Blog,  Mental Health

Blog 4.24.24

I spent a lot of years mercilessly driving myself toward productivity. It wasn’t very nice. I treated myself like a machine, and when I couldn’t keep up with the demands that I placed on myself, I’d feel guilty and worthless. This is a particular kind of neurosis that I think a lot of people can relate to. Turns out, this way of being in the world places enormous strain on our central nervous systems. For years I would push myself to the point of illness, taking on more and more, until I crashed and burned and started the whole cycle over again.

When I was in my thirties I was told that I have ‘fibromyalgia’. For those unfamiliar, this is a general term that the medical establishment uses to describe physical pain for which there is no obvious cause. For me, it felt like a case of the flu without the fever and digestive discomfort. Body aches, extreme fatigue, mental fog, and depression. I also developed an autoimmune condition which has affected my reproductive system. I now believe that my issue is related to the Epstein-Barr virus which I contracted as a kid, and which – like ‘long Covid’ – is known to stay dormant in the body until stress activates it.

Anyway, the point is, my entire life was spent pushing myself to constantly do / be / have more in a way that was deeply abusive. I was abusing myself. And for what?

There are a lot of reasons – some social, and some psychological – that influenced the way I treated myself. Not the least of which is a sense that my value is contingent on what I can produce. A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic, but factors include being raised in a Protestant-founded capitalist society to being a woman indoctrinated from birth with the idea that I was put on this earth to ‘help’ and ‘serve’. I’ve also suffered from low self-esteem (and often self-loathing), and have struggled with anxiety and depression since I was a child.

Ideally, the whole world would change and we would all remember that each human life has value beyond our individual ability to churn out labor. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Meanwhile, I have to learn to live in this environment without drinking the hustle-culture Kool-Aid that is so intoxicating for those of us seeking self-worth from our work.

Anyway, a few years ago I began addressing all of this. A big part of my effort has been learning to love and appreciate myself for who I inherently am. This journey has been incredibly rewarding. These days, instead of striving for someone else’s ideal or version of success, I’m finding joy embracing my own definition of a good life. Turns out I don’t really give a shit about most of the stuff our society has prioritized. Rather than making me feel alienated, this change in perspective has allowed me to feel very much alive as an active participant in my own life and in the lives of people close to me. Kind of ironic that leaning into my unique set of needs and desires has made me feel more at home in the world and among other people.

Yesterday, I worked hard. I wrote in the morning, cleaned the house for six hours, went to tai chi class, then did some shopping. I got home after nine and I hadn’t eaten enough all day, so by the time I got into bed I was depleted. This morning I got up early because it’s my partner’s birthday and I wanted to set up a small surprise for him. But by the time I’d had breakfast, I felt like I needed a nap. So I did it. I took a short nap around 9:30 this morning and got up at 11 feeling refreshed. This break has given me plenty of energy to write.

Old me would have felt ashamed that I didn’t power through with a cup of coffee and electronic music. Old me would have reached the end of today still exhausted, and that likely would have carried over until tomorrow. And so on.

Now, look, I know not everyone has the opportunity to work from home according to their own schedule. But I think this paradigm shift has more to do with what I’m not doing. I’m not letting someone else tell me what’s important. I’m not allowing my value to be defined by people who don’t have my best interest at heart. It’s revolutionary. I used to berate myself by calling myself lazy (which, in retrospect, is completely absurd) whenever I needed rest. I’m not lazy. In fact, I’m an extremely productive person – as long as I have the freedom to decide when and how to get things done.

People in other societies understand this much better than we do. Culturally, work doesn’t run their lives, and they’re not obsessed with trying to squeeze some amount of productivity out of every moment of their day. They have more holidays. They provide for family needs including paid maternity leave, free or affordable education, and of course, affordable healthcare. How many Americans would continue working at jobs that exploit and abuse them if they knew they wouldn’t lose the ability to afford healthcare?

I think back to the decades of churn and burnout. Working full-time, volunteering, organizing, raising kids, appointments, sports, holidays, attempts to get and stay fit, etc., and I realize that I was participating in a system of dehumanization that was causing me real, measurable harm – physically and in every other way. I can’t believe I did it for so long. I can’t believe I survived.

Now that I’m no longer constantly pushing myself beyond my own limits, I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. Yes, this change came at a price. Every choice does. I had to give up a lot of things when I quit my full time job. I’m living more modestly, doing less, buying less and simplifying. Because, as it turns out, I really need very little to be happy – and what I actually do need I can’t get from chasing money or status.

I am fortunate. I have a partner who has a good job that he likes and finds fulfilling. It allows us to have health insurance and to live our little middle-class life without feeling the pinch of poverty. I grew up extremely poor, so I know how important it is to be able to afford groceries and trips to the doctor. It infuriates me that these very basic needs are used as leverage by employers to grind people into the ground.

The question is, when will we – collectively – decide we’re ready for something else?

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