Work is my drug and praise is my dealer

Last week was February break and I promised myself I will unplug. I managed to actually take a mental break for two days out of six. The fact that I was incapable of stopping my constant worrying about work left undone, what I would find when I return after three days of not checking emails, got me thinking about the forces that entertain the addiction called workaholism. There are definitely many factors that feed this illness but one of them is insidious, sneaky, playing a friend when it is our worst enemy – thus, the most powerful of all.

The social glorification of workaholism and the praise we get from the ones around for our “hard work” are gasoline to the fire. It is very seldom that a workaholic has real friends. Workaholics are the best people to have around most times – they work til they actually drop and saying no for them is like refusing a fix. Impossible.

Sure, it’s up to each of us to say no. Ultimately. However, this comes after a fight of unfair proportions between the two voices constantly nagging: the voice of addiction and the voice of reason. Saying no to more work, to more responsibility, considering yourself just another employee or what you do just a job often seem like cruel jokes to workaholics. These aren’t trivial statements to the likes of us, they are alienating, showing us each and every moment how lonely this fight actually is.

When I am deep in depression, I find it fascinating that the same brain that suffers behind the filter of darkness is the brain that must and will pull me out to sunnier shores. I find a great similarity here. The same brain that tells us we must work, work some more, make sure we have exhausted every ounce of work there is before we can breathe, the same brain is the only tool that we have at our disposal to understand our illness, create the strategies that will pull us out of it and find the energy and motivation to stop the mouse-wheel. And, we do all of this uphill …

Unlike drug dealers that look nasty and like criminals most times, the enablers of workaholism look like supportive co-workers, slapping us on the back and congratulating us for a job well done – ready to throw it on our to do list forever even if we were only trying to help once, colleagues and bosses who just take your energy and use it without stopping to actually look into your eyes and see your struggle, risen eyebrows that, when you finally decide to say “I can’t do this anymore!”, throw you into the desperation of having to live with the idea that you have disappointed everyone by saying no.

I did not realize the difference between enablers and real friends, between addiction and healthy hard work, until I met my current partner. In my family of birth and alongside my former husband I was living (for lack of a different term) in a nest of enablers. I was the saviour, the do-it-all person, the one who woke up at 5 and worked until late in the evening, the one you could call at any time, day or night, and would just jump. It must have been comfortable. For others. To just shrug shoulders and say … oh well, this is Catalina. She chooses to do this.

Workaholism is not a tougher or easier illness because someone else has it too or because someone is or seems to be working harder. Yes, it is up to every person to pull themselves out, everything is ultimately an inside job. And to this end, I feel it is important to flag these acts which may seem supportive and kind but are in fact just a hand offering you more of the drug that kills you. If you are a workaholic too (hi!) you need to be aware of these things and see them for what they are – praise is your dealer.

If you love someone who is an addict of any kind, know that love does not equal enabling. Love equals truth telling, boundaries that are tough and hard to establish and keep, trial, error, falling, getting up, it involves knowing you are living or working with someone who suffers daily and acting accordingly. You don’t have to save an addict, in the end, we all save or waste ourselves. But it is important we know the roles we play in each others’ lives and not to lie to ourselves and to others. If you care, if you really care, look for the signs, SEE people, address it, insist that something be done and be ready to walk away if nothing is.

Photo by Amaru CAZENAVE on Unsplash

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