I’ve had work-a-holic tendencies my entire life. It seemed the more people told me to slow down and relax, the more I sped up and panicked. When I went to high school, I hit the ground running. I was a 3-sport, 2-instrument, straight-A student and I loved every minute of it. I threw myself into AP classes and extracurriculars and community service. I never turned down a neighbor who needed a babysitter or a dog walker and I started working at a restaurant after school and on the weekends. If I had a spare pocket of time, I filled it.
My first semester of college was a wake-up call. The world slowed down. I had free time. It was the strangest sensation. I had no idea what to do, so I did the only thing that’s ever come naturally for me: I threw myself into more work. I took on additional projects. I found ways to fill every second until it wasn’t long that my new world at university reflected my chaotic high school life.
When I moved to New York City shortly after graduation, I dove in headfirst, working at two nonprofits, a retail store for the weekends, and temp jobs for evening. If I could work until 4:30 at the nonprofit and make the 5 – 10 pm museum temp job shift, you best believe I was there.
It was fun. I loved running from job to job and snagging a dollar slice in between. I liked keeping a packed schedule and I thrived off feeling “productive.” I would drag myself home, highlight my completed tasks in my planner with happy satisfaction, and collapse into a heavy sleep.
After 8 months of nonstop work, I accepted a normal full-time job with a normal full-time schedule. Suddenly, my evenings were free. My weekends were open. I knew where I was going to be and when I was going to leave and the world seemed a little clearer…for a week or so.
And then I panicked. It seemed too easy. I immediately packed my schedule with extra activities. Volunteering here, working out there – anything to keep a filled planner, anything to keep busy.
Shortly before the start of summer, I took on a very busy volunteer position that threw me so far into the deep end. I had never taken on anything like it in a city so large. Sure, I had my home town in Western Pennsylvania down to a science, but New York City is an entirely different creature.
Despite the sinking feeling that constantly surrounded me, I kept saying yes. I said yes to this project and yes to help this person out. Yes, I could make that event and yes, I had time for that. I could feel myself hitting a new level of desperation.
To be clear, I’ve always loved ambition. I value hard work and I crave crossing items off my to-do list. Because of this, I’ve felt the occasional numbing stress or minor meltdown as a result of biting off more than I could chew. Never the worse for wear, I always thought I could keep going.
This summer was different.
A few months ago, I completely crashed. Hard. I crashed beyond the quick fix repair of a good night’s rest and a motivational YouTube video.
Once more, I had decided one full-time job wasn’t enough. I could feel myself weighing the digital scale – if I trade out communications with all my friends, I can do this. If I cut back on my sleep by 2 hours a night, I can finish that. I traded my sanity for a task list and it slowly began to wear away at every part of me.
I knew nothing about what I was doing was healthy but I didn’t know how to stop. How do you suddenly take a break when your entire life you’ve been acting like resting equates to death?
Most sharks, should they stop swimming, would die because of a need to keep oxygen-rich water flowing over their gills.
But I am not a shark.
A few weeks ago, after I had weathered the brunt of the storm, I sat at my desk chair and looked at my planner. There were still a slew of unfinished projects and things I wanted – needed – to accomplish. But I didn’t feel anxious about it. It was 9:45 on a Sunday night and I felt… calm.
And then it hit me. Most people don’t live their lives in a constant state of distress. Most people aren’t pushing themselves to the breaking point, just to see how much more they can take. Most people stop swimming every now and again.
I began to set my clothes out for the upcoming workday. So this is what it’s like…to not be crushed by expectation or responsibility. To just breathe easy for a moment.
I crawled into bed with a book and read until my eyes felt too heavy to comprehend.
What I had pushed myself through for almost a decade was the unhealthy tactic of avoidance. I thought if I ignored the issues or made myself too busy to think of them, that they would go away. I figured I might be stressed right now, but I was “really on to something here” and I “just had to keep going.” I had to do everything and I had to do it at that precise moment.
All this lead to the most profound burnout, a thing I would be thoroughly happy to never experience again.
It’s not like me to sit in silence. I don’t do well with idle time. I can’t comprehend the idea of a life without a planner. Heck, I couldn’t go one day without my trusty notebook. And in some regards, that’s okay. I’m extremely organized and very Type-A and that is a part of me that I know will not change – nor would I want it to.
The change is going to revolve in what is going into the planner. The change involves evening strolls through my favorite park and reminding myself how much I love to explore new places. The change involves trying new hobbies or refreshing old past times.
It all clicked the other day in a simple test: If I’m too busy to go on a spontaneous tea date with a friend, then I’m too busy. Period.
To the world I’ve fallen off from for the past few months, I am sorry. I am slowly pulling back bits of myself one piece at a time and I am learning to appreciate silent moments.
I can’t promise I’ve fully learned my lesson or that my recently realizations will lead to the kind of changes that are necessary for the sake of my mental and physical health. I can, however, promise that I’m trying.
There is a difference between being a hard worker and sacrificing yourself. There’s a difference between ambition and insanity. You can only burn both ends of the candle for so long before there is nothing left.
I wasn’t sure if I was ready to write this post, but I know I am ready so share it.
This is me, realizing I’ve gone too far and forcing myself to press pause. This is me, promising to change into my pajamas and watch a movie at 7 pm on a weeknight. This is me, allowing myself to breathe and this is me, trusting myself to revel in the serenity of nothingness.