Read Part I: A Month in the Life of a Recovering Workaholic.
Who am I? Why am I here? What am I going to do when I grow up?
It was a cool, sunny autumn morning in the year of 1987.
Sitting alone on a dark green, sun-faded wooden bench, the seven-year-old me pondered these questions for the first time during recess at school. I was wearing a crispy white T-shirt and shorts, munching on Ritz crackers, and sipping water from my pink plastic water bottle.
Some of my classmates were playing tag in front of me on the grey concrete basketball court, screaming on top of their voice, and chasing each other around. A few others sat on the bench on my left, sharing some fancy-packaged Japanese snacks and giggling about last night’s TV soap opera.
I did not join them because I found playing games pointless and small talks boring.
Instead, I gazed directly across to the other side of the basketball court. There it stood the old, giant mango tree next to the light blue, rusty monkey bar. Yellow and orange sparkling sunlight twinkled through its luscious, dark green canopy. My eyes traced the dark silhouette of the tree trunk while free-falling in the rabbit hole of existential questions before the next class started.
Suddenly, a loud double beep from my phone brings me back to the present moment.
For the past two months, I’ve been getting this flashback, a fragmented piece of childhood memory, again and again. No sound. Just images. Like a silent movie on reel. As if my consciousness was trying to send me some cryptic messages.
The New Yorker cartoon calendar on the top right corner of my desk reminds me that it has been 16 weeks since I walked away from decades of busyness.
The physical recovery has been slow and bumpy. I contracted COVID-19 for the first time in late August. It took me almost a month to recover from the infection and after effects (exhaustion, insomnia, and nightmares). Only until this week that I notice an improvement in strength and stamina during exercise, returning to nearly where I was 18 months ago. Also, much to my delight, my body is no longer in constant pain and tension.
Emotionally, I have been feeling more sensitive and fragile than usual. Some days I am like a dandelion in the spring garden—light, blissful, and optimistic. Other days I am like a piece of driftwood in the raging sea—battered, lonely, and sad. And in between there were tears and anxiety attacks. All I can do is to breathe, let my feelings come and go as they please, and write my heart out in my journal.
My mind seems to have a reboot and is functioning again. I have commenced on a three-month writing assignment since September. Some thought I was crazy to accept the job offer back in July when I was so burned out that I needed to quit. But this piece of work has been a blessing. It has given me the opportunity to do work that I want to do and to experiment different routines and methods to see what would work best.
As my body and mind recalibrate and learn new habits, my heart starts to wander and wonder: Who am I without a job? What’s important to me? What’s next?
One day, I saw the newly redesigned Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way at a bookshop and got curious. I took a copy from the display shelf, sat down on one of the plywood stools in a quiet corner, and started scanning the chapters.
Here are nine quotes that I resonated with the most:
1. “There is a difference between zestful work towards a cherished goal and workaholism. The difference lies less in the hours than it does in the emotional quality of the hours spent. There is a treadmill quality to workaholism. We depend in our addiction and we resent it.”
2. “Most of us are not raised to actively encounter our destiny. We may not know that we have one. As children, we are seldom told we have a place in life that is uniquely ours alone. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that our life should somehow fulfill the expectations of others, that we will (or should) find our satisfactions as they have found theirs. Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others’ versions of ourselves.”
3. “The process of identifying a self inevitably involves loss as well as gain. We discover our boundaries, and those boundaries by definition separate us from our fellows. As we clarify our perceptions, we lose our misconceptions. As we eliminate ambiguity, we lose illusion as well. We arrive at clarity, and clarity creates change.”
4. “Growth is an erratic forward movement: two steps forward, one step back. Remember that and be very gentle with yourself…Growth occurs in spurts. You will lie dormant sometimes. Do not be discouraged. Think of it as resting.”
5. “Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast—you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
6. “What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do. When we do what we are meant to do, money comes to us, doors open for us, we feel useful, and the work we do feels like play to us.”
7. “Understand that WHAT must come before the HOW. First choose WHAT you would do. The HOW usually falls into place of itself.”
8. “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.”
9. “Leap, and the net will appear.”
Workaholism was the coping mechanism through which I sought safety, validation, and love. It gave me a sense of control while navigating life’s unknowns. It disguised itself as my purpose of wanting to be of service. Busyness kept me high on dopamine. I chased the feeling of productivity and achievement in my job. And before I knew it, it became an addiction and a mistaken identity that consumed my health and sanity.
The truth is I am not my job title or the work that I do.
I am an imperfect human being who has many characteristics, experiences, and labels.
Female. Middle-aged. Single. Child-less. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Chinese Australian. Migrant. Born hard of hearing. INFJ. Spiritual atheist. Healthcare professional. Patient. Carer. Leader. Manager. Mentor. Mentee. Learner. Reader. Writer. Thinker. Solo traveller. Art lover. Coffee drinker, and much more.
I am all of the above, and I am also not. I am what I am at each present moment.
I am constantly changing and evolving. Just as the world and people around me are doing the same.
While my purpose to “do good, make impacts, and support people” has not changed for a decade, my interpretation of it has moved on. I cannot be of benefit and care for others unless I treat myself with loving-kindness too.
From now on, looking after my health and wellness—physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, professionally, and spiritually—is my most important job. And I will not do this alone. I will learn to trust and open up to people and communities around me. Like vice versa, I would give my all to listen to and support families, friends, colleagues, and people in need.
In terms of what’s next, I am still contemplating.
No matter what the what will be, it has to be something that:
>> I really want to do (not I should be doing)
>> aligns with my purpose and values
>> supports growth and creativity
>> generates adequate income to keep me going
>> enables me to effect meaningful changes to humanity
And no doubt I will continue to follow Julia Cameron’s wisdom on my journey (and here’s a bonus quote):
“In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun. Do not think duty. Do not do what you should do—spiritual sit-ups like reading a dull but recommended critical text. Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery, not mastery.”
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