mental health

Pumping the Breaks

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

~Douglas Adams

Mention the word “vacation” and everyone sits back and begins to think of their perfect retreat. Some people picture tropical beaches, complete with an iced beverage and glittering white sands. For others, it means a mountain trail to a quiet lake, roaring waterfall, or a rocky overlook. Maybe it translates to days running around an amusement park, standing in line for the newest roller coasters (or waiting for your phone to let you know you’re clear to enter Galaxy’s Edge). And a break can even end up as something as simple as sitting on a porch or deck, enjoying your view of choice. That’s the EXPECTED reaction to the word.

But for some people? It’s anything but.

Ask some of us what “vacation” means, and we shake, hyperventilate, and break out in hives. Take a break from work? Are you serious? Turn off the phone, step away from email, and pretend there aren’t any responsibilities? Pretty sure that only occurs in movies – and it usually doesn’t end well when it DOES happen. What if something critical happens and you miss it? Maybe someone will see your Out of Office reply and decide you’re lazy or unmotivated. (A dedicated worker would snap to respond at any moment of the day or night – accepting work on vacation) And what if you’re somewhere with NO internet signal? (They exist – I found pockets of them) The chances for a lack of work skyrocket. The anxiety spirals set in, and you run screaming from the suggestion of a vacation – almost as if someone suggest you spend a week in a torture chamber.

Why? Programming, what else? Way too many of us spend years working in careers where “vacation” ends up a taboo subject. Sure, you have vacation days or hours as part of your benefits package. But the reality is Management DOESN’T want you to use them. (Paying you for NOT working? It’s not something they’re fond of) That’s why you see that disapproving expression when you submit your Time Off request. Sometimes you get the bonus of a sigh – as if you’re asking for a promotion to Owner of the Company. And some places make you jump through elaborate hoops to get that time off. You may need to submit your request MONTHS ahead of time. In other places, you have to find someone to cover your shift – even AFTER you’ve followed the other rules. And you may even have to compete with more senior employees for time; if someone else decides they want a week off? You’re out of luck.

The system is designed to KEEP you working.

And (as a hard-working employee) that’s what you do. It’s not like you get many hours off, anyway. (At least, I usually didn’t) Then you grit your teeth when Management stands up in meetings, talking about the importance of self-care. And when you finally get a precious vacation here and there? You take phone calls from work. Or you walk back in (because you know better than to go too far from home). Your brain learns that you’re not supposed to do anything EXCEPT work. Until your anxiety starts screaming any time you’re NOT working. It’s a sadistic system, and it’s rampant in the careers out there.

The worst part? I STILL fight with this concept. And I’M my boss now! I call the shots and have the right to take a vacation whenever I want. But when my husband and I started discussing plans for a break, that familiar anxiety was waiting for me. I didn’t feel right leaving everything behind. It got to the point he made me PROMISE not to work while we were away. No checking (or answering) email. No new writing. No phone calls. I was to RELAX and turn my brain off. (Such a novel concept)

I felt like an outright criminal. An entire week without focusing on my job? Seven days spent away from my computer? My brain braced for lectures, frowns, disapproving glares. None of them came, of course. And around the third day, I realized how STUPID that system is, and how much damage it did to my mental health.

I lost SO MUCH enjoyment on vacations in the past, constantly feeling chained to my phone and needing to check in with my job. Whenever I found a moment of tranquility or joy, that stupid piece of technology would break in and ruin everything. But this past week? That never happened – because I refused to let it. So I got the chance to laugh, NAP, and reset my system. You know – the things you’re SUPPOSED to do on a vacation. Making that promise was the best thing I’ve ever done.

And the world didn’t end!

If a client feels I’m lazy for taking a much-needed vacation? I don’t want to work with them. But someone that wants to work with me will respect my time off. That’s the way the working world SHOULD function. If people want us to thrive, they need to allow us time away to unplug and regenerate. Sitting over a laptop in a panic attack – even on a beach – isn’t HEALTHY! Why don’t corporations understand that? People DIE every year from stress and overwork. And it’s due to the system they’ve created.

Yeah, I’ve broken free from the insanity at this point. But not everyone can do the same. If you’re not self-employed, you need to feel empowered to stand up for your vacation time. (I can’t advocate breaking the rules they’ve set; you don’t want to get fired) When you punch out of that clock? TURN OFF YOUR PHONE! You’re NOT available any more. They have plenty of other employees they can contact for an answer. And while you’re at it? Unplug your brain. Your work worries will wait for you (don’t worry about that). When you sit back at your desk, you can pick them up again. But for the time you’ve carved out? You don’t need them.

It’s WELL past the time that we took back our vacation time. We are NOT robots with endless programming. And management structures need to understand that. Preferably before they land their top employees in a hospital – or a grave.

mental health

Being Unavailable

Everyone that’s ever responded to a text message or email after work hours, raise their hand. If you’ve taken a phone call related to work on the weekend (and I’ll use the term “weekend” loosely, as people work different schedules), keep your hand up. Finally, ANY work-type function performed during a vacation (mini or otherwise), leave your hand up. Now, be completely honest:

Is your hand up?

Yup, so’s mine. Welcome to the world of the workaholic. We have no sense of self preservation, and no concept of the word “boundary.” SOME event in our lives drove us hurl ourselves off the cliffs of perfection and people-pleasing. And our brains translated those needs into answering every beck and call as if our very lives depend on it. It doesn’t occur to us that – unless you happen to work for an actual Evil Overlord – we won’t die if we start setting up boundaries and allow those intrusions into our downtime to pass by. In some cases (say, if you’re dating, married, or have families), it MIGHT allow us to live longer.

Now, I’m not telling you to abandon a healthy work ethic. You don’t come across those very often these days, and they ensure quality. There’s nothing wrong with throwing yourself into everything you do, avoiding distraction. But when you punch out at the end of the day? You’re DONE. You don’t need to continue dancing attendance to the “powers that be.” Especially when it starts compromising your health and well-being. Running around in circles, frantically watching a phone every moment of the day? How does that improve ANYONE’S anxiety?

Newsflash: It doesn’t.

I worked in veterinary medicine for ten years – usually at emergency practices. That meant I could receive a text at any moment, asking me to come in and cover a shift. I understood the possibility, and while I wasn’t always coherent when texts or calls came through, I faithfully kept my phone on and the volume up. It never occurred to me that other people turned theirs off when they were home, ignoring THEIR messages. It took me years of agreeing – over and over – to add hours to my week, stretching myself thin, before I caught on. And by then? I’d established a pattern. Trying to back away and say, “No” became nearly impossible. I couldn’t figure out how to put up boundaries when my back already looked like a well-worn welcome mat.

And transitioning to freelance work? Things didn’t get better. Oh, sure, I set my hours and days. But the panic of reacting to the snap of someone’s fingers was already set in my mind. As soon as a message, email, or text came in, I jumped to handle it. Who cared if it was five minutes before I crawled into bed? Or on the weekend when I’d decided I wouldn’t work? How about the week of my wedding when I firmly declared I WASN’T working? The ingrained pattern drove me to reach for a keyboard. And my husband frowned and made the same comment, “I thought you were done for the day.”

I had ZERO boundaries!

If you don’t put down pickets and barbed wire (sometimes you need razor wire AND an electric fence), you’ll never learn to break the habit. And YOU’RE the one who has to set and hold a boundary, not the people around you. Because odds are pretty high you’ve trained people to walk all over you. A neat little note asking them to stop? That’s not going to work. You have to slam the door in their face a few times to get the message through. And, honestly, all of those barriers are for YOU just as much as they are for them. Trying to hold those boundaries is difficult. You’re breaking a habit that’s engraved down to the BONE. Erasing muscle memory takes a force of will. One you probably don’t have, courtesy of your anxiety that a client, your co-worker, or your boss will HATE you for deciding to insist on your time to relax.

The withdrawal? It’s real. I haven’t made it to the point of not checking my professional email account – mostly because I also use it for my personal writing. So I see messages come in after I’ve finished for the day or week. And there’s an internal LURCH to respond. Then my brain starts attacking me when I say (aloud), “I’ll take care of this in the morning (or Monday).” Every negative thought in the world shrieks in my inner ear. And I start shaking. Because my go-to gut reaction is to handle the response immediately. I have to talk myself down from the ledge – and, no, that isn’t an exaggeration.

Who cares that it’s dinner? I should drop what I’m doing and send a reply ASAP so my client knows… Oh, wait. So they know what? That I’m not a human being? That I chain myself to my desk and do nothing except sit and wait to hear from them like a dog in a shelter – desperate for any crumb of affection? Put the phone down and worry about it later.

It’s the weekend, but they have a question? I need to make sure I answer it! Because if I don’t the world will come screeching to a halt? Did they specify that the issue was immediate? Or didn’t it say “when you have a chance?” Doesn’t that imply they understand I have other things going on? Because I TOLD them I don’t work on weekends so I can spend time with my husband?

It’s exhausting!

But it’s also an important exercise. The week of my wedding was insanely stressful – for a ton of reasons. Letting myself fret over work issues (none of which were critical), was stupid. I’d set out of office announcements and let all of my clients know ahead of time about the time off. The fact that it got ignored wasn’t my problem. But instead of holding my boundary firm, I let them trample over the line. And I suffered as a result. It was the same as taking a text to cover a shift when I was on vacation (a POSTED vacation) years before.

When you don’t set boundaries, you give up pieces of yourself. And your mental health suffers. You don’t get rest (obviously, since you’re constantly staring at your phone in horrified anticipation). Downtime becomes a complete and utter joke. You might as well move into your office, because you never “leave.” Then there’s the domino of what happens with the people around you. Your family gets frustrated with your never turning “off” work. Friends get irritated with your need to step aside all the time. And you come apart trying to please everyone.

Are you going to get shocked by that fence a few times? Yup. Is it going to hurt? You bet. But will you thank yourself for putting up the fence down the road? YES. I feel the hiccup of tension and anxiety, but then I put my phone down and go back to what I was doing. I mean, I’m a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way from how I used to be. But you have to take that first step. You won’t regret it.