Thinking backAfter blistering skies and smothering heat and then storms last week, Saturday was a dull, dull day. The sky was so pale a grey it was almost colourless and the light was… nothing, colours flat and acid.
I’d scheduled nothing special for last weekend. Every few weeks I need some catch-up time. Sometimes, though, this proves disastrous because I end up doing literally nothing, fall into a well of nothingness, fall too fast to touch the walls of ‘who I am’. This past weekend proved to be one of those times. Oh dear. When one lives alone, everything must be willed. The smallest failure of will means stasis, fear.
This happens to me much, much less often that it used to. I recall clearly the first ever time it came over me, on a week’s holiday about 20 years ago. I’d been on a tiring, frightening, exciting work trip to Kenya. It was my first trip to Africa and only my second outside Europe. I was between bosses and therefore sent alone, with a large suitcase-on-wheels full of leaflets, to infiltrate the United Nations women’s conference in Nairobi, try and round up some of the social democratic women politicians from around the world who were attending the conference, get them to get together and express some shared opinions. I went with no hotel room booked, no credit card and not much money. I was terrified. And it turned out very well. I stayed on a university campus outside Nairobi, where I met many women from all over Kenya and the rest of Africa. I located acquaintances from richer countries, nagging them quite successfully to collaborate and hanging out in their swanky hotels, tagging along on their safari trips. And, adrift in Nairobi with my suitcase full of leaflets (whose wheels soon came loose on the unmade-up roads), I was adopted by a couple of batty old English women who took a fancy to me, chauffeured me around and told me tales of their lives in the British colonial service. It was a dauntingly, memorably rich experience and one I’d never expected to have.
Back from Kenya, I went straight to visit an old friend in Berlin, where I didn’t much like her life, or friends, or who she’d become. Then I had a further week off before returning to work. Anticlimax, overload, loss, weariness overcame me and I stayed in bed for a week, couldn’t move. I was shocked at myself; I’d never done this before. It was the first of many such times over the next years. Many, many weekend when I never got out of bed. In between, I worked very hard, very long hours – sometimes enjoying it, sometimes frustrated, increasingly lost in it.
Finding myself at 30 without a partner, without children, living with little sense of home in a fashionable but crowded, noisy, grassless area of North London, I’d wanted this, I think – work in which to lose myself, work which would blot out all the other questions. But I hadn’t known that being lost in work would feel the way it did: whenever I stopped working, utter emptiness.
So in the following years I worked harder and harder. Weekends, nights. And whenever I stopped, I stared into a gulf, unable to remember what else there might be to get out of bed for. Sometimes I drank a lot and got horribly, weepily drunk. My liver quickly had enough of that and nausea began to precede drunkenness – a blessing really, or I might have been left with a worse legacy than depression.
It wasn’t all bad. I travelled a lot, mostly loving it, and was changed by this, growing a sense of the world around my sense of self. I learned to be efficient and organised (NOT my nature), learned that in a host/organiser role I could transcend shyness and move from the margins to the centre. I found a political cause (obsession? delusion?). And most of all, slowly, slowly, I re-found my mind, the sense of a functioning intellect that I’d lost, or thrown away, when I screwed up at college, only scraping a degree. Exercising my mind in lots of translating and interpreting, helping other people to exchange words, I re-found my own words. Editing the writing of colleagues, I found that I could write, began to write myself: papers, articles, other people’s speeches. (Of course, I got no credit for this. I don’t know who coined the term ‘sherpas’ for people like us who toiled to make political summits happen. It’s an excellent analogy which holds at all levels).
A lot of it, then, was good. A lot of it goes to make up who I am now, and I would not be without it. But working all the time is no way to live, and for me the downside was increasingly, unfailingly, this plummeting into emptiness whenever I stopped.
It was 7, almost 8, years ago that I left that workaholic lifestyle, after nearly 15 years of it. Since then, I’ve been slowly filling up the pit of emptiness with what I care for, what I am, what I can be, apart from a workhorse. It’s been tough, incredibly rewarding, very sad (because I didn’t do it earlier). And I’m not there yet; I still fall into the pit from time to time, as this past weekend reminded me.
¶ 6:15 pm
I have never read such a clear-eyed description of a workaholic's lifestyle. And it could have been sadder - some people never give it up (I know; I've done their funerals).
This honesty is a precious and hard-earned thing. And yes, you're writing about workaholism but what you lay open here is so much more than a label or a description of a syndrome, it's one women's life, a real person trying to cope with where she found herself. I think it is ALways terribly difficult to know who we are, what we want, where we find meaning; the hardest work we do is engaging in the continual process of facing up to our own escapes and fantasies and mechanisms. And so many people never ever even try - why should they, when it costs so much?
The void can be so very frightening, however stressful and potentially injurious the various ways we find to avoid it. And there is no quick fix, just a gentle intention to move towards some simple joy in the next day, or weekend, or even just the next half hour. Thanks for writing this.
Thank you for remembering Jean. It's a bit of a bummer at the moment - an old injury has flared up again. Fortunately I have an excellent cranial osteopath - but I am nonetheless having to come to terms with the fact that I am not as invincible as I fondly imagined .... a rude awakening.
Excellent post, Jean. I'm glad you're finding your way back to yourself. I think it's important to allow ourselves a few backslides now and then on the way forward without beating ourselves up for them. We're not machines, we're human beings. (As you find out when you stop working so hard.)