Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Retired Morning Habit of a Former Miserable Workaholic

* Thoreau's Walden Pond

Up until a year and a half ago, I was stuck.  Like really, really stuck.  I was in one of those mental situations that I now compare to that of the thinking mentality of a drug addict or battered woman.  I don't say that lightly and I don't mean to exaggerate the situation at all. To be frank, it was really that bad. I was a workaholic - by both choice and force.  I was in a bad cycle of repeating the same bad behaviors again and again and nothing changing or improving. I didn't know how to make a change and I was completely miserable because of it.

I was working for a company that I enjoyed when I first started working there. I loved the culture and saw a lot of opportunity to grow. I also knew that I needed to "catch up" with others my age and become a professional.  I went to school and worked full time for many years obtaining my bachelor's and master's degrees at the same time.  I was very focused and driven and was on the move one would say.  I was promoted again and again and quickly became well-known and respected in the organization.  My hard work was paying off, or so I thought.

I was also the only woman leader in a male dominated field. Working with men never bothered me but at the same time, I felt this incredible need to prove myself to them. So I worked harder and harder.  I also knew that I was underpaid and under appreciated when compared to them.  Just another reason for me to continue to work harder, I thought.  I built up a large staff of employees and consultants and had a huge area of responsibility falling under me.  I loved being a manager and helping people succeed.  I also loved teaching people new skills and doing the right thing for my company.  You could say my job had become my passion - it was the prefect mix for me.  Helping people, teaching, using technical kills and had a fair amount of technical writing as well.  Unfortunately, I was giving my job and job alone the best parts of me.

I achieved so many things in that job -- things that felt like I was moving mountains and still do.  Large implementations, resolution of complex technical problems, numerous process improvements, andgetting buy-in and funds from Execs to drive change in the organization.  I was very proud of myself and felt I was making others proud too.  It became really important to me that I was respected and known as someone who could get it done.

While I was so passionate about my work, I was completely miserable a few years in.  The stress started to get to me and I did a great job of trying to hide it.  I kept a smiling face and just went with the flow; taking on additional work, additional staff, volunteering for recruiting, etc.  And after awhile it all became too much.  It was more than too much, it was completely and absolutely insane and yet I still kept at it. I attempted to raise the issue but probably never did get others to fully understand the impact the workload was having on me. I blame myself as much as my employer for allowing the situation to go on.

After a couple of years of operating at this level, I really started to notice the toll it was taking on me physically.  My weight had crept up quite a bit, the dark circles under my eyes were permanent, I was constantly sick with something (cough, ear infection, lost voice...) and my family never saw me.  At the very end, I had worked myself into a situation where I was giving my company 100 hours of my time a week in which I was literally giving away 60 hours of work for free.  The reward was low as well.  I wasn't seeing return on my time... just bigger demands.  To be honest, if you were to have seen a photo of me from that time, you would have thought that I had some awful disease.  I didn't look healthy at all, I looked like I could keel over any day.

I didn't just arrive in that situation.  I was actually in that situation for a long time and increasingly becoming more miserable.  I had a few people to talk to but at that point, I had exhausted everyone with repeating the same miserable story.  People didn't want to listen anymore and they didn't know what they could do to help.  Unfortunately, I was the only one could get myself out of the situation, but how? 

I developed this daily morning habit or ritual you could call it.  I was so desperate for help, I took to the internet to google these open ended questions, "how to be happy?" "how to leave a job you love because it makes you miserable?" "my job is killing me," "my job is making me miserable," "relieving job stress," "working 100 hours a week," "taken for granted by employer."  What was I looking for in those searches?  Some answer to my problem.  Someone to identify with. Some idea I hadn't thought of yet. 

I did find some answers but they weren't things I wanted to hear.  Common advice was: your health is more important than any job or career, there are other jobs out there that you could take even if they don't seem perfect or are a step down, stop feeling guilty for not being able to do the work of several, draw your line... the list goes on an on.  This wasn't what I wanted to hear so I would stop researching for the day and head to work. I did this for years. I also read several self-help books, watched and listened to Ted Talks and Podcasts, and saw a therapist during that time.  They all said the same things as well.  Change is hard and especially difficult when how you see the world has been skewed over years and years of stress.

Just how bad did things have to get to force me to make a change?  I eventually found out. It wasn't one event or one person or thing I read, it just came to a point where I struggled to get out of bed.  If I wasn't at work, I was at home in bed.  And that is no life worth living.

I started using any free time I had to find another job.  I applied everywhere. I hit a point where I made myself a promise that if I didn't find something, I would just leave.  I had retirement savings I could fall back on if I had to for awhile. I truly felt I was going to drop dead at some point and if blowing through my savings was going be the only way to prevent it, I would.

I did find another job. It took quite awhile and wasn't ideal but was going to allow me to leave that awful situation.  It was very hard to leave the job. I remember crying as I told my team and apologizing that I just couldn't do it anymore.  I remember even though I had given my notice, I continued working long days in an attempt to keep the team afloat and prepared.  I remember being enticed to stay again and again by my employer, they really weren't happy that I was leaving.  In the end, they offered things they should have offered me years before and made promises I had heard time and time again. I just couldn't do it anymore.

So I left.  And it was a freeing feeling but at the same, I was too dang tired to enjoy it for a long time.

The things stress can do to your body.  I thought after a break and then starting a new lower stress job, I would just bounce back.  You don't just bounce back from a situation like that.  In fact, your body needs time to renew itself just like you would if you were going through recovery.  Mentally I had to get my head in the right spot.  I had to develop new sleeping patterns.  I had to learn how to spend time with my family again.  I had to focus on taking care of my body.  And I had to give myself time.

I have been in recovery for the last year and a half and some things happened faster than others.  Sleeping and healthy habits were easy.  Even putting family as a priority was fairly easy.  The mental and emotional stuff was the hardest.  Learning to draw my line, not feel bad because I wasn't making huge impacts like I was before on the job, not feeling guilty for not feeling well, those things all have taken time to develop new ways of thinking. I still work on them each day.

I have long-ago now given up my morning ritual and truly say that all that advice I googled was correct.  I really hope that if someone else is in a similar situation this post is helpful to them. You may not want to hear the advice but know that someone else completely understands and there is light at the end of the tunnel, just keep moving forward.

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