I lost 10 years

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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.  

 

Where do you want to live for the rest of your life?

 

I don’t feel old.  Nevertheless, if I was in States I’d probably start receiving mailers from AARP as of next year (I’m in my mid 50s).  Thanks to training in powerlifting for the past 7 years I’m fair stronger now than I was in my 20s or 30s.  I’m not a senior citizen nor will I be one in the near future.  I am, however, smack in the demographic that should be in the “end game” part of retirement planning.

The impact of technology on the work/life balance of modern corporate workers has been dramatic – and Covid-19 has accelerated the process.  There is effectively no barrier from you and your work – and no real or tacit “down time” is allowable.  Corporations obviously know that short term gains will be followed my mid-term burnouts and therefore pay a lot of lip-service to “disconnecting” and “wellness” but this belies their real productivity expectations.  For most corporate workers, the only realistic way to meet current expectations is to work long hours and on weekends.

For all of my career, including the present, I’ve always worked hard and never been hesitant to put in what ever hours are needed.  Recently, however, I reached the “wall” to use a runner’s term.  I cannot literally sustain or “increase” my current pace of work for another 10 or 11 years (if I was to program a traditional North American retirement age).  I’m literally living to work, with some short “family time” and powerlifting training (becoming harder to fit in as we work later and later) breaks thrown in.  Real vacations, where one could actually stop working, have become rare indeed.

I’ve reached an age where many people I knew growing up are passing away on a more regular basis.  Some of them were adults when I was young, but a number of them have been my age or younger.  Given that I started working full-time at age 18, by my calculations I’ve worked approximately 35 years so far.  This, of course, forces one to ask that existential question – what is the purpose of life?  I know the answer isn’t “work to live”.

My current situation:

  • Senior Manager in corporate setting.  Reducing hours or taking a more junior position is not possible.
  • In the country where I live, I’m at the age where employers start to find ways to “off-load” older employees quietly, so chances are I wouldn’t make till 65 even if I wanted to.
  • It goes without saying that employers here do not hire older people for the same reasons above (higher “social” costs than younger staff) so an “end of career” change is not likely.
  • I’ve two children – 1 in university and 1 in high school

Therefore my current goal is stay employed until my youngest is has finished his bachelor’s degree.  The country I have lived in for the past 23 years is a great place, I owe it almost everything.  One thing it is not, however, is cheap to live in.  Therefore, I’ve actively started looking for a country suitable for retirement.  My criteria are the following:

  • Reasonable cost of living (this includes real estate cost as well as reoccuring expenses).  The goal is to be able to live comfortably on a retirement income.
  • A decent infrastructure, political stability and in an area that will be hit less by global warming in the next 20 years (i.e. no beach front property in 3rd world nations).
  • Language – it should be one that I already speak fluently or speak to some degree.  Croatia is flat out great, but realistically I’ll never probably speak the language beyond a rudimentary level.  Ditto Thailand.  I know a lot of English-speaking expats don’t mind living in countries where they don’t speak the language, but that would quite frankly bother me.
  • Culture/Cuisine – Very important…is it a country that, as my kids would say, I “vibe” with?

The countries on my shortlist:

  • France:  this checks all the boxes (provided you avoid the more expensive parts) , I know it very well and it’s the language if I feel most at home in after English.
  • Spain:  Even cheaper than France, love the cuisine and culture.  Very cheap real estate and living costs (save utilities). My Spanish is both rusty and Latin American influenced, so there’d be a learning curve, but it’s almost a plus.  I’d look forward to improving my Spanish.
  • Portugal – As above, only my Portugese in non-existant.  Harder to learn than Spanish by all accounts.  Still, it’s such a cool place I’d consider it provided I spent the first year in intensive Portugese classes.
  • Mexico:  I know what you’re thinking, Mexico is corrupt and has almost entirely taken over by the Cartels.  Vast swathes of the country are flat out dangerous.  Still, there are still pockets (Merida, San Miguel de Allende, etc) that check the boxes above and remain relatively safe.  For how long, though?
  • Italy:  This should tick all of the boxes above and I feel that Italian would be easier to learn than Portugese.  Amazing country, but I’m not sure I want to live there.  However, given the right reasons, I would consider it.

I am currently planning trips to Spain, Portugal and France as soon as travel restrictions are relaxed a bit.  My first order of business if to find a house in good shape that I can buy cash and use a vacation rental to help cover expenses until I retire.  Realistically, this phase might take a least a year.  I don’t anticipate “jumping on a property” right away unless it absolutely meets all my criteria.

I guess it’s interesting that retiring to my “country of origin” is not even on the radar.  I don’t really have a compelling reason to go there.  It’s not particularly cheap unless I want to live in some areas 100s or thousands of miles away from the remaining family and friends I have there…there are a lot of great things about it, sure, but there are a lot downsides too – that are obvious to those of us living outside the country, but less apparent to some living in the country.  I wasn’t born there nor have I spent most of my life there.  If I had to go, so be it, it’s just not my first choice.

I think my situation is only unique in that it’s unusual even now for Americans or Canadians to expatriate or immigrate and even more so for retirees.  Most of the rest of world’s population, this option has always been on the table (if people were given half a chance).  Even now, as I vist Canada and the US and I explain that I live in Europe, I’m often asked “why??” by truly surprised or puzzled people.  I feel this is shifting and will continue to shift as we’ve seen a lot of recent US or Canadians immigrants going back to countries like China, India, Nigeria, Ghana and Mexico as opportunities in those countries grow and as the trade-offs of living the American or Canadian dream become less worth it on the whole.

Question to you my readers:  What country would you consider retiring to and why?  Please put your answer in the comment section below.  

What to do when you don’t feel like training…

Sooner or later, it happens to everyone. You take your physical training regimen for granted and little by little, it becomes less of a priority. Whereas before you’d broach no interruption to your training program, now work and family stress become a valid reason for missing workouts. Inevitably, as your training become crappier, so too do your results – or lack thereof. As your hard-won “gainz” evaporate like early morning dew on the Serengeti, a form of depression sets in which engenders a vicious circle of inertia. Soon your salad days of easily repping out 4 plates are but a dim, bitterweet memory.

Fear not, esteemed gym rat. All things in nature are cyclical so your balls to wall “Yang” of beastmode training was inevitably leading you to a “Yin” of increased Netflix and burrito binging sessions. Your couch becomes a place where training dreams, and countless bags of Cheetos, are disembowelled. If this is not your first rodeo, you’ll know the pendulum eventually shifts. One day, slack-jawed as you listlessly click through yet another season of “Ultimate Beastmaster” and licking your orange stained fingers, a tsunami of shame will blind-side you. “How did it come to this????”, you pitifully wail and gnash your teeth.

(Imagine a David Attenborough voice-over) ” Suitably chastened, the somewhat tubbier common gym rat (ratus gymnasticae narcissium) extricates himself from the vile miasma of his half eaten nachos and empty Heineken cans nest and navigates, like a swallow going to Capistrano, back to his natural habitat.”

What, if anything, can you do to remain motivated to train and avoid periods of gym burnout? Firstly, know that it exists and, if you are lucky enough to train seriously for any length of time, you’ll encounter bouts of low motivation. It’s like an injury, if you have a torn muscle you will not continue to train normally. You will do what you can and train around your injury until it’s healed. If you encounter a period of burnout, don’t give into the impulse to vegetate. Do what you can to keep moving, whether it’s a half-assed squat session, a bike ride, a long walk or a bit of yoga – the more fun, the better.

Physical activity is an vital part of your physical and mental hygiene. You wouldn’t stop showering or brushing your teeth, would you? Your training burnout was caused by how seriously you were taking everything. Gym is not life, it should be part of life. It’s cool that you set goals because they focus you and facilitate progression. However, don’t tunnel-vision on short-term goals. For example, if you are a power-lifter and have encountered injury or burnout, why not chill on your goal for the 350 KG deadlift for the moment and engage in a little bodybuilding style training for a bit? Come on, you know want to do a few sets of more than 5 reps and maybe, just maybe, get a massive pump. When you go back to serious PL training, the extra muscle might not be a bad thing to have.

We all have those acquaintances who suddenly turn into Gym Is Life Bros. overnight. One day, they are asking you how to do a proper bench-press and a scant 5 months later they are critiquing your training, diet, goals, the works cause, you know, they are experts. Strangely enough, a year or so later you’re still there, training away, and chances are, they aren’t. Training blues is a fact of life. Just keep moving. When your motivation returns, you’ll be glad you did.

When life don’t give you squat, squat gives you life.

Greeting, everyone.  Yes, I know the title of today’s post sounds like a “cringey” catchphrase from a t-shirt (hmm, note to self…) but it came to me a few hours ago when I was training at the brand spanking-new premises of the powerlifting club. I don’t think I’ve made it a secret in my past few posts that I’ve been going through a rough patch lately.  It was only really dawned on me the last few weeks that much of my malaise stems from a full-blown case of professional burn-out.  Like many of my generation, my attitude at work was just to get it done, no excuses and the phrase “I can’t” does not exist.  As manager, of course, I have managed staff through burn- out soI know that acceptable levels are different for everyone and accumulated stress over time is insidious.  However, to echo that old cliché “I just didn’t think it’d happen to me”.

Well, I didn’t think it’d happen to me because pride goeth before a fall.  I thought I was too aware, too smart, too “woke” (very ironic given the context) to suffer a burn-out.  Burn-out was caused, in my case, by accepting to do what evolved into 2 full-times jobs.  It is, of course, impossible for 1 person to perform 2 full times jobs at a high level for the long-term so an eventual crash was inevitable.  While I did escalate the situation repeatedly over the last few years and demanded resources – said resources were always right over the horizon. A number of factors, unrelated to work I was doing, made the work I was doing even harder as I was called in to “fight fires” repeatedly for situations not of my making.  I gradually began to fall behind on my deliverables…and was forced to perform “triage”, prioritizing those which I would deliver on time and those for which I’d “take a hit”.

These missed deadlines and other looming missed deadlines played constantly in loop somewhere in my subconscious.   Slowly, insidiously, it affected my professional confidence and engendered a feeling of anxiety and a barely perceptible sense of impending doom.  I began to have problems sleeping as I’d awake at night and not be able to go back to sleep as my now conscious brain endlessly re-hashed work stress.  My accumulated sleep loss began to visibly affect my ability to concentrate which put my work productivity into a death spiral.  I worked longer and longer hours to complete formerly easy tasks.

At the same time, I became increasingly worried about lack of quality time I was spending with my kids.  Even when I was spending time with them, I was haggard and preoccupied.  My guilt over this wasn’t aiding my mental state.  Finally, my powerlifting training took an obvious dive.  I was still training when I could find time (at this point purely a desperate measure to preserve sanity and physical health) but my heart wasn’t in it.  Then in late May of this year I could barely get out of bed and force myself to go to work.  Had I not had 2 kids in private school who will soon go to university, I think I might have thrown in the towel.  In 35 years of working, I never felt anything like I was feeling.  I read a clinical description of burn-out and realized that exhibited every single symptom in flashing red lights.  I wracked my brain to find a magic silver bullet that would fix everything.

I decided, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that alcohol was the cause of all this mess.  I was certainly drinking more than was healthy, but at the same time at this point of my life I wasn’t a case study in Barfly-esque excess, either.  So I stopped drinking booze altogether save a very occasional glass of wine.  And the situation improved somewhat, but not as dramatically as I’d hoped.  I was able to sleep a little better and therefore improved my concentration briefly.  It allowed me to continue limping along professionally for another few months until, about 2 weeks ago, the dominoes began to fall.

This is a painful situation, for sure, but it is nowhere near as bad as the loss of loved one or something of that nature.  Still, I was surprised the emotional toll it took on me.  The sliver-lining in the experience is that my mental fog receded somewhat so I was able to analyze how, little by little, I put myself in this situation.  Also, it has become clear what I need to do to improve my mental health as well as my professional situation.  Let me be clear, this is an ongoing situation, but I no longer have blinders on.

To whit, I’ve been making a marked effort to live in the moment, spend really quality time with my loved ones and friends.  I have found refuge and a gained little bit more “gout de la vie” in reading and writing – my age-old friends that have helped my out of so many tight corners.  Finally, today I forced myself to go to the powerlifting club to make up for a training I missed yesterday.  I was supposed to work bench-press, overhead press and accessory exercises.  I’m still down and struggling and felt the need for a boost.  I love bench press, love it, and I’m pretty good at it, but it’s not it’s not the King of exercise.  So I did squats, not heavy, mind you, but at about 70 percent for triples.  I concentrated on relearning the technique.  I was all alone, so I began to crank my music on the sound system.  This song came on my play list:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eBfX_a9_o4

For a brief, shining moment, all was right with the world.  I wasn’t moving hero weight but I was squatting and making strides to get back to where I was before.  I will prevail.  I wish I knew why, but only squats can do this.