Sometimes, you are the problem

I’ve been having a tough time trying to re-focus and get back into writing since the holiday break. It has been incredibly frustrating.

I knew I wouldn’t be writing during the two weeks my daughter and her fiancé (and their dog and cat) were here, and I was fine with that. Time with them is rare and precious. I planned for that. I worked damned hard during the weeks leading up to their visit in an effort to make up for that.

And I really wasn’t surprised when I was too sad in the days after they left to get much done. That’s familiar territory, missing them and the commotion and noise and energy they bring with them. Although it did seem to last longer this time, and to feel more like depression than just sadness, than it has in the past. But still. An entire third week of not writing. At all.

During this past week, the fourth full week of not writing, I still couldn’t seem to focus and get on with it. Every day I woke up with a vague feeling of something hanging over me. Almost a feeling of dread. Like there was some unnamed threatening thing out there, only I had no idea what it might be. I was lethargic and unmotivated. Exhausted, even though I’d pretty much done nothing at all, certainly nothing tiring.

And I felt guilty as hell, because I NEEDED to be writing. I just couldn’t.

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And then I had a dream in which my former employer called, saying what an awful mistake they’d made and begging me to come back to work. In January. The most stressful and demanding time of year, dealing with year-end financial reporting. And in my dream I couldn’t speak, couldn’t answer. The damned thing just kept repeating, over and over, him begging me to come back, until I woke up in an absolute panic. I wanted to go back to sleep so I could tell him, “HELL NO.”

Mind you, in real life, this is just not going to happen. Not even a slim chance. It’s not something I’m even remotely worried about. Besides, I’d just say no. Nicely.

But I finally realized what has been wrong with me. I’ve been conditioned to dread this time of year. It has never been a time for writing. This is the time of year to be overworked and underappreciated and exhausted and stressed to the max. A time when life narrows down to the overtime demands of the job at the expense of everything else. And I’ve been feeling that way even though there’s no longer anything causing those feelings.

What an idiot. I’d like to believe I have more self-control than one of the subjects of Pavlov’s experiments. Geez.

My initial reaction was to have harsh words with myself and tell myself to suck it up and get over it, dammit, and just do what needed to be done. Regardless of how I felt. Except, you know, I’m really sort of fed up with sacrificing my sanity for the “greater good” at this time of year.

So rather than beat myself up about it and add more stress to my life, I decided that this might just be the time of year when I need to be kinder to myself. To give myself a break and lower my expectations. A time to relax and slow down and breathe deeply and let go of all stress. To be accepting of decreased productivity.

So that’s what I resolved to do, this year and every year from now on. Well, at least until I stop foaming at the mouth every time I hear that damned bell tolling its less than dulcet tones of “year-end tax reports” in my head.

That was Friday. I decided to take the rest of the month off. An extended vacation, no pressure. I’m telling you, I woke up Saturday feeling so relaxed and calm. Refreshed. Energized. Optimistic. Like it wasn’t even January any more.

And then . . . somehow . . . I, um, spent the next two days writing. Thousands of words.

I am so contrary. Maybe I don’t need that extended break after all. We’ll see.

Do any of you have a time of year like this that just destroys you? I hope you don’t. But if you do, maybe consider finding a way to be kinder to yourself until you get past it.

Oh, I almost forgot. I did try again before Christmas to write that sweet short story. Sigh. The characters were insipid and boring and so incredibly sweet — really, you would have hated them too — and I decided to consign them to the unremarked obscurity of the happily-ever-after they so richly deserved and never write about them, ever. Be patient, there are far more interesting people on the way. Now that I’m writing again.

11 Comments

Filed under health and well-being, writing

11 responses to “Sometimes, you are the problem

  1. Oh I have so been there! Not with the tax thing exactly, and my former job was stressful just about every single day of the year. But one job in particular, my first real job, was a sweatshop. Their goal was to use you up and spit you out. I never had a day off…not any day. Not the weekend, not a holiday…nothing. 16 hour days, for months on end. And no, it wasn’t even the medical field. It was graphics of all things. That place had me so tied in knots that toward the end of my time there I would pull into the parking lot and just cry. I couldn’t even get out of the car, my body wouldn’t let me. I’d sob my eyes out and then somehow make my way inside and get the jobs done, get the film out and the jobs on press but my body knew it was too much and told me so. Every. Single. Day. To this day (16 years later I think, possibly more) if I drive by the building I get instantly nauseous. My stomach ties in knots and tears form in my eyes. The company doesn’t even exist! It’s something else in that building now, and I don’t work there anymore. But it doesn’t matter…my body remembers. Good thing I moved far away!

    I think you’re wise to officially give yourself a break. That’s how you’ll move past this Pavlovian response 🙂

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  2. Oh god, Melinda. That sounds unimaginably traumatic. I had no idea a job in graphics could be so demanding. And unreasonable. I really wonder sometimes what the people in charge are thinking, putting workers through some of this crap. I guess they’re thinking there’s an endless supply of workers who need a paycheck.

    I’m so relieved to hear that job is in the distant past for you, even if the memory still lingers. You’re free of it now, try to let it go. ((hugs))

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  3. I’ll never understand it either, but my experience wasn’t unusual. Wherever you see a print shop…the kind with big presses…odds are they’re treating their employees that way. I suppose because every minute those presses are down, they’re bleeding money. So the constant pressure to keep them running over rides absolutely everything else. I could tell you horror stories! But I won’t because then I’ll be a little ball in the corner LOL. I learned a LOT at that job, but I stayed too long. They really didn’t plan on anyone staying more than 2 years, and I was there nearly 4. I was young…that’s what they want. Young, stupid, naive…and once you’ve grown a bit and are wiser you move on. And for all that joy, they pay you peanuts.

    You and I both need to move on :-D. I find chocolate helps. Sometimes loud music, a warm fluffy cat (or dog) wine and good friends to ease the pain. 😉

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  4. McB

    Isn’t it funny how ingrained things get in our brains?

    I think not having an outside job can almost be more stressful, because you don’t walk away from something at five o’clock. How can you let it go if you live in the same building with it? And that’s not just true of paying jobs. Everyone with a job faces trying to balance work and home, all those chores that don’t get done during the week, so you end up trying to cram everything into the weekend just so you can have … what exactly? It’s not ever going to be perfect, why do we kill ourselves trying?

    So good for your, giving yourself permission to take a break. And just like that, with the pressure off, your muse is back. Be sure to schedule some regular breaks for yourself, do some fun stuff or something that at least uses a different set of muscles. You love writing; don’t make it into another job that you come to dread!

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  5. Melinda, I guess can understand wanting to keep the presses running, but no one should work 16-hr shifts without days off. Geez. Hire more people.

    McB, you are very wise. And ingrained is right. I was truly surprised when I realized why I was feeling that way. I had to say it out loud, “That’s not your job anymore.” I felt very foolish.

    You’re right, I don’t have the same physical markers of arriving at and leaving work, but when I’m writing I’ve learned to shut down anything connected to the internet except email — and even that I generally ignore. So my brain knows when it’s work time. And I do take breaks (more than I ever did when I had the day job, that’s for sure). Writing is difficult and often very frustrating, but I don’t think I’ll ever dread it. Not in that way.

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  6. There’s a lesson for me in what you said. My panic and anxiety comes more from things like exams. And email.

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  7. Theresa, I’m glad you got something out of it. The thought of taking an exam again after all these years . . . yeah, panic and anxiety for me too. FWIW, I think you definitely should be kinder to yourself. 😎

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  8. My stress time is back-to-school, and then I had a kid with an August birthday, and then life events. I had an epiphany too, several years later, that part of my stress was from those shadows and August/September was a good time of year to plan in gentleness and down time rather than more production. And nowadays it’s not so bad at all.

    So this year the writing project has a subplot about grief, and I ended up going to a lot of funerals. One aunt too many, and I decided to table the book for a while since it’s supposed to be funny. “I’ll start again in January,” I told myself, “New year, new page.” So–guess what–choke. After a few days of keeping myself very, very busy and thus unable to write anything, I decided to go back to morning pages. They don’t have to be about anything at all, so I ramble on until I get bored with myself and no longer nervous about whatever it was I didn’t want to write about. It turns out that what I juiced myself up to do was revise another manuscript, but that needed a boost too, and in the morning pages I even talked myself into recruiting some beta readers–now I also have a deadline!

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  9. Ann Marie, I remember back-to-school as being stressful too. And then I sort of missed it once the kids were on their own. Plus, my dad died in August, many years ago. I can understand the grief.

    But good for you for finding a way to write something, anything, without the stress and expectations! I sometimes think my blog is my morning pages, just rambling on about whatever comes to mind. I can’t help but laugh when I hear people say a blog has to have a theme or a purpose or whatever. Well, maybe a successful or popular blog needs that, but it’s not going to happen over here.

    AND you solicited beta readers. Wow, that is a huge step forward, sharing your work and asking for feedback. I’m proud of you.

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  10. Robin Sorrentino

    What a great insight into what made you feel that way, KDJ. This and the other comments have definitely given me a lot to think about.

    I started feeling very stressed after Thanksgiving about getting everything done for the holidays and guilt about not writing intensified it. I gave myself permission to take a hiatus and that lightened my stress level almost immediately. Now if I could just get myself back into the writing habit…I’m going to try Ann Marie’s morning pages routine and see if that helps.

    The fact that I need 3-5 chapters to print for a writing workshop I’m going to Saturday might also help. And the fact it is going to be raining tomorrow morning.

    Thanks to you and your commenters for your examples and guidance. The fact that you are willing to share what you are experiencing and what you have learned from it is a very big deal as far as I am concerned. Thank you.

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  11. Robin, you know me, always happy to blather on and on about MeMeMe and what’s happening in my little corner of the world.

    Seriously, I’m glad if it helped you feel better about the stressful times. We all have them and I think we’d be healthier and more productive in general if we’d just admit that and give ourselves a break when we need it. Good luck at the workshop! I hope it gets you excited about writing again. Your voice is too compelling to remain silent for extended periods.

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