Because Perspective

Hi.

I know. It’s been a while. Oh, I’ve posted the odd poem from time to time, but that pales in comparison to the number of posts I used to publish, and even to the volume of pieces I’ve begun, then archived, or the ideas I have jotted down and abandoned without really working them through.

I’m not sure why but I just don’t have it in me these days to focus, to think long and hard about what I want to say and how to word it, to polish a piece and post it. And since I don’t believe in forcing these things, this means I’ve been silent, and may continue to be for a while longer. This post aside, of course.

I’m sure in some ways it’s related to my work. I’m now fully and completely immersed and it requires rather a lot of thinking and writing in its own right. Those of you who were following me way back when I didn’t work may remember a turning point—it was probably more than a year ago, though the months seem to have all blended together. It was the day I realized that I wasn’t going to suddenly be hit by some lightning bolt of inspiration telling me what I was supposed to be doing with my life.

It was the day I realized that I didn’t have to love and live for my job, but could use it to make the money I needed to spend my free time writing, travelling and being with my family.

It was the day I recognized all the parts of me that make up something greater than my office identity.

Well, a funny thing has happened.

I love my job.

I enjoy my days. I believe in what I do. I think and read and tweet about related topics in my personal time. I meet with people after work to talk about the hot issues.

Total surprise.

I still have parts of me that make up something greater than my office identity but they are all now more closely intertwined. Synergistic.

It does help that the job I returned to is sufficiently different from the one that sent me on 15 months of stress leave. In those dark days pre-leave, I used to say “if I could just sit in a corner and focus on this one main file, I would be really happy.”

Somehow, I’ve managed to make that my job. I feel very lucky on that front. I get to spend my time researching, writing and interacting with a great organization on a topic that I feel strongly about.

Almost better than this new-found enthusiasm, I learned a lot about myself and how I want to live my life while I was off work. It wasn’t wasted time. And it wasn’t a holiday. I did a lot of thinking and introspection and self-discovery. I wrote about it. I chatted with many of you right here about it. I leaned on my friends.

And now, as I approach the first anniversary of my return to work (how did the year fly by so quickly!?), I can say with pride and certainty that I continue to apply all those lessons I learned. The ones about prioritizing, maintaining perspective, protecting boundaries, taking time for myself, positive self affirmation.

I am a better person today because I continue to live by those valuable lessons.

I just may not get around to writing as much. Because perspective.

 

Checking In, Seeking Balance

It has been months since I last wrote here about how things are going with me. Last fall, as I prepared to return to work and then slowly reintegrated, I had been concerned that I would lose sight of all the self-improvement work I had done during my time off and that I would have difficulties balancing work, family and writing. I also worried I would slowly slip back into the panicky, stressed person I was prior to what ended up being 15 months of stress leave.

So. Now that I am fully re-immersed in work life, how am I doing?

Well, at this very moment, my brain is completely drained. I have no space left to create, no energy to worry about word placement, no time to replenish what has been quickly drained. But there is hope. I was doing well – really well – up until about two weeks ago. And I know I can get back there. I just need to get my routine back, and some sense of normalcy.

And I also know that before I can write anything creative, I need to write about how I got here.

By January, I was doing so well at keeping issues at work and at home in perspective that I stopped seeing my psychologist and reporting in to my doctor. I was sleeping and eating well, running weekly, writing at least twice a week, and had a good balance between work, family and myself. And I was enjoying my job.

Things started to unravel a bit when my husband had to take a 6 week trip for work (and the injustice of it all was that he went back to Cape Town – you might remember from last year just how much I love it there!).

It’s difficult trying to do the housework and cover the family responsibilities of 2 people, while also being out of the house for most of the day. Running is always the first thing to go; there’s something to be said for staying put at lunch instead of heading out to expend energy in sub-zero temperatures. I also became a little more edgy. But I kept writing. And I figured I’d settle into the new rhythm and would relax again.

Two weeks ago, though, things got a bit crazier. My son had four big activities, four days in a row, so that was something to focus on, and my grandmother passed away. She was almost 100 and had been suffering from dementia for a number of years, so it wasn’t a huge surprise, but still, it was something to reflect on, to come to terms with. Flooded with memories of people and places long gone, I realized she had been to some extent the last anchor to the care-free aspects of my childhood.

The funeral was last week in Toronto, so I organized my work, notified my son’s school, and started packing and preparing for the 4 hour drive. In the midst of that, I had car issues and had to take the car into the dealership, garage issues which meant I had to organize a repairman, and my son had a huge cadet competition the day after the funeral, in a different town, meaning I also had to organize his uniform and prepare to leave Toronto at 6am the following morning.

Somehow, we did it all. Like clockwork.

But.

It. Was. Just. Too. Much.

Still, here we are on the other side of it all. I feel pretty proud of myself for shepherding us through everything. And I’m proud of him for keeping up, too. He even read at the funeral – beautifully – and his cadet drill team placed second. We pulled through.

But I still don’t have the brain space to even think about creative, focused writing.

I am, however, reassured to think that I generally managed to keep things in perspective. To mostly bite my lip, pause, and avoid replying when it was better to say nothing. To focus on the positive. To be in the moment. To recognize my strengths and successes. To realize that things, overall, are going to be ok. That I am still ok.

 

Is this progress?

As my work hours pick up, I’ve started to feel like I’m running.

Not running in a good way.

Running to catch up.

Running out of time.

Running after all the things I still have to do when it is already 9 o’clock at night.

Running out of breath.

Last week, with one full day and two half days, I had enough time. That full day knocked me sideways but I had sufficient opportunity to recuperate. This week, I was supposed to do three full days but by last Friday at noon, I knew I would have to cut back.

So, I turned yesterday into a half day and spent the afternoon regaining my equilibrium. Breathing. Doing nothing. I think this means I’ve learned something, that I’ve stayed aware, protected my boundaries and taken care of myself.

It’s not that work has been unpleasant. Not at all. In fact, my managers have been extremely supportive, encouraging me to take as long as I need to reintegrate. I appreciate this; I can’t imagine having to fight against unsupportive managers in addition to the general exhaustion I’m feeling. And the work itself is interesting, even inspiring at times.

So, though my head hurts, my brain feels tired and I’m having trouble focusing and stringing thoughts together on paper, I believe it will get better, if I give it time. If I’m patient. Organized. If I move methodically through one task at a time. If I forgive myself when I don’t, when (like this morning), I get carried away on a wave of panic.

I’m trying to reassure myself that, in time, I will get the hang of it. I can still fall into my restful mindset quickly. All it takes is catching myself in the moment, closing my eyes and ears, looking around and breathing in the sky, the trees the smells, remembering to let all the thoughts and stimulation and judgement and people just slip past me, untouched.

This is progress. Right?

What running is teaching me about working

After my husband completed a 100 km run a few weeks ago, he told me the key to finishing it was taking things slowly. Not barrelling along or racing against time. It is more important to get out there and to finish than to exhaust yourself trying to do it quickly.

I’ve kept this approach in mind as I begin to re-introduce my body to running, after a year or so away from it. I have been running more slowly than I used to and ignoring the time as I go. I’ve also decided not to push myself, running only about 3 or 4 km each time over the past few weeks. But this past Tuesday, with my take-it-slow mantra in mind, I tried my old 6 km route. It’s been a long time but I enjoyed the familiarity; my body just sort of fell into step, as though it remembered exactly where every crack was, where every dip or hill was.

It’s a beautiful run, winding along in the sunshine beside Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. I looked around, enjoying the view of the meandering water, the reflection of the sky, the stately trees and lush gardens, the few leaves that are starting to turn red. I lost myself in my music. I experienced that wonderful feeling that I used to love, the feeling of floating along effortlessly, as though my mind had separated from my body.

Not only did I finish it but I felt like I could have kept going. Every time I felt myself speeding up or thinking about getting to my destination, I forced myself to slow down and think only of the moment.

It made everything feel easy.

And that’s what I’m thinking I should be doing as I reintegrate into the office.

Yesterday was my first full day at work. By lunchtime, I was looking for the exit, wondering how on earth I would ever complete the day, never mind the full three days I’m supposed to spend there next week.

I had been asked to write an urgent (everything is urgent) page and a half of speaking points for our Deputy Minister to use in an upcoming meeting. There were a number of frustrating issues about the task – the fact that no one had actually requested it, the fact that the speaking points already existed in another document being sent to the same Deputy Minister, the fact that I didn’t have access to any pre-existing files from which I would be pulling the information – but I did it, sent it off and then felt like crawling away quietly to hide.

I can’t really explain why this little burst of work took so much out of me. Though I never heard back from my boss, who I think sensed I was a bit overwhelmed, I don’t think I did a bad job on the task. Perhaps it was because it was the first time I had delved into all the places I had forced my mind to abandon over the past 15 months. Or the shock of writing for work instead of as creative expression. Or that I had only just regained access to my computer and had 15 months of emails staring at me.

I knew I needed a break from the office if I was going to make it to the end of the day. So I went for a walk. I found a welcoming corner in the shadow of one of the many monuments in our city, took off my shoes so I could put my feet in the grass, and sat there, watching the sky and emptying my mind of all thoughts.

It was then that the correlation between returning to running and returning to work hit me. If I’m going to make it through this adjustment process, I’m going to have to move slowly, avoid pushing myself too hard, stay in the moment, stop thinking about the destination, be it the destination of the day’s end or of the point in the future at which I will be working full time again, and I’m going to have to recalibrate when I notice I’ve stopped doing all these things.

When I returned to the office, instead of continuing to panic about making it to the end of the day or how I would ever survive working three full days next week, I spent the afternoon slowly going through tasks, small tasks, thinking of nothing beyond what I was doing in the moment.

And look at that. I made it to the end of the day. I made it to today, with its familiar comforts of my kitchen, my coffee, my time to myself, my writing.

There will be times that I panic. But at those times, I hope I will learn to take a deep breath, pull myself back, slow down and be in the moment.

For now, though, I’m off to do another slow run.

There’s that Thunderbolt: uplifting thoughts on life, stress and writing

I have been off work for a year. Well, almost.

For those of you who have been following me for a while, you may have noticed that my posts about stress and stress management have dwindled. For the first few months, I wrote a lot in this journal about my stress leave. I have posted updates from time to time but the longer I have been off, the less I have written about it.

I think this could be considered a sign of progress?

Though I have been writing other things, this doesn’t mean I haven’t been working through all the things that sent me packing in the first place. I just haven’t always felt the need to write them out.

Now, at the almost-year mark (I’m not so precise and organized as to need to write about this ON the anniversary), I am thinking seriously about returning to work. And that has brought the whole thing into sharper focus again.

In mid-June 2013, I turned up in my doctor’s office exhausted, frustrated and beside myself. I was unable to concentrate, unable to keep track of emails or any other elements of my job that required a focused mind. I was snapping at everyone, including myself. I felt as though my life was slipping me by and I had no idea anymore who I was or what I wanted to do.

My doctor told me I should have come to her earlier – months earlier. And she wrote a note saying that I was unable to perform my duties, that effective the next day, I would be on stress leave for one month.

At the time, I was sure I wouldn’t need more than a month. A whole month! Even a day seemed like a lot to take off, but I knew I needed a break. I just didn’t realize how much of a break I needed.

I went in to work the next day to notify my boss and my staff and to tie up any loose ends.

I asked my friend to water my plants.

I took a few things with me – clothes that needed to go the dry cleaner, shoes that needed to be fixed – but left most of my belongings as they were at my desk. I would, after all, be returning in a month.

I spent two weeks getting used to not going to work, and another two weeks on holidays at a beach in Maine with my family. By the time I returned, it had started to dawn on me that I was going to need more than a month.

Now I can barely remember what personal effects I left at my desk and my friend tells me in her droll manner that some of my plants suffered separation anxiety and have died. My life has changed, my priorities have changed, hopefully my outlook and approach to life have changed. The office, I hear, is pretty much the same, though possibly more toxic than when I left.

And yet, I’m going back.

Originally, I was sure I wouldn’t go back. I thought I would find something that was more “me” to do for a career.

Instead, I found writing. Or re-discovered it, really, after 20 years of not writing.

And in doing so, I found myself. The real me. The me that was missing all this time.

And I realized that I may never have a job that I am passionate about, a job that I was born to do, a job that I feel is deeply important, either to me or to the world.

But that’s ok.

Because I am more than my job. And that’s why no job has ever really been fulfilling enough, why a few months in, I always discover it’s just not what I had hoped it would be. Why it’s never quite “me” enough.

My job and what I want to do with my life don’t have to be one and the same. 

That is the thunderbolt of realization I have been looking for all this time. The same thunderbolt I was wondering about a month ago in South Africa.

Now I understand that my writing is my outlet. It is my space. The space I create and the place I can be creative. The space where I get to be the real me, where I get to do what I want to do. It is the answer to all my “who am I?” questions. It is where I find fulfillment.

This doesn’t mean I don’t like my job. There are things about it I really like. But I have never been career-driven or ambitious, I have never felt moved to climb the proverbial ladder; I work hard and have a strong work ethic, but no passion. And now I understand why. My job will never be for me what a job is for the lucky people: the epitome of who they are, the job they were born to do, completely fulfilling and exactly everything and all they can be.

For me, that is my writing. It is not my job. And it’s ok to have both separately. This explains so much.

I never would have figured this out if I hadn’t taken all this time. If I hadn’t had all the time in the world to think and write.

Armed with this new knowledge (knowledge is power!), I really am preparing to go back to work in September. I’ve started talking with my boss about my files and about integrating slowly, part-time at first. I am learning how to explain what my boundaries are and consciously trying not to over-commit, over-perform, or over-deliver, both at work and in my personal life. After all, that’s how I ended up on stress leave in the first place.

So I am making progress.

This doesn’t mean I don’t worry about going back to work, or that I am completely comfortable with it. I’m not. I’ve started having dreams about returning. Not nightmares exactly, but uncomfortable dreams about the disquieting nature of returning to a job you left in a state of stress and confusion more than a year prior to your return.

I’ve had a few moments in which I’ve thought, “I’m rushing things. I’m not ready to go back yet. Aaah!”

But generally, I think it’s time. Or at least in September it will be time.

As long as I can keep writing. As long as I can establish and hold firm to the boundaries that give me the time and brain space to keep this going.

Because writing is the one thing I do just for me. It is what will keep me sane, happy and fulfilled no matter what else is going on around me.