Exhaustion =! Passion

It me.

It me.

CN: Physical and mental health, anxiety, diabetes, blood, hypothetical self-harm

I haven't been talking about it much, except for mentions of "what might be enough sleep" in my "Happiness today" tweets, but I have been absolutely exhausted this week, and it took me until mid-week to identify why and until this weekend to actually correct for it. Talking about it not only gets it out of my head, but it might also prove helpful for someone else.

tl;dr: I'm fine and have done no actual damage to myself, but wow is America's obsession with the Calvinist work ethic deeply ingrained.

See, I've been working on a major project at my Day Job -- 450 pages of copyediting, on a much tighter deadline than we were expecting, due to a variety of factors that were out of anyone's immediate control. Two weeks ago, I worked a 48 hour week, including work on weekends; this past week I worked on Saturday, too, though at least the work week was all normal hours, and I got a day off for all the hard work I've been doing. And that is where this story starts, because all the way through that I was doing fine. I mean, I could tell that my stress tanks were absolutely full, and that I needed to be very careful with myself outside of work -- there may have been a freakout over me spilling some coffee early in the 48-hour week, but I was able to narrow that down to a typical anxiety trigger that just hit me broadside because of the other stuff. Yeah, I had to work overtime, and yeah, it felt like it might never end, but that's the way overtime always feels, and I had plans for a day off and for that time-and-a-half pay I was getting, and so it felt like a heroic task that I was going to be duly rewarded for competing; an editorial dungeon crawl with a nice dragon hoard at the end.

The next week was almost as bad as that week, though I only worked Saturday, not Sunday. I felt a little funky Sunday night, but I assumed it was the fast carbs in the Father's Day chilaquiles hitting my low-/slow-carb-dieting body. And I woke up a little ragged on Monday, and again on Tuesday, but that was probably no biggie -- and then all the heavy lifting on the copyediting was done! I could work a normal work week and maybe take my day off at the end of it! I went home that night, and Morpheus caught me right between the eyes with an entire gym bag full of sand. I didn't just feel sleepy; I felt like I might be getting sick. On Wednesday, I woke up groggy, but I didn't feel like I was getting sick anymore, and I was peppy and happy once I had my morning caffeine and read for a little while -- it's amazing what a good book does for my brainmeats -- and was able to focus for the rest of the day.

Day 2 post-overtime, my attention wavered even earlier in the day, to the point where just inputting data in Excel was frustrating. I ended the day by getting on the train and reading the same page of Everfair three times before I gave up. Home. Exercise. Healthy dinner. Skip writing (as I had been doing for a week and a half). Early bed. Self-care, self-care, self-care, right?

Day 3: I woke up groggy again. Again, caffeine and book helped. I got to work, and I couldn't focus on anything. I took it slow and got everything done I needed to do. The giant copyedit was really, officially done down to the last detail, and I was able to take that extra day off mentioned above. I booked an aromatherapy massage, and got my iPad and keyboard ready to do some writing at the cafe, and I came home and almost collapsed.

I checked my blood sugar, just in case -- this can be a symptom of diabetes going unchecked, which let me tell you did wonders for my anxiety. Totally normal reading, though, maybe even slightly low. I asked Sonya, apologetically, to take care of dinner, and when she said that was fine I went and took a nap, and woke up feeling even worse. I ate dinner, hoping it was perhaps a calorie debt, and I watched a TV show, and I went the hell to bed.

Day 4: My day off. So groggy my eyes felt like they'd been put through a food dehydrator. Checked my blood sugar just in case: totally normal. Coffee at my favorite cafe woke me up. Writing felt absolutely heavenly, but as I was doing it I felt muscle knots letting go that I didn't know I had. The massage worked out even more mystery knots, to the point where I literally lost track of time; near the end I was scared I had accidentally booked two hours of massage instead of one. I think I started drooling at one point. I went home, and read some more Everfair (which by the by is an absolutely fantastic book), and took another nap. I woke up for dinner actually angry at the fact my body needed dinner.

Day 5: This past Friday. The slowest, least focused day of work in weeks. I had little enough to do that I could triple-check myself, at least, and thank goodness I was working from home so I could stretch and stay hydrated and otherwise keep myself awake at my own pace, but by 4:30pm I was begging the clock to click over to the end of my day at 5. I got there, and luckily Sonya had to spend the evening prepping for our D&D game, so I was able to just read and futz around on the Internet and nap. I don't fully remember Friday evening; when I went to bed I fell asleep so fast you'd swear I had been drugged.

Which brings me to Saturday, when I finally slept in a little, and woke up feeling three things:

  1. The sense that an enormous weight had been pulled off both my brain and my spine.
  2. The realization of how anxious and in pain I no longer was, like there was a negative space where an unyielding two weeks of tension had been.
  3. The sense I needed to write this blog post.

I wore myself out over the past two weeks, and I refused to pay attention to it, because I had convinced myself that the sense of accomplishment at the end of it would be worth it; that the day off and the embiggened paycheck would be compensation; that it would feel so good to be writing regularly again after all those weeks of copyediting instead. And no lie, the sense of accomplishment is real, and knowing that we did not miss a deadline because of me is nice, and it was good to get a day off and do some writing and get a massage; but I do not need to make myself feel sick and foggy-headed for five straight days to be "worthy" of those things. But because I was working with the written word, I convinced myself that this worthiness, and the burnout I was courting by achieving it, was okay.

It's the "American work ethic," poisoning me into thinking the sacrifice of mind and body is me earning good things. It's also the related phenomenon of the "starving artist": the idea that to ruin oneself in the pursuit of creation is to achieve some mythical "real artist" status, that there is a nobility to that kind of suffering and self-harm.

There isn't. It's self-harm. It might not be cutting or burning or substance abuse, but it's still a slow destruction of the self, and it's the opposite of better that I'd think of it as praiseworthy.

I'm by far not the first artist to talk about this. Daniel Jose Older discussed it (gorgeously) in "Writing Begins with Forgiveness"; the meme referenced in this The Fifth Blog post has gone around the Internet a few times. But apparently we still need to talk about it, because if I'm doing it, other people are, and my case was relatively mild compared to some. f nothing else, I definitely need to hear it from myself.

Yes, I needed to get that deadline met. Yes, I need to write, at least some, to be a writer. But hurting myself to do either of those things is not great, or good, or even OK. Exhaustion and passion are not the same thing, nor are exhaustion and dedication; and if we conflate either pairing, we're going to wind up with a whole lot more of the former and a whole lot less of the latter.

Self-care is one of the most important, radical things we can do. Self-care allows us to create more and better art, to meet the next deadline (even if this one needs to be re-negotiated), and to be there for each other. And in these times, with actual monsters wielding actual power, we need as much art and as much support as we can give each other.

So talk to your boss about extending that deadline. Give yourself days off from word counts or the sewing machine. Get yourself a present. Take your meds. Put on that t-shirt you never let yourself wear. We all deserve it. And that's the thing we should be passionate about.

That said, I'm gonna go write. But only now that I've made sure to eat lunch.

*I am contractually obligated to give no more detail than this, sorry.