When I still had my day job, I walked to work everyday, even in winter. I liked the fresh air. I liked that it got my blood moving before those long hours of sitting at a desk and looking at a screen began. It took me about 18 minutes to get from the door of my house to my office, so it was really very manageable and a pleasant way to start the day.
As a performing artist with a day job, the job was a means to an end, something I had to do as opposed to something I wanted to do. I came to view the walk as a gift, and I took full advantage of it. Instead of my job, I made a point of envisioning myself heading out on foot on the first day of my vacation in a place unknown to me. It was funny how ordinary life would become just that little bit sweeter. I seemed to move faster, but I was more relaxed. I was mentally present during the walk. I was captivated by things like bird song, if something was blooming, if someone was walking a cute dog, if a small child smiling at me. If someone showed me a small kindness, I was able to do the same. I found wonder in small things. And I felt very, very clever because of it. After all, I had devised my own coping mechanism. I had found an action that made something that I found terribly unpleasant, dreaded even, more than bearable.
This was a short-term fix. As time went on, I realized the obvious. What really needed to happen was for me to go on a real vacation, rather than pretend to be on one. But because of the volume of work, the multitude of pressures and obligations to others, I never felt like there was a time that I could safely do so, when my absence would not impact my coworkers and cause a very problematic backlog for me. The idea of leaving work completely behind for a week or two only to return to an even more imposing and impossible pile was terrifying to me and not at all feasible. I felt like I was drowning already, so I didn’t want to ‘drown harder’.
And so, my lovely imaginary vacation tactic evolved into something much less pleasant, a kind of pep talk that was broken down into segments. Because I was exhausted, the first 6 minutes of my walk were spent simply waking up. Putting one foot in front of the other did what the coffee I had drowned myself in could not – it cleared the cobwebs away. The next 6 minutes were then spent by my now conscious brain making lists of all the things
that I had to finish from the day before, all of the emails I had to read and write, the paperwork I had to process, the people who were waiting for information from me, and the meetings I had to go to. It was list after list and always ended in panic, sometimes full on anxiety. The last 6 minutes of the walk were spent in shallow breath. I would talk myself down. “Just get through today. It won’t be as bad as you think. You don’t need to do this forever. It will slow down soon. Just 8 hours. You can do 8 hours. When it’s done you can go home and fall into bed.” No more bird song, no more smiling children, no more experiences with nature. It was harder to be kind.
Institutions love it when their employees find mechanisms and tactics to help them cope with stress and continue to perform well. They even provide you with opportunities to learn how to do so. If you’re good at mastering these skills you start to collect adjectives like flexible, adaptable and are considered to be a good organizational citizen. And the more adjectives you acquire, the more you are given to do, because you are capable. At least, that was my experience. I realize now that my two tactics, the imaginary vacation and the pep talk, contributed to me arriving at a full-on case of burn-out. And right before it hit, I couldn’t have imagined a state of being that was less flexible or adaptable. I felt completely constrained, and barely present in my own life. I was exhausted. Alienated from colleagues and my family. Everything seemed difficult. Nothing gave me joy-at home, in my creative projects, or at work. I had so little energy to give that what I had was beyond precious to me, and it was painful to see it spent on something that gave me so little in return in terms of happiness. I had lost my way completely. I was definitely not on my ‘true’ path.
I took a six-week stress leave and was lucky to have an employer who supported it. This time allowed me to put my receptiveness to self talk to good use. I could speak to myself from a place of authenticity, that wasn’t bound by the constructs of my obligations, but the truth of my heart. I came to understand that if I wanted to make things better, I had to make a fresh start and actually discover who I am and identify the things that are really and truly important to me. Leaving the job was both a terrifying and exhilarating decision to make. Probably not what my employer had in mind, but I believe it to be one of the most important choices of my life.
I’m still learning. I haven’t decided, outside of my creative practice, what I’m going to do next. But I can say this: I would love to become a person whose self talk in times of stress results in understanding and transformation, rather than survival. I’m not sure that this is possible or realistic, but it is the place I’m working from as I move forward.