Americans work longer hours and take fewer vacations than most other workers around the globe. According to the Families and Work Institute, the average full-time worker spends approximately 48 hours a week at their job.
I wonder how many of those cubicle-magnets invest their souls into their jobs, like I do, to quell feelings of inadequacy and fears of not being good enough.
My poor therapist. I don’t know how many times I asked her how, exactly, to begin to fill up the hollow hole inside of me, how to go about developing this thing called self-esteem.
“It’s all in the doing,” she said. “Baby steps forward.”
“But it’s not,” I argued. “Because I could win a Pulitzer and it still wouldn’t be enough.”
A study I had just read supported my claim. Several Nobel Prize recipients experienced a severe depression after winning the award. Interestingly enough, little was left inside them after they achieved their dreams.
“You are a human being, not a human doing,” my guardian angel Ann often says to me, reminding me to keep things in perspective and to enjoy a massage every now and then (as long as it’s not with a pompous hippie pushing a no-meds approach to depression). “A human being has time to reflect, enjoys being alone, is happy with themselves even though struggling with mental illness and the usual problems of life. The human doing has to be busy all of the time–doing this, doing that, and doing more than others to feel of value,” Ann explained to me recently.
My identity is still way too intertwined with my career as a writer and editor. But I think (and I may be fooling myself here) my self-worth doesn’t fluctuate according to my book sales or Beyond Blue page-view numbers as much as it did before my breakdown.
In that six-month period where my concentration was so poor that I couldn’t write one sentence or read one paragraph, I had to sketch a different portrait of myself–one sans career. And boy was that chick ghastly.
My friends and Eric helped me doll her up so that I could stomach her looks…because I had no idea exactly when my brain would reboot and start functioning again.
The morning I tried to convince the psych unit nurses and doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital that I was not one of “those people”–and should therefore be discharged immediately–I called my friend Mike from my hospital room in tears.
“What’s happening to me?” I asked him. “I used to be successful. Remember? Our book was a bestseller. Look at me now. I have never felt so horribly inadequate, empty, and pathetic in all my life. When will I be able to produce something of value? I’m nothing without the writing. I’m no one without a product. Just a lazy and incompetent woman.”
In the background, Fred, a 65-year-old man who had been hospitalized for over a year, was banging his head against the wall two doors down, moaning like an injured cheetah in Namibia’s grasslands (I would have rather been there).
“No…. I can’t take it anymore…. No….” he wailed loud enough for a nurse to run and get some sedatives to calm him down.
“Do you hear that? What the hell am I doing here?”
“Therese, listen to me,” Mike said with the compassion of two Mother Teresas, a Gandhi, and the Buddha. “You don’t need to produce anything more. You’ve done enough. Put it away. None of it matters. Not in the end.”
“You don’t have to write another word,” he continued. “Jesus didn’t write anything. Well, maybe a few words in the sand. You are loved as you are, and I will always think you are beautiful. And Vickie (his wife) too. We wish you peace. That’s all.”
I almost held my cell phone up to the head-banger’s ear. Because Mike’s genuine love and acceptance of me at a pretty ugly moment was worth far more than the $2,000-a-day treatment I was getting at the hospital (with no help from the insurance mafia, thank you very much).
This friend, mentor, and foster dad truly didn’t care whether I became an annoying Jehovah’s Witness pushing pamphlets during dinner hour, or if I put the kids in daycare so that I could watch “Oprah” in my pajamas all day. It was all the same to him.
The next day I snuck out of the psych ward. (FYI, if you can pull one over on a nun in junior high, busting out of a nuthouse is a cinch.) Eric and I strolled around the inner harbor of Baltimore wondering which kid was going to fall into the water as we fed the ducks.
“Do you feel like your career defines you?” I asked him, wearing my hospital band as a reminder that I was insane.
“A little bit. But not nearly to the extent it does you.”
Just as this husband of mine tells me when a pair of pants adds ten pounds to my butt (and my fluffy turtleneck gives the impression that I’m hiding some extra chins), he didn’t hesitate to deliver his honest assessment.
“You don’t have to write another word for me,” he added. “I’ll love you regardless.”
Between him and Mike, that made two people who supported me even if my name never appeared on anything other than a driver’s license, traffic violation, and credit card bill.
If they could love this useless and unproductive person, and if God could, I thought at that moment, maybe I could try to too.