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Compassion: when work stops working

I work. I don’t necessarily have a good work ethic (which I would define as requiring a healthy relationship with one’s time working and not working), but I work. When I’m depressed, I work. When I’m struggling, I work. When I’m anxious, I work. Call this all kinds of maladaptive – when I’m asked what I do for self-care, my answer? Work.

I really don’t say that to brag. I don’t work smart, I work a lot, but that’s a different thing. I don’t do it because it’s necessary, I do it because it’s my principal coping strategy. Hell, I worked a full-time job by day and a part-time job in the evenings during a 6 month hospitalisation with repeated very serious illness exacerbations and multiple surgeries and procedures. For the past few weeks though, work hasn’t been working for me. I’ve not been quite well, for a number of reasons, and while that has been cumulative for the past few months, I’d been able to keep up with the work. If hospital didn’t stop me, why would this?

A lot fell by the wayside during lockdown, as I went ever faster into work. I was scheduling video-chats with friends weeks ahead, because I was literally working, and sleeping. Working, and sleeping. But, I was on top of my mental health, mostly. I was struggling, because lockdown is hard, shielding is hard, the constant terror? Hard. I had a few days where I was too depressed or anxious to work, but those were notable.

Now though, I suddenly can’t work. And that’s not normal for me. I’m just… looking at my laptop for hours and achieving very little. And I’m struggling with that. It’s easy to be like ‘well, I just need to schedule my work better’. ‘I need to work faster’. ‘I need more breaks’. ‘Fewer breaks’. ‘More pressure’. But none of this was making a difference.

It’s hard enough doing my admin work, my non-creative work, my policy work, with a brain like this, that just won’t click into gear. It’s impossible to try and create, and I am ultimately a creator. I have multiple big projects that need my attention, but it just isn’t possible for me to do anything on them when I’m feeling this much like I’ve been filled with concrete. So, I’m having to accept that right now, I can’t work.

Why?

If critical illness didn’t stop me, why is mild unwellness during lockdown? If months indoors didn’t stop me then, why is it now? If the world being on fire then didn’t stop me…

…maybe that’s it? Not that 2019 was a quiet news year, but that 2020 has been busy.

Maybe I’ll never know. Maybe right now, I can’t work the way I usually can. I still have to work (because I still need an income), but I have to work differently. Maybe I need to prioritise projects. Stop saying ‘yes’ to everything. Start thinking about how I can manage my health, and time, and energy better. Rather than beating myself up, start accepting that if my brain won’t work, then that’s okay.

It’s difficult to move from being a workaholic to trying to accept a slightly quieter and gentler pace to things. It’s hard to accept that right now I can’t keep going as usual, anxious, overloaded, but secretly happy to be buried in work.

What if this was a chance for growth though? What if this would let me rebalance my relationship with time, work, agency, effort, importance, the people around me, taking in culture, enjoyment, nature (through the windows)? What if I tried to see it as… wait for it… work?

What?

What if this is another kind of work? The work of judging what really matters, prioritising, managing my time and finding ways of being compassionate to myself that don’t just feel like storing up more work for tomorrow. The work of trying to see my needs in a more holistic way. The work of accepting that I can only do so much before I shut down completely.

I don’t remember when I last took a day off, completely, without it being because I was too ill to work. I think it was probably my wedding day, in February. And that’s not something to be proud of.

Maybe I need to work on myself, not just my output.

(maybe this will make me work better in the long run)

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