When I left work last June I thought I was going to be off for four weeks; two weeks of stress leave, two weeks of vacation.
It’s late February and I’m still off.
There are days I can see myself going back to work. Walking back in to the building, taking the elevator back up to the 18th floor, walking off, walking to my desk as if I had been doing it all this time.
It’s a pathway firmly worn in my brain.
But most days, I can’t imagine it.
I feel like those memories are a dream, or another life. Not real. I can’t imagine going back.
The health professionals might, I imagine, say that is becayse I’ve been away too long. That the longer you’re away, the harder it is to go back.
But I wonder if it’s something else. Something more to do with me, and who I’ve discovered I am during all this time I’ve spent with myself, reflecting and introspecting.
When I was at work, it was my life. I owned it. I felt I belonged, I never once imagined I should be doing something else, or should be somewhere else. Maybe I thought about other jobs, but they were all essentially the same kind of work: being a public servant, writing, advising, analyzing, strategizing.
I know I was good at it. Not because I’m immodest, but because I’ve been told. I’ve never had a negative performance review, I get along with almost everyone, and I have a reputation for doing good work and for being reliable.
But now that I’m out of it, I have a sneaking suspicion that it is an environment that is bad for me. Not natural. One that I struggle with deeply every day, even though it appears to be the perfect fit.
And what is it about the public service that I struggle with so much?
It’s the same thing that I love, the same thing that makes going into the office enjoyable.
It’s not that I don’t like the people. It’s that the presence of people, all the time, is too much for me.
It has taken me eight months of spending time without people to realize this.
I realized early on that the politics and the in-fighting side of the people was too much for me, but what I’m talking about today is something different. Of course no one responds positively to a toxic, stressed environment.
What I’m talking about can almost be described as overstimulation. The presence of an office – actually, an office tower, beside a whole downtown of other office towers, all of us working in the same Public Service – is just too much for me.
I like sitting alone at home, or walking alone, or going to a park alone. There are times during my time off that I have gone to yoga, or I have gone to write in a café but I have done these in small doses, spaced out from each other. I realize now that’s because there are simply too many people to interact with out there.
Even biking down the street can feel too interactive.
This isn’t to say I don’t like people, and don’t recognize the positive outcomes I have from spending time in a yoga class, or having coffee with a friend, or going out to dinner. I enjoy all those things and I feel good afterwards.
But the constant interaction that comes from being in an office, with people there, with people on the phone, with people emailing, that is too much. Maybe it always has been.
I came to this realization today as I walked home after spending two hours with half of my son’s class at a swimming pool. My job was easy: help the teacher get the 14 kids out of the school, onto the bus, into the pool building, changed, onto the deck. The instructors took over from there and the teacher and I chatted for an hour until we needed to go through the same process again in reverse.
It was great. I like the kids, and I like helping out with them. But as I walked home alone along the quiet pathways, I began to let go, to breathe and to relax. And that’s when it hit me that being in the midst of a peopled commotion drains me. After a few hours, I need alone time to rebalance. That is definitely a luxury I will not have when I return to work.
So where does this leave me?
I’m not sure, because at some point, I will have to go back into the breach. I can’t think of anything else to do, anything else that will give my family and I the benefits and pay we rely on as part of our household income.
And working from home isn’t an option, not in the jobs I have.
I don’t know when my doctor will decide that I am ready to go back, but it’s up to her. And after a year, my job will no longer be held for me…though, really, I won’t be going back to my previous position anyway. I will be going back to something less demanding, something that doesn’t include managing people.
So, I continue my search for tools and strategies that will help me cope when I do return.
I may not have found the right ones yet, but the more time I have, the more I learn about myself. And awareness is definitely part of the solution.