These past two weeks have been a shock to the system. Our lives may have completely changed, we may be living in completely new circumstances, but it seems you can’t simply break off with the old and damaging life. I knew that there were a few responsibilities and final pieces of work that needed tying off from my previous job, and I had made time and space in my diary, envisioning the work as a kind of final exercise.
What I hadn’t anticipated, though, was the emotional impact of fulfilling the trailing responsibilities of what I have come to see as my old life, albeit a life that I only really walked away from six or so weeks ago. Since we left our home and completely uprooted our lives, things haven’t been easy, but they have been exhilarating. Horizons have been opening up, figuratively and literally, as I move away from the city and down to the incredible greens and blues of the Sussex coast. Writing has become a core part of my day, as has learning new skills, trying new things, and resisting the temptation to sink into routine. I even dug out a guitar for the first time in 12 years and began to play again – badly yes, but play nonetheless.
The result is that I’ve felt stronger, more self-assured and more at home in the world than I have done for years. The pointlessness of worrying about what is beyond your control and feeling anxious about other people’s perceptions have been so apparent to me that I’ve been able to insulate what is important to me from the niggles other people want you to think are important. I’ve been taking more time to talk to the people I love, been better at leaving work in the hours that belong to it, and I’ve even been dressing differently – to my eyes anyway. Awake, feeling well and truly awake, is perhaps the best way to describe the overall sensation, although that doesn’t quite cover it. In fact, part of the pleasure of this sensation is thinking about the different ways you can try and capture it and communicate even the smallest part of it to other people.
But the moment my old life reared its head, I was right back where I was two or three months ago. Almost within an hour of being handed the final pile of work, any sense of being held by the world, of being able to keep life’s trivialities in proportion by keeping one eye on the horizon, had all gone. Within a day of receiving a larger workload than I’d expected for a tiny turnaround time, there were no horizons anymore.
I did push some of it back, and I did complain about the almost impossible nature of what I was being asked to do, both things I would not have done before. Before, I would have simply sucked up the work and the attendant feelings of failure all as my own. This time, I tried desperately to preserve my wellbeing from the excessive demands being made on me, recognising any sense of failure or inadequacy came from the ridiculous nature of what I was being told to do. But desperate is the word – a bland managerial brush-off left a smaller, yet nonetheless large, pile tottering on my desk and overshadowing my life.
The effect was dramatic. My sleep deteriorated, as did my diet. I was incapable of the kind of thinking I’d been relishing just a few days before and my writing came to an abrupt stop. A low level anxiety permeated my every moment, leaving me distracted when I was talking to people and I wasn’t able to concentrate fully when I was actually completing the task that was causing the stress. My confidence evaporated to the point where I drank too much at a friend’s party and essentially missed a chance to spend time with people I’d been looking forward to for months. By the time I handed the work in, I was exhausted, deflated, and back to a zombie-like state. The day after the work was done, I woke up with a cold that kept me in bed for two days.
I am not blameless in this scenario. I know I have a tendency to let things get under my skin, particularly when I detect unfairness or a lack of professional courtesy. But the contrast between the weeks leading up to this and the days after has been astonishing, and suggest to me that something more is going on here than me not being ‘up to the job’. After all, I have been working constantly over the past two months and yet still feeling alive.
The difference is that I’m not being asked to do impossible things; rather, I’m coordinating my workload and deadlines with others, adjusting them accordingly, discussing and addressing problems openly, as well as receiving recognition for what’s being done. This approach not only means the work gets done on time, it gets done well because it hasn’t caused personal anguish to the people involved. This more human approach allows people the time and freedom to think creatively and rest properly, which ultimately makes them more productive in their working day. The minute people are presented with mountains of work and told to complete it in an unreasonably short time, you can kiss quality goodbye. And you can kiss your quality of life goodbye, because under that kind of strain, how can you maintain enough energy to stop the failings of the system creeping under your skin and feeling like your own?
In the middle of this re-visitation of stresses from my old life, I won an award for my work. When I found out, I cried, both because I was moved and because I was frustrated. I am clearly good at what I do, but if it involves being made to feel inadequate, stressed and unable to think thanks to the increasingly impossible demands, is it really a career worth pursuing? Which is ultimately a question we should all ask ourselves every now and then: if this job will involve me feeling like this for most of my life, is it worth it?