Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Un-Scheduled to Within an Inch of My Life

A lot of articles and conversations have been wafting through my life lately like this one, Exhaustion is Not a Status Symbol, and each time I tell myself I'm going to talk about my experience with this destructive mentality, and then I don't.  So now I am.

One year ago, if you asked me how I had been, the answer was a sort of helpless, "Oh, you know, SO BUSY.  I am made of busy.  I am doing All The Things."  It took a lot of things, multiple articles highlighting that the glorification of busy is part of a system that was eating so many people alive, before I really started to ask myself important questions.

Important questions like, "What, exactly, are my own goals?" or "What is it that I would do if I ever stopped taking on others' priorities as my own?" or "So, what am I afraid I'll have to deal with if I ever sit still?"

My life is very full.  I work, I volunteer, I have a few creative gigs and hobbies, I am in a relationship, I'm part of a closely-knit community, I serve as a priestess, and I'm working on my own personal development, plus managing episodic depression and occasional bouts of anemia.  I also moved last year and my company underwent a transition of ownership.

I used to take a great deal of pride in that list, because the eyes of anyone who heard it got very round, and they said, "Wow, you ARE busy."  There was a sort of self-satisfaction in knowing that I lived under a schedule that others considered crushing and impressive.  I joked about being 'scheduled to within an inch of my life,' but the truth is that I wasn't really joking.  I was at the very edge of what I could reasonably live.

The primary problem, of course, lies in that episodic depression and occasional anemia.  Because there were occasionally days where I looked at the catalogue of obligations I'd built myself, and I...couldn't (I should probably also mention the migraines here, most common in January and February when dry air and pressure changes are particularly vicious).  I had to stop, to hide, to take a full day to recover from the basics of my life.  Of course, everyone tells you, when you need to take three to five 'mental health' days a year, that you're perfectly entitled to them, that you have 'every right' to the time.

But what if I didn't need it?  What if I started structuring a life I never needed to take time from, because it was ordered in a way that included time off, relaxation, and recovery time as normal facets of human existence?

I had this moment where a friend asked if I wanted to have coffee or dinner or something, and my calendar was literally full, something scheduled every single day, for weeks.  That was a trigger; the night I found myself weeping into the laundry at 2am because I couldn't sleep until I had washed the sheets and made the bed but I hadn't gotten home until almost midnight was another.  I started working towards balance, towards the notion that relaxation didn't have to represent 'hiding from' my life, that it could be an integral part.  I started to consider that maybe it might be reasonable to be able to do interesting things at the last minute.  I started offloading small tasks and obligations to people I could trust with them.

If you had told me that stepping back from a life of obligation would increase the time I had to spend managing it, I'd never have believed it.  But it's true.  Anything I dropped without a clear transition plan, without figuring out who would take it on, came back upon me with a vengeance, unpredictably and in crisis.  So I exhausted myself, carving out bits and pieces of time in hopes that it would create space for that transition.

Gradually, slowly, it worked.  I found that in spaces where I have taken leadership roles, I could comfortably delegate to trusted team members.  I found that in spaces where leadership was lacking, I could advise and suggest rather than doing the work and owning the process.  Some of it has to do with the change in work, from 'ten vacation days and five sick days a year' to 'twenty undifferentiated PTO days, plus three floating holidays to use as desired.'

I've had to let a lot go.  I've had to trust.  I've had to set boundaries.  It's been hard, because my natural tendency, when someone says, "We need this done," is to say "Of course, I can help with that.  I'll just take on that responsibility."  Rather than simply refuse all requests, which is its own trap, I've been forcing myself to stop and consider which things are good uses of my time, which things will feed me.  I am looking at trips as real plans, and not as someday hopes for 'years when the anemia and the festivals leave me enough time.'

About six months ago, I turned the corner that was "The process of transitioning things out of my life no longer occupies more space than the things I have transitioned out of my life," which is to say I started to develop occasional free time.  It's been amazing.

The hardest thing is that there are SO MANY OPTIONS for filling that time, for busying back up, for a show and a party and a movie and a dinner and a coffee every single week.  There are more hobbies I'd love to take up, and more events I'd love to see, but for now, at least, I'm stopping to take a breath and center myself at home, and establish what a healthy boundary set of my own time really looks like in the long term, rather than create another cycle of busy-and-purge down the road.

I do not delude myself that this is anything other than a landing on my life's staircase.  At each turning, I cull obligation and replace it with passion, in hopes that someday my life will be full only of things that feed and nourish me, of things that all actively contribute to me being my best self.

I love you all.


  1. You're just managing your spoons.

    1. I'm very familiar with spoon theory, and it absolutely remains one of the best metaphors for managing life with a chronic condition that affects your energy and ability levels.

      This is about much more than spoons, though. It's about the pervasive social more that we have, most likely grown out of the Protestant Work Ethic, that we're all obligated to go to bed at the end of the day having accomplished every possible thing we could wedge into a day. That it's fine to take an 'evening off' if you need to rebuild your spoon collection or 'get some downtime' or to create space for relaxation as a response to high stress, but gods help you if you look forward to a weekend off because you just plain want to lie in a hammock drinking lemonade and reading your book, because you enjoy it.

      I'm pushing back against and rejecting the notion that 'slack' time has to be earned by working at full capacity until it's a necessary mental health response.