“Is this it?” I asked my friend as we lingered over a light lunch of salad and white wine one afternoon near the end of my time in South Africa.
We were sitting on a garden patio under a blue sky, surrounded by sun-baked mountains. The scent of the fynbos mingled with the perfume of a large lavender shrub beside our table. Paradise.
She had asked me if I felt that I had made progress while I was on stress leave.
“I don’t know. It’s not that I expected a thunderbolt but I definitely expected some kind of clear sign showing me what I was supposed to do with my life, or what I wanted to be,” was my reply.
When I stopped work, I assumed “it” would just come to me if I found some distance and perspective. Going back to the life I had before seemed unlikely – or at least like a fall-back plan. But I don’t seem to have come up with anything else in the meantime.
Maybe I am meant to live out my career life as a public servant after all. Maybe what I needed was the break, not a whole new direction in life. Life isn’t supposed to be dramatic and full of revelations and for most people, it isn’t.
Before South Africa, I had been feeling like I had plateaued in my stress leave experience, as though I wasn’t really moving forward anymore. And I felt like I hadn’t really come that far, either.
In South Africa, it dawned on me that maybe I had thought about and dwelled upon my anxiety and fears and negativity too long. That at first, it had been useful because I had needed to be aware that I was doing it, that I was being steered by imaginary fears and worries. But when my new awareness didn’t come with the side effect of being able to stop thinking that way, I had sort of stalled. In a place where I was constantly aware of all my negativity. All the time. And that started becoming all I thought about. So instead of my awareness helping me, it started consuming me.
And as my friend and I sat there in the sunny garden talking, I realized that – missing lightening bolt aside – I really have come a long way since last June.
Furthermore, now that I’m home, I’m struck by the great strides I made during that month in South Africa, compared to the other 9 months I spent hanging around my home.
Not to knock the time spent “hanging around”; overall, I really did come a long way during that time as well. South Africa just propelled me beyond where I would have been otherwise. It got me out into the world. It jogged my brain. It kicked me out of a rut I would probably have remained stuck in until I decided to return to work.
The value of a change in scenery.
So what have I achieved? And was a year-long break from work really what I needed?
Well, to answer the second question first, yes. YES!
When I left work, I was drained and exhausted. I had no more energy left for me, for others or even for daily life.
I am finally starting to feel re-energized.
I felt lost. I didn’t know who I was, what I actually liked to do in my spare time or where I wanted my life to go. And I felt like I was no longer controlling my life or making my own decisions. I was just sort of being pulled along in life’s wake.
Giving myself endless spare time to do what I want, I have re-discovered me, and my interests. I’ve written, I’ve done yoga, I’ve travelled, I’ve read, I’ve spent time at my son’s school, I’ve had coffee with friends, I’ve taken a course and learned something new, I’ve met new people and made new friends, I’ve walked and biked and sat and thought. I’ve figured out what I like doing and I’ve done the things that I’ve wanted to do.
Fearing judgement and assuming people thought poorly of me all the time, I used to over promise, over deliver, and stretch myself thin. I did things because I was sure people would think less of me if I didn’t do them, not because I really wanted to do them. I didn’t really know what my opinions were because my thoughts were too clouded by my assumptions of what others thought.
I’m getting better at stopping in the moment and thinking to myself, “Am I doing this because I want to, because I think I should? Or am I doing it because person X will think I should?” And I’m getting better at setting and sticking to my boundaries. To saying “No” when I need to. To sticking up for myself when I feel I’m getting stretched too thin. To being honest when I don’t like or want to do something. And not apologizing for it.
I’m calmer, less exhausted, happier, more in the moment. I do things more deliberately, I’m less rushed.
It has taken me months to get here. Months of not working, of carefully controlling my days, of introspection, tears, laughter, and lots of talking. And one very lovely holiday.
I’ve started talking to people at work about returning. Tentatively. I’m thinking maybe September. It’s a good new beginnings month.
I know from my time off that I don’t want to manage people anymore, and so I won’t.
I know that I need to make time for my writing, so I will be clear about the hours I work, and I will be disciplined about not bringing work home with me. I will do my best in the hours I have while I am at the office, but when I leave, I will leave it all behind. I have to.
Hopefully by then I will have internalized all these new perspectives and ways of thinking to the point that I will be able to carry them with me through whatever life throws at me.