“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.
The frenzy of the activist neutralizes her work… It destroys the fruitfulness of her…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
-Thomas Merton posted by Parker Palmer on On Being.*
Every addiction has an origin story. In recovery, we spend a lot of time telling stories, mapping out where addictive patterns start and end. As we tell these stories, we learn that addictions do not exist in silos. Rather, they are all tangled together in a messy web. One addiction feeds another, one stops and another begins. Alcoholism, workaholism, codependency, over eating, over exercising, narcotics, the list goes on.
For me, workaholism and alcoholism are so closely linked that they feel like one body, one place. Both spring from a deep sense of unworthiness that fuels the need to try to prove something or save something or always do something. It also comes from the love and passion for life—of wanting everything at the same time, of being full of vision and powerful ideas irrespective of the limited resources and time we have. These two poles, of unworthiness and of a deep love for life, are what gave birth to my burn-out and addictions.
Below is a story about where my addiction to work began. It’s about my freshman year of college when I was forced to spend 12 hours a week locked in basement with a bunch of sweaty jocks. I hope this post helps me understand myself and my story a little better. I know I am not alone in my struggles with frenzy and overwork, so I made my first “blog list” about women workaholics to try to start pointing out the things we have in common. I, of course, always want to know what you think, so write me if something resonates.
I run my fingers along the cold concrete blocks. Rows of perfect rectangles stacked on top of each other form the walls of a cold, damp basement corridor. A careless coat of thick gray paint covers the walls. Drops of dried paint gather in between the blocks—thick and overcast, the color of a dreary day, suspended in time.
I pick at these paint globs with my finger nail as I stand in a single file line. I look down at my dirt stained legs, sweaty tube socks are crinkled around my ankles, the studs of my cleats clink like ice falling into a glass as each stud hits the concrete floor. I balance a soccer ball between my elbow and hip. I grip the strap of my backpack and shimmy my shoulders to adjust the weight. I turn back to the wall and keep picking at the paint absentmindedly. The mind rests on small things, tiny globs of paint, when it needs to escape. My feet step forward robotically, pausing each time someone has to “sign in.” I find a new block to chip away at as I wait my turn.
In front me stands a rectangular figure, a block of a human standing over 6 feet tall with shoulders blocking my view. A loose, off-white jersey bunches up around his arm pits, long dark navy shorts hang down past his knees. Calves as thick as tree trunks poke out of his shorts. I smell mildew, sweat and unwashed clothes. Fuck. A hockey player, I think to myself as I wait in line. I had to sit next to hockey player in study hall or, as we affectionately called it, “jock jail” yesterday. My body remembers that stale stench seemed hermetically sealed to their bodies, trapped in their pores like a walls of an ice skating rink. I cringe.
I approach the sign in desk. A smiley blonde field hockey player wearing a slick, polyester skirt points to the row where I would have to sign my name. I scribble on the line, making sure the letters are just legible enough to read. My eyes dart around the basement room. A row of cubicles lines the back wall those desks with the wood all around the used for standardized testing. I see an empty cubicle in the corner. It looks like a place to hide, so I dart across room and claim it as mine.
I pull out the chair, plop down and let cool plastic hold my weight. I sigh and let go for minute. I place my backpack on the floor and spread my books out over the white linoleum desk. I scan the walls of the cubicle trying to settle into my space. The word FUCK is chiseled into the wooden wall. Random words, initials and doodles are etched all over the desk top.
People graffiti desks in college? Seriously? I wondered. I was a freshwoman still trying to discern the differences between high school and college, trying to get comfortable in the space between my expectations and my reality.
Shouldn’t college graffiti be more a little more imaginative than the word FUCK? Or was unimaginative graffiti reserved for just us “jocks” trapped in the stale, basement “jock jail” scribbling random profanities and carving initials into wood as a small act of protest? Or did some local high school donate their used desks to the poor souls whose SATs scores were less than stellar, yet possessed “special athletic talent”?
I shut down those thoughts and I open my Introduction to Logic textbook. I just bought the soft cover book two weeks ago and it’s spine was already well worn. Notes lined the pages. You could write in the books in college. The books were yours to keep. I start hammering out proofs, drawing symbols that look like hieroglyphics, constructing arguments, playing with the building blocks of rationality. My first philosophy test is this week. I needed to be ready. Everyone in the class was talking about how hard Professor Lenke’s tests were.
I glance up at the clock–three more hours in this basement. That’s just enough time to finish three problem sets before I have to walk across campus, alone in the dark, sleep for 6 hours and do this all over again. Tomorrow would look a lot like today. Alarm goes off at 6:30am. Study. Class. Eat. Study. Practice. Run. Fall. Legs ache. Lungs burn. Sweat. Push. Dinner. Jock jail. Repeat.
Jock jail was a “special place,” a special basement reserved for students who were admitted to college due to their athletic abilities rather than their academic prowess. Our admission was contingent upon agreeing to spend time in a dingy basement studying together, because our GPAs or SATs scores were lower than the rest of the schools. We had to spend 12 hours a week here. The sign-in sheet was reviewed by our coaches daily. If you wanted to get out of jock jail, you had to get at least a 3.0 the first semester of your freshman year. So, I drilled on. Problem set after problem set determined to prove that I deserved to be at that college.
In school, I never felt smart. A leader? Definitely. A hardworking, responsible student? Yes. Smart? Definitely not. Standardized test score constantly filtered me into remedial classes and low performing student groups. I got into gifted programs and honors English and History classes mostly because my mom was a fierce advocate and demanded that the administration let me in.
This felt like my big secret. It made me feel undeserving as I sat in class full of over-achieving, smart students. When would someone find out that I was a phony? That I didn’t actually deserve to the there, at that desk, with these smart students?
Jock jail was a continuation of this legacy of intellectual unworthiness. Sitting in that basement cubicle, I knew that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else at my college. I also knew I was capable of working really, really hard. If I worked really hard, people would notice me, acknowledge me, reward me.
So, that’s what I did. I worked. A lot. Alarm goes off at 6:30am. Study. Class. Eat. Study. Practice. Run. Fall. Leg ache. Lungs burn. Sweat. Push. Dinner. Jock jail. Repeat.
Everyone has an internal rhythm–a beat that moves them through the world. Sitting in that cubicle in jock jail freshman year, I started to tick a little faster. It was like something had pushed the metronome inside me and it just started swinging, back and forth,back and forth. Ticking. Tocking. Ticking. Tocking. And all I could do was try to keep up with my own pace.
I earned a 3.6 that semester, made the dean’s list, was recommended for the honors program due to my worth ethic, and got out of jock jail.
The next semester the metronome slowed down a bit. I enrolled in some elective courses and took a deep dive in Eastern Philosophy. I started to feel a sense of openness that college brings. I traded in my cleats for Birkenstocks and got a tattoo of a Bodhi leaf on on my foot.
Just as I started slowing down, the US bombed Iraq. I remember sitting on the floor of my college dorm watching the first bombs fall on our tiny low-definition color T.V. Now, we were at war. I felt like it was my full time job to try to stop it. Protests, marches, classes, the constantly wondering why I had to spend time chasing a soccer ball around just to feel like I deserved to be at college.
The metronome starting swinging faster again. My tempo started picking up. And once again, I was off.
This sense of needing to prove something, of working to help “solve social injustices,” and of never really being able to slow down started up again in graduate school. It was also right around the time my sister got really sick. Stepping on a university campus, I was once again filled with a sense of inadequacy. This sense of unworthiness coupled with the collapse of my family started an inner frenzy that has followed me for the past 8 years.
While recovery has helped me calm down, quit drinking, figure out who I am on the inside, I still feel a nagging, albeit less pungent, sense of needing to “do something”: find the next job, house, baby, marriage, recipe, etc. And I am not the only one who feels this way.
Overworked and overwhelmed is the new normal—especially for the women in my life. My tribe of women, most whom are in there mid thirties, seem to be squeezed ever so tightly. Call a friend for coffee and she’ll perhaps schedule you for 3 weeks out. Ask a friend how she is and there is a the inevitable response: “I’m good. So busy. Every weekend this summer is already booked!”
How did we get here—to this place of nonstop busyness? What do we do now? Below are a few of the things I think we—the overworked women of the the world—have in common. So, here is a little bit of what I see:
1. We want everything at the same time. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a tribe of women who are big dreamers, doers, idealists. We love life and we want so much of it that we can’t let anything go. Our visions are larger than a 24 hour day will allow. But this doesn’t stop us for trying to do it all. We have the baby, we take the trip, we swipe right, we start the farm, we teach the class, we show up for the big events in each others lives, the birthdays, weddings, etc. we go, go, go and go.
Why? Because it hurts our soul to think about giving up any one of these things. We love everything and are mad to do it all. Yet, this constant going, the constant expending comes at cost. Intangible things, moments, thoughts, the inner wisdom that makes work fruitful, slips away, and I think we all feel it–even though we can’t quite name it or hold it. It’s a nebulous inertia of disconnection, discontent.
2. Healthcare. Fucking healthcare. This is the not so invisible force that guides so many of the decisions women (and men) have to make. We’d like to work less, to pursue some non-traditional, creative paths. We’d prefer to be making podcasts than writing reports about nitrogen. Yet, we can’t. Want to work part-time? Make sure you don’t get sick or pregnant. Want to start that amazing organization you always dreamed of? Good luck bringing in enough capital to provide health insurance for you and your family and your employees. Want to take some time off to work on your farm or write that book? I hope your partner has a job in finance. (S/He probably doesn’t.)
3. Brilliant. Educated. Disillusioned. We’ve earned masters degrees and done some commendable stuff. As our careers move forward and now, we find ourselves stuck. After being in the professional working world for over a decade, most of us women in our mid thirties have had experiences in multiple organizations and sectors. We dabbled in higher education and research, spent a few years working for that nonprofit, tried our hand at lobbying or worked for the government agency. At this point, it would be nice if one of these sectors “stuck,” if one of these 9-5 health insurance providing gigs would be a little more satisfying or at least, take up less of our time. But, for many of us, we leave the office every day feeling compromised, conflicted and drained. The reason we started doing the work in the first place, to save the farmland or the children or (insert mission here) just doesn’t stack up against the incredible inefficiencies or horrid office culture or blood sucking boss that we encounter at our 9-5.
4. We are all trying to find another job. The disillusionment we feel with our current 9-5 leads has 2 outcomes: 1) we are all looking for another job, yet all of these “other jobs” suck. We spend countless hours of “free time” scanning indeed.com, looking for an affordable way out, yet it’s increasingly hard to find.
For us, the ambitious, over working types, “big jobs” often sound really enticing—leading large teams, writing, publishing, setting strategic direction, managing big budgets, etc. But we aren’t there yet. We simply don’t have the years of experience in part, because we move around so much and also, because we are in a sort of in-between phase in our careers. We aren’t executive directors, but this middle management program coordination is not quite enough So, we keep looking, searching, applying, pouring energy into cover letters and resumes.
2) For those of us that aren’t looking for a new job, we are busy “hiding out.” We are trying to get yet another degree or certification that will lead to this imaginary dream job. Or we immerse ourselves in the academia and intellectualism, forever the graduate student pursuing the PhD, because we are scared of what’s “out there”. Either way, going to school, furthering our education, provides a sort of temporary respite. Yet, it also makes us feel stuck.
5. California: We love you and we can’t afford you. My tribe of women all live in the great republic of California—where civil liberties are preserved, where Jerry Brown launches his own damn satellites, where innovation, possibility and technology fuel the world, where diversity reigns and immigrants make our state what it is today. As I ride my bike past the Capitol on the way to this coffee shop, I feel an intangible sense of pride and belonging. My state feels like a stronghold of sensibility in a world that is unrecognizable.
My tribe of women loves California and we are racing to keep up, to try to stay here, raise a family here or buy a home here or just rent a tiny fucking apartment. Some of us got lucky. Our families have been here for years, so we already own homes. We come from wealth or we married into it, so we managed to buy a house or piece of land.
For the rest of us, the teachers who came from a middle class background or transplants trying to make it “on our own,” we are racing to try to keep up—to save money, to pay down our debts, to try to get a toehold on a real estate market that is unpredictable and skyrocketing. That sense of anxiety, the fear of having to leave here, never really leaves us. It tosses and turns within us.
6. We are active, but are we still activists? My tribe is of woman is driven by big questions: are we, in fact, living an honest and good life? Are we doing the most we can with our privilege to create a more just and equitable society? Are we showing up in the right ways for the right people? Are we, in fact, doing everything we can at this critical moment in history where so much is at stake?
These questions roll around in our heads though I am not sure we are talking to each other about them. Right now, these questions are making us uneasy. With all of this moving forward, with all of this frenzy, it’s easy to lose sight of what drives us, what brought us together as friends and comadres in the first place, of the vision we had for who we might me and how we might show up in the world for each other and for others. These questions are indispensable and are also a double edged sword the constant questioning and wondering, makes us overcommit, feel inadequate and take on more. That is, if we aren’t careful.
Right now, I am trying to stay rooted in the belief that self-care is, in fact, a radical, political act. As a person that is prone to movement, to activism and overwork, this is an incredible challenge. I am trying to believe that recovering, slowing down and finding the “inner wisdom that makes work fruitful” is the most important thing I can do right now. It’s a nebulous space, indeed. One that makes me feel whole at times and also incredibly uncomfortable and anxious.
I have been thinking of getting a new tattoo: Easy does it. I can see the cursive words running down my forearm when I think about it. It’s one of those sayings people in AA hold dear. But for now, I will continue the hard work of doing nothing. The hard work of learning how to rest. Rest here, dear Crashley. Rest here.
* Photo and quote stolen from Parker Palmer, who stole it fro Thomas Merton and posted it on the amazing On Being blog. See: https://onbeing.org/blog/the-modern-violence-of-over-work/
And, of course, Momo, post neutering. What a handsome boy!