Last Friday afternoon I decided it was time to turn my work phone off. An awfully tough week, with many phone-in-one-hand-email-in-the-other type days got me exhausted both mentally and physically. My shoulders and upper arms felt stiff, I had a painful cramp in my neck and my jaw was clenched as in a full blown anger attack. Except I wasn’t angry. I was just very, very tired. And that the clenching was not new, it had lasted through the day. Strike that – the whole week. I turned off the phone and decided to start my weekend. At some point in the evening, I needed to use my computer for a personal matter. Turned it on, repeating to myself like a mantra: do not touch email! DO NOT touch email!
Because texting became traumatic for my hands, I had transferred Whatsapp to my computer. Opening up the laptop: 67 updates. My heart starts beating fast, blood starts rushing through my veins, my jaw clenches some more, tunnel vision: something happened, I made a mistake, I need to see these messages. If I only spend 5 minutes I am sure I can sort things out, just 5 minutes – I start begging myself. My computer would not show me the messages unless I turned my phone back on. My phone is an arm reach away, off, charging. Don’t! Don’t, if you turn it on you will never turn it back off! You will go down the rabbit hole! But just a few minutes, really, I can control it! Just a few minutes, that’s all. The battle is almost physical, I feel like my arm is not mine any longer, like it is already reaching for the phone. There is no more Friday night, I have no recollection of weekend plans and all I can hear is my voice of reason succumbing to the illusion that I will only be taking a peak at the texts and do nothing. I turn the phone on … .
My name is Catalina and I am a workaholic.
Hoping I don’t offend him, I will say that this is the closest I have ever gotten to my brother’s suffering. He was a heroin addict. I remember him fighting and just saying, I want to but I cannot control myself. What I am going through (and I know I am not the only one) is not as debilitating as heroin but nevertheless an addiction. And, trap of all traps, so many of us flaunt this as a wonderful personality trait: oh yeah, I am a workaholic! Like saying oh yeah, my writing is really beautiful … .
During one of his first times in detox, I asked my brother what trying to get off of the drug felt like. This was almost two decades ago and I remember everything to the letter: where we were sitting, his face, my heart breaking for his pain. He explained that a small part of him realizes what he has gotten himself into and wants to drop the drugs, that a bigger part of him truly longs to be free. But that most of him aches in every inch of skin and every bit of bone without the drug and that when he closes his eyes to sleep, tranquilized out of this physical ordeal, he only dreams about getting more drugs, meeting his dealer and getting high.
I sat down with my son to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine last night. It is our shared moment, we share a tea, mock speak the ending credits and laugh together. It usually is one of the most blissful moments of the day for me. At some point on this particular evening, my partner says something about a presentation. I am instantly transported: omg, I have not seen it, and tomorrow is full, maybe I should just watch it now. My headache is splitting and I am thinking of actually doing more work after starting at 5 AM and closing my computer at 7 PM. You should get up and make a to do list, maybe just take a look at emails and see what you can sort out now, take another look at your calendar. Headache gets stronger. Maybe I will wake up earlier again … .
I manage to get through three episodes remembering very little of each and I turn on a mindfulness meditation app. I breathe twice in ten minutes. Mindfully, I mean. For the rest of the time, I argue, discuss, propose, organize, make lists and feel utterly miserable and disappointed with myself. And it’s a self soothing meditation. The house has gone to bed. I don’t have the energy to – for as soon as my head hits the pillow, it is back to lists, reminders and ideas.
My name is Catalina and I am a workaholic.
You would think that realising all of this about myself means I am doing ok. The truth is, many times I feel stuck at 50% – you know, the length of the road you have already walked when you admit you have a problem. Addiction is a constant, lifelong struggle. And it takes real strength to be able to carry it on. This is where, unfortunately for him, my brother and I really differ. I have really trained for this battle, his poor soul was out in the cold with no shield and he succumbed entirely, way before it was time. After years of therapy, after life altering changes, after breakdowns that threatened to have me end it all, after reading countless pages and listening to countless hours of books and podcasts on the matter, I know what my detox looks like. AND I realize, this is a lifelong battle so I am able to have more compassion for myself. Just as I have weeks of holiday now when I don’t even remember my work (and don’t want to), in the same way I have weeks when I completely forget my family (sitting right across the room from me), everything that brings me joy and completely ignore every sign my body gives me that I have fallen off the wagon again.
My name is Catalina and I am a workaholic.
For what is worth, here is what helps me not give up entirely.
What is important to understand is that … once an addict, always an addict. In the same way that I would be fooling myself to believe that one sunny day when I end work at 16:00, spend the time with my family, playing board games and having fun means I have put an end to my addiction, I would equally be fooled by thinking that falling off the wagon means I am doomed and will never be back on it again. One. Day. At. A. Time.
The basics: eating right, drinking my water, taking my meds, sleep. This keeps me on the dotted line of survival. Without these, the below don’t even begin to exist.
Many times I try to go deep inside and understand what I am trying to cure by this work-around–the-clock regimen. I have had enough therapy and coaching by now to understand things about me that will never change, things I will carry with me wherever I go in life, things that are part of my DNA: I am a first born of four, my sense of responsibility is through the roof, I am a people-pleaser, the quintessential “good girl” and one of the hardest things for me to say is comprised in two letters: No! When I am on the wagon and I decide I am either strong or desperate enough to start detox, I do my best to sit with the discomfort. This is how resilience is built. By now I recognise it when the wagon starts rocking and the theory I know like the back of my hand comes to support me instantly. And the fight is still hard. And there is always more work needed to stay on the wagon.
Over the years I have created systems for myself that help me not fall. Or not fall too deep. I turn my phone off an hour after my regular schedule has finished and offered a small number of people my personal number for emergencies only – thus killing the gremlin voice which tells me if I am not 100% on, the world will fall apart at the seams. I keep two lists – “the big to do list” including projects in all areas I am responsible for and a daily one indicating what I need to do right now. I prioritise and I push myself into saying no and then run to the bathroom and lock myself in there, waiting for the instinct to go back, apologize for saying no and taking more on to go away. It does. I have a schedule for things to do at home – I know what this sounds like. But I have found that a schedule helps me especially when I feel just like losing myself down the rabbit hole of emails and presentations – putting one foot in front of the other, doing “just this one workout”, reading “just these ten pages”, making some things a must at home (walking daily with my partner and dogs, watching something with my son, cooking), push me in the right direction, one, reluctant step at a time.
Our body always, always keeps score. I have started to really understand that the moment I turned 40 and my body seemed to speak louder than ever. (do you know the joke that says that if, once you are 40 years old, you wake up and nothing hurts that means you are dead? some days I wonder if it is a joke or a true story) Eating right (meaning, no crap in the house because one addiction never comes alone, it likes company – mine is carbs), working out (I am not running marathons but 20 min of cardio is actually a life saver), mindfulness practice (yes, crappy like it turns out many times, I figure, at the very least it is 10 minutes I am sitting up straight, with eyes closed – win!), drinking water and laying low of caffeine (I was born caffeinated, thank you very much!), making time for things that bring me pleasure (plants, reading, rest and love).
I used to think all of these are crap pieces of advice from gurus who have nothing to do all day and rolled my eyes every time. When I got desperate enough to start trying these, little by little, I realised the power that they bring, especially in the times when I am spiralling down. When the going gets tough I remind myself I am suffering from an addiction, I (re)create boundaries, do my very best to be compassionate with myself and … never stop trying.