Monday, 3 March 2008

Ordering a Life

What do you do when life leaves you with nothing to do, and all the time in the world to do it in?

For some people, this is called a holiday. It may be a welcome break from the constant demands of working life. But for others, it can become a lifestyle. And it gradually becomes a hole that is very difficult to get out of.

In August last year, I took extended sick leave from my job. I found that the pressures of being a first-year doctor required a lot more energy than I had. Don't get me wrong, I loved my job. But after five months of working, my energy levels were low to the point that I would take at least a day off every fortnight because I couldn't get out of bed, and at work every afternoon around lunchtime I started feeling exhausted and by 3 I would need a nap. Hardly compatible with full-time work. So, despite the fact that I got an excellent report from the last team I worked with, it was decided that I would take leave until I felt better. (I think the excellent report was something to do with the fact that when I was there, I was doing my job as well as replacing other people who were supposed to be there but weren't. :P)

We'd already planned to take a holiday in early September - went off skiing. But after that, and after Smith went back to his job, there was nothing much for me to do. As far as I knew, my job was to get better so I could go back to work. But what would that involve? I didn't know.

Medical investigations had been organised to work out if there was any medical reason for my exhaustion. All I had to do was wait for them and then wait for the results. (In the end, there was no convincing medical reason.) In the meanwhile ... I slept. Seemed like the right thing to do, when I was so tired.

September, October, November ... I think I lost three months of my life.

I certainly can't remember doing anything worthwhile. I wasn't particularly enjoying myself, either. A lot of the time I would sleep until midday, or 1pm. I'd get up, mooch about on the computer a bit, maybe go back to bed. Computer time was spent reading webcomics, playing Insaniquarium or LOTRO, and doing puzzles. In the afternoon I'd nap again, wake up when Smith made dinner, and then sleep; or stay up late playing LOTRO. To tell the truth, I don't remember much about that period. It wasn't much of a life.

Nice work if you can get it, you might say. A life of leisure, with a job to go back to when I was ready (but how would I know I was ready?). Loving husband. Every need met. Capable of doing anything I wanted to do. No time pressures. No financial pressures, thanks to my husband's job. No obligations.

From another perspective, I was a bum. A highly privileged one, to be sure, but still a bum, leeching off my husband.

Of course, I'm not what you'd think of as your typical bum. You know the kind: the guy who lives in his mother's basement, on the computer all day (or all night, doesn't matter which) but doing nothing productive, doesn't cook, clean, wash or take care of himself, baulks at the idea of getting a job or even studying. In the 50s he'd be hanging out on street corners, 'bumming' cigarettes off his friends, in the 80s he'd be at the garage talking about all the cars he'd love to do up. But your privileged bum of the 21st century ... well, I sure acted like it. A female version, at least. You couldn't even call me a housewife, I wouldn't have met that standard by any stretch.

Naturally, I didn't recognise it at the time. There aren't many bums in medical circles :P And of course, nobody thinks of themselves as a bum, because the concept that comes to mind when you think of a bum is of how unfair it is on the people around him, that he isn't pulling his weight. Nobody likes to think of themselves that way. Even my husband was kind enough to think of it as me being ill, and that one day I'd get better; he'd support me until then. He knew I was capable of much more, and he figured I'd get back to it one day.

And the way it looks from the inside ... of course there's that nagging feeling that you're not being a productive member of society, and you're not even really enjoying yourself. For some people, I imagine that feeling is easily overruled by the simple ego-feeding thrills of whatever it was they're spending time on - World of Warcraft, or an addiction like gambling at the poker machines. For others, it is strong, the sense that you're a dead weight on the people around you, and that you really could be doing more with your life ... if only you knew how, or what. But it also feels like there are insurmountable obstacles in your path. For me, I knew there was more to life, but I didn't feel I had the energy, or the motivation, to do anything. It was all just too hard. This inner struggle in itself weighed down on me, the feeling that I couldn't do anything I wanted to do, I didn't know what would become of my career ... a cloud constantly in the background dampening my mood, blunting my emotions.


If you recognise this as a picture of yourself ... well, I'm writing a series of posts for you. I've gradually, very slowly, pulled myself out of that hole, using nothing but willpower I didn't know I needed, didn't know I had, borrowing strength from the people around me. I think it's time to detail how I did it, because when it comes to a hole like this, only you can pull yourself out, no matter how many hands are reaching in to help you. But know this: There is a way out.

There is a way out.

Don't expect any startling revelations from me, though. Everything I am going to say has been said many times before. I'm not advertising any miracle product or ten-week program (You too can be shiny and successful!) No, it is all common sense that you have heard from your parents and from society ... you might even be sick of hearing it by now. The big surprise is: it works.

You don't need money. You don't need any special powers of the intellect. You don't need any special circumstances (although, come to think of it, this would be kind of difficult if you didn't have a place to live, even temporarily). Your tools are a watch, maybe a pen and paper, and the wherewithal to get out there and take care of yourself, and then others. And while it won't be easy - I plan on detailing as many pitfalls as I can think of - it can be done.

The key word, of course, is 'done'. This is a process that you must do, you cannot simply 'become' (although popular culture would love to tell us you can!) No, you must act.

Currently these are the steps I have taken:

1: Realise that you could be doing something worthwhile. (This step took the longest.)
2: Take steps to obtain the energy you would need for doing it. In other words, take good care of yourself.
3: Seek support, and recognise support when it is being offered.
4: Actually write down things you could be doing.
5: Try to do some of the things you want to do.
6: Recognise the barriers in your way, and find out which ones are within yourself.
7: Realise that everything takes time, but only a certain amount of time.
8: Plan your time concretely, and realistically.
9: Endure your first big relapse into old habits, and come out of it realising why it happened and how to limit or avoid it next time.

Of course, this isn't a complete list; I'm not yet where I want to be. In fact, I've just come through my first big relapse into amotivation and fatigue. (I didn't go back to LOTRO, but there was a lot of Insaniquarium. I did do something every day, though.) But eventually - on March 31, to be exact - I will be going back to work. And by then, I plan to be ready. I'll keep you posted on how I go.

In the meantime, though, I will be going into each of the above steps in more detail. I hope that, one day, someone finds this useful (although I don't have that many readers just yet). Just remember:

It can be done.