosed Rettig with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. Stress had led to a shingles outbreak inside her ear which manifested as RHS. Inflammation around her cranial nerve caused partial paralysis in her face.
"All the nerves that control my facial movement had been totally inflamed and stopped functioning," Rettig said. "The doctor looked me in my face and said, 'This is 100 percent stress induced.'"
Like many young women, Rettig had become accustomed to operating at high levels of stress.
"I didn't think about stress as something that you were supposed to manage," said Rettig, who was captain of the women's varsity basketball team at Cornell University and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. "I viewed stress as something that was just a part of life. So I learned to just suppress, suppress, suppress -- and keep going, keep going, keep going."
Rettig quickly learned firsthand that the physical body responds with pain, discomfort and disease when hovering at heightened levels of stress for long periods of time.
"When they told me I was stressed, I was like, but there are other periods in my life where I feel like I've worked this hard," Rettig said. "Getting my MBA at Harvard was really hard. Playing college basketball was really hard. I'm used to doing hard things."
Doctors prescribed steroids and antiviral medications and rest, telling Rettig that her recovery could take between one and six months, depending on how committed she was to slowing down.
"At that point, I really had to do some soul-searching and some self-assessment and say, you know what, this is actually impacting my body. I'm going to have to make some lifestyle changes," Rettig said. "I started going to acupuncture on a weekly basis; I started going to therapy," added Rettig, who also committed to 30-minute rest breaks daily.
"Dedicating 30 minutes in a day to just be quiet and be still is really challenging," Rettig admitted. "It could be taking a walk on the Katy Trail and listening to my iPod; it could be taking a bubble bath, but it has to be rest for the sake of rest, not rest for the sake of purpose."
Technically that means no TV or movies, no reading a book and no writing in a planner. Rettig also does a series of exercises to strengthen her facial muscles.
"There are lots of exercises I do: blowing up a balloon, making a fish face, squint," Rettig said. "When your nerve is damaged... your muscles aren't moving at all, so your facial muscles atrophy."
She continued, "You wouldn't believe how much effort it is to blink, to press your lips together, to blow your nose, to whistle. At the end of the day when I go to bed, I feel like my face has run a marathon!"
About one month into her recovery, Rettig's pressure to appear perfect dissolved. Eventually, she opened up about her journey on social media.
"I'm not gonna lie, the first month I had a hard time. I would not go in public," Rettig said. "People looked up to me for being this boss woman and for being healthy... for having a positive outlook on life and for having it together."
She found that the more she shared, the more friends and clients leaned into her vulnerability, encouraging and supporting her, some even sharing their own experiences with stress and Ramsay Hunt Syndrome.
"I think a lot of us think that being perfect is the way that we're going to succeed. We beat ourselves up, and we try to be perfect, be perfect, be perfect when really being resilient, having grit, passion and perseverance for the long term, the ability to keep going despite obstacles and setbacks-- that's really what makes you different and makes you extraordinary," Rettig said.
Nearly five months into her deliberate self-care routine, Rettig is enjoying a lighter workload. She now teaches six classes a week and has more time to devote to her own health and wellness. The left side of her face is moving again.
"I would say I'm probably like 90 percent back," Rettig said. "I don't have my full smile."
As she moves forward with recovery, Rettig's message to women who are trying to do it all is simply -- don't compromise your health.
"People don't expect you to be perfect. Just tell people what's happening," Rettig said. "Those hard times can really bless other people if you're willing to overcome them and share the lows and the highs."