This past week, my wife and I flew down to Texas to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with family. The few weeks prior to the trip were seriously busy. I was traveling for work, preparing for the class I’m teaching in January, keeping up with my recovery obligations, and working on various writing projects. Needless to say, I was looking forward to a vacation. In moments of exhaustion, I’d longed for the holiday week the way I imagine the desert craves shade and water. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to relax, to enjoy family, to eat good food, and sleep a lot. And as we flew south, my intentions were clear. I was going to loaf. No agenda. No stress. No work.
The day we arrived, I was strong in my loafing, but the next morning, I woke up with the same jolt I wake up with most mornings between 5am and 6am, and started scrambling to get my work for the day started. It hadn’t even taken a day, and I was already uncomfortable. It felt so much like those evenings I would say, “no more booze tomorrow”, and wake up thinking about what I was going to drink or take that day. Where had my resolve gone? It didn’t even take 24 hour for the open expanse of beautiful vacation time to start looking like a black hole, a swallower of time and space, and I felt I was barreling helplessly toward it.
I resisted as much as possible, but what I began to see is that I feel incapable of slowing down. I struggle with the need to constantly work. If I don’t have any work, I’ll make some up. As the week went on, the extent of my obsession became glaringly clear. I felt guilty for not working, and at the same time, I felt guilty for wanting to work when I was supposed to be with family. Not once did I think about drinking during the trip, which always feels like a miracle to me, but I obsessed about being productive in the same way I used to obsess about using substances.
I’ve found this particular struggle especially difficult to manage in recovery. I know it’s an escape the same way drinking and drugging were an escape, but it’s a double-edged sword in a way that substances weren’t. For me, this challenge with work began early on in recovery. When I put the drink and drugs down a lot of shit bubbled up for me. I was feeling uncomfortable emotions, thinking thoughts that were, by the most basic measure of sanity, truly insane, and I was restless to a degree I didn’t know was possible. As a side dish, I felt guilty for the years I had wasted blotting out reality. Needless to say, I was in great need of distraction. I went to a lot of meetings, which occupied at most 5 hours a day, including time hanging out before and after. This left about 12 hours a day for me to figure out what to do with myself. So, I did what any normal person in my predicament would do, I got my GED and enrolled in 5 classes at the local community college.
For me, school really was a godsend in early recovery, primarily because it gave me hope and meaning. But it also offered endless distraction from what was happening on the ground. Suddenly, I could spend the entire day thinking about stuff other than how messed up my life was, how raw it felt to be clean and sober, and I liked it. I read and wrote fiercely. I’d conquer the reading for my classes, and go to the library and get more books to read. I’d write my papers, and then I’d write poems and stories and essays for nobody. Not only did it distract me from my emotions, it soothed the guilt I felt for the time I’d wasted. But most importantly, I was rewarded for my work. And this is where this issue of work has always been tricky for me.
Unlike drug addiction, which alienated me and made it difficult to participate in society, my obsession with work has offered rewards that do the opposite. I, like many others, have been known to wear my work and accomplishments like a badge of honor. I have been grandly rewarded for overworking. I worked myself down to the bone at that community college, and what did I get? A full scholarship to very fine liberal arts college. At that school I pushed myself to the precipice of a nervous breakdown, and what did I get? Full funding to attend a fantastic graduate program. In graduate school, I worked so hard I ended up with a depleted immune system, shingles, and ulcers, and what did I get? A couple of awards, a couple of publications, and a good job. And then I was done with graduate school, and space opened up to an extent I’m not comfortable with, so what did I do? I started a blog to add to the other writing I’m working on alongside my full time job. Don’t get me wrong, there has been so much good in all of these things, and I’m grateful for each and every opportunity, but in them rests the dilemma that has been so difficult for me come to terms with. In a lot of ways, obsessive work has worked for me. But as with any addiction it has been destructive, and I’m reaching a point in my recovery where I’m beginning to ask at what cost am I pushing myself the way I do? What am I missing?
I know the answer to this question because there have been periods in my recovery where I have been more balanced. My relationships improve, my health improves, my recovery improves, and so on. Like drug addiction, the struggle doesn’t have so much to do with the drug (or the work), but with the thing I am avoiding with the work (or the drug), which is the honest shit that is going on with me emotionally and spiritually. I can hide from it behind work in the same way I can hide from it behind a substance. The difficult thing is, I can justify the work in a way I could never justify the opiates or the alcohol. I can point to this and that, and say, “look, this is what my hard work has gotten me.” All the while, I am dying inside.
Beyond the simple desire for escape, there is also a thread of deep existential fear running through all of this. Perhaps you’re familiar with it. I fear that if I slow down, I won’t achieve the things I’d like to achieve in this life. I fear I’ll wake up an old man and realize that I didn’t work hard enough to amount to anything. I fear that I am less than others, and if I don’t work twice as hard as others, I’ll never be as good as others. These ways of thinking compound the emotional unease that sits in my gut. They create the need to hide, and I turn back to the work because it allows momentary relief. As I work, work, work, other things in my life often get neglected, and this adds to the negative emotions, which gives me more to hide from. There is absolutely a cycle here, and as I get swept up, it begins to feels progressive the way drug addiction is progressive.
Right now, I can feel myself sinking deeper into the cycle, and I’m writing about it because I’m trying to surface. I’m reaching a place in my recovery where I really want to be well. I really want to be present in my life to a greater extent. I know this takes intention. I know it involves feeling things I don’t want to feel. I know, in and of itself, the path toward balance is a certain kind of work. But I know it is work that actually gets me somewhere. It is work that allows me to approach the work I need and want to do with more energy and clarity. My experience tells me the cycle works in the opposite direction. If I can surface long enough to address the deeper emotional stuff I’m hiding from, the desire to escape fades away. At the same time, the existential dread begins to vanish. I become capable of living without comparing myself, without fear of failure, without being concerned about amounting. From this place my work becomes a choice. I can step away from it and engage with life, and when I come back the work is embodied with a fuller spirit. In the strangest way, my work always benefits from the hours I spend not working. But more importantly, the hours I spend simply being make my life a better place to be.