10 years. I lost 10 years. 10 years in which I completely lost the plot. 10 years that I survived, rather than thrived. I wasn’t depressed or unhappy, but neither was I happy. But I was stressed. Constantly. 10 years when I was so strung out on work stress I couldn’t stop to ask myself if, ultimately, it was worth it.
Over the summer I had an health scare and an extended convalescence. I was immediately confronted with my life choices and my own mortality. Ironically, for a powerlifter, my condition made me very, very physically weak. I had “physical” nervous breakdown, rather than a mental one. The body cannot live in a permanent state of stress and poor sleep. It will stop functioning correctly – as it did with me.
During my many, many medical visits, my doctor began to question me about lifestyle – how much I worked, what did I do outside of work, how were my family and “romantic” relationships…I should preface this by saying my doctor is an old school medical professional and a Germanic one at that. He says exactly what he thinks, and nobody will accuse him of being too touchy-feely. He came to the conclusion that, as he put it, “You don’t have a life. You work too much and when you’re not working, you stress about it. Are working to live, or living to work?”.
10 years I assumed, almost overnight, a quantum leap in responsibility at work. I certainly wasn’t going to say “no”. I have always worked hard, and to be honest, was chafing at not being recognized. Well, I got recognition, and with that recognition came a lot more responsibility and visibility. I managed more people. I was suddenly thrust into the bigger leagues, with all that implies.
I had to learn a lot of new skills quickly – with little in the form of mentoring. It wasn’t easy, and I made mistakes. I learned to take criticism and feedback with the right mindset – and to never take things personally. I realized that you get the most criticism when you are doing something of real consequence. Make no mistake about it, I had to work hard…but the challenge was exciting at first.
The stress levels I undertook were exponentially more than I had experienced previously. The stress caused by looming project deadlines or dealing with a difficult employee were not impossible to deal with. A solution, I knew, would be found. What became impossibly to manage as the years progressed, however, was being on the receiving end of a greatly increased workload for which my team and I did not have sufficient resources. Working week after month after year in those conditions is a losing game. I worked longer and longer hours…and when I wasn’t working, I literally could not sleep as I’d think about all the deadlines we’d miss.
Without noticing it, I prioritized only work and my children. I scarcely had time to train powerlifting – and even that suffered for extended periods. Work did not directly cause any of my romantic relationships to end but it made creating new ones difficult. I began to stop making middle to long-term plans (like great trips, planning the purchase of a vacation home, making a big sports goal) etc. because I knew with experience that work crises always arose and I’d have to put my plans on hold. I have, many times, cancelled vacations. Slowly, I stopped reading, which is a habit I’ve had my entire life. I was simply too keyed up to concentrate on reading…and by the end of it, I couldn’t follow TV shows either.
I couldn’t have been much fun to be around. Living in constant crisis mode made it difficult for me to be present in the moment. I’ve always been prone to “being in my head” and daydreaming only now I was zoning out to imagine crisis situations in a never-ending loop. More nightmare than daydream. I had no interests other than powerlifting anymore – so really not much to talk about. Other than being with my kids, my main pleasure in life was not working. In just about every picture taken of me the last 10 years, I look like a real miserable bastard. And I was. As funny as this sounds now, I just didn’t realize to what extent.
Negative thoughts and emotions generate a sort of negative energy that people pick up on and, quite naturally, seek to avoid. That was me, a veritable positive energy black hole. Having a Dad who was constantly in stress mode and who couldn’t be present in the moment had to have sucked. I knew it, of course, but I told myself I was working hard for them and, besides (and this is not untrue) I tried to always be there for them in many other ways. And I was, but again, I wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. My dad lost the plot after my parents divorced when I was young and receded into the (literal physical) distance as time went on. I told myself that I wasn’t going to do that- and for the most part I didn’t – but the inability to relax, be present and live in the moment is a form of “distance”.
I have had many issues with alcohol, but this post is not meant to examine that in detail. During this period, my alcohol use changed in a very interesting way. I stopped drinking wine and spirits. I wasn’t seeking to “get trashed”, per se. Instead, I took an exact dose of beer most evenings (after 7pm). It was very clinical self-mediation, I drank enough beer to ‘disconnect’ but I wasn’t getting completely blotto nor did I have crashing hangovers the next day. I just needed to stop the incessant stress monkey in my head. I was ashamed of this, of course, so I drank in my room. My kids knew I was drinking, and I knew they knew, but again I told myself I’d get a handle on it shortly. The shame just added to the anxiety.
Physically, I changed radically. I gained weight to the extent that people who hadn’t seen me for X numbers of years often did a double-take. Sometimes, they’d not be hypocritical and say what they were thinking as in “hey dude, what’s up with that?” which I knew was warranted but I didn’t like. Much of this weight gain, to be fair, was also linked to muscle gain due to powerlifting. I had added a lot of muscle pretty quickly (to the extent that an ex-girlfriend who manages gyms thought I was on gear at one point). So I was bulky…but I also gained more fat that I should have and, worse still, often had a bloated appearance. I was bulky, bloated, red-faced and feeling pretty shitty for the most part. And it showed. I’m not vain, but neither do I like being the guy in the picture who looks shit. It was depressing but, again, I told myself handle it soon.
It’d be easy to say that the extra fat and bloating was all due to the beer. Certainly it was the major factor, but I think constant sky-high cortisol levels (due to stress) also played a role in the weight and water retention. Some months ago I did the calculations of my weekly calorie intake. Other than drinking beer, I tended to eat clean and not too much. Veggies, fruit and some proteins. My daily calorie intake was surprisingly just over the what I normally needed to maintain weight, even with the beer. I knew the beer was adding empty calories and carbs, but I was shocked to learn that it wasn’t as much as I had imagined. My body, however, due to aging and stress, had become much less efficient at burning calories.
Obviously, this was not a sustainable life style. The wheels were, inevitably, going to come off. Some years ago I finally went through a period of mental burnout\exhaustion. I took 2 weeks off, which really wasn’t nearly enough, and just powered through it afterwards. For better or worse, I’ve learned how to cope with some pretty extreme periods of depression/anguish. I don’t think my resilience did me any favors in the long run. Then, about a year and a half ago, my daughter left for college. Just like that, gone to college. It seemed that I remember her being born like it was just a few weeks prior. I realized that while highly present on a day to day basis, we didn’t really have a bunch of good memories to look back on in the preceding 10 years. Epic trips, things like that. You’re busy, and you put things off, but the thing is your children can’t be put “on hold”. They grow, and mature. Fuck, I thought, how did I let that happen. I must change.
Finally, a few months ago, change was thrust upon me. My physical body decided to pull the plug. It turns out there is a limit to the amount of stress the body can physically endure. For a relatively brief, but scary , period I was fairly certain I had come to the end of the road. We will all die, of course, but the only unknown is when. Well, I thought, it may indeed be now. And then I immediately thought, “what the fuck have I been doing with my life?”. I had no answer. But I knew, very clearly, that all of work and the stress was not worth it. I had wasted that time and I was not going to get it back. 10 years of not being the best parent I could be. 10 years of ignoring my own happiness and well-being. Nothing, really, to show for those 10 years.
I realized that I made my own private hell. Was my work stressful? You bet. Had I, over a number of years, taken pains to communicate the unsustainable level of stress myself and the teams were under? Absolutely. Did anything change substantially? Not really. However, what I realize now, is that there is always a choice. The work situation was not going to change. I work for a really good company, they are not slave drivers. But certain conditions are endemic in both our industry and the modern workplace. The change had to some from within. I have options. I can quit the job. It’s not the end of world. Dying, however, due to work related stress would be the end of my particular world. Or I can change how I react to the job. I can revise my expectations. I realized it’s OK to say I’m going to do the best work I possibly can, but not at the expense of my health or family. That means less hours and overall putting the work into perspective. As I said, I work for a great company, and they have really been supportive during my health issues. I have communicated clearly with them and for now things seem to be trending correctly. Will that work for my employer and myself in the long-term? Time will tell.
A few days ago I was profoundly shocked to learn about the death of a friend that I had grown up with. We weren’t the best of friends in school and, in fact, got to know each other better during our 20s. He was a bright, caring and very smart guy. He was the sort of guy that naturally stayed in touch, that constantly sent crap jokes, that sort of thing. I’ll never see him again, which is something I am still processing There are no guarantees. I’m in my 50s, with luck I have maybe another 10 years of good physical shape ahead of me. I intend to take advantage of them.