I used to be . . .
It’s a phrase I use a lot these days as I fight off the feeling that in retirement, I am useless. It’s not true, of course, that I am useless. But to be honest, I do feel just a little useless these days, at least some of the time. The reason? I used to be a bona fide workaholic. I used to feel important and productive. I used to be busy all the time, night and day. I used to be a perfectionist. I used to have just a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder, and all,of that drove me to a dangerous place.
The problem is that when you love and believe in your work so much, your work can become your whole life. Then things can get unbearable. So I admit that I am a recovering workaholic. I was the person that put in far more than 40 hours a week and never took a day off. But the critical question I had to answer was this: Is my ego at the root of my workaholism?
What was the job that was important enough to push me to work so hard?
I was a minister and a trauma counselor, and I was executive director of Safe Places, a nonprofit organization that served victims of violence. There was always someone in trouble, someone who had been battered by a spouse, someone trying to escape trafficking, a teen that was recovering from rape, a child that had been abused. So the work was never done.
I loved my work. I believed in it with all my heart. But I could not see what others saw. I could not believe the truth spoken by friends and colleagues, that I needed rest, that my work was hurting me. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was working myself sick. Circumstances, and maybe the alignment of the stars, brought me to a “come to Jesus” moment that forced me to take stock of my life. I realized I couldn’t do it all. So I took a very slight respite and pulled back from the constant work. In the meantime, as the stars would have it, we lost our federal funding, and suddenly Safe Places was gone. It was over.
The stress did not end, though, because those that needed help kept calling . . . my phone. I had no staff left and, though I tried, I simply could not continue helping all these hurting people by myself. So I was forced into an unwanted and unplanned rest.
During this “rest” time, grief and loss took over my psyche. But miraculously, my body began to rest. My pace slowed down. I was becoming mindful of every moment and what was going on in every moment. And in spite of the grief and sadness, my mind and spirit began to heal. What happened next was the shock of a lifetime. As my mind and spirit began to heal, I finally allowed my body to tell me what was going on. My doctors got to the bottom of it and diagnosed me with end stage kidney disease. Before I could even begin to take it all in, I was hospitalized and on dialysis.
I honestly believe I had worked myself to death, or at least nearer to death than I wanted to be. I spent a great deal of 2014 in the hospital trying to stabilize and then working to take my life back. It was hard work learning to write again, to think again, to walk again. But I made it through to a “new normal” that meant for me at least 7 1/2 hours of dialysis every day for the rest of my life, unless, of course, I am able to get a kidney transplant.
The experience of serious illness changed me. After I began to recover, people told me that I was unusually quiet. I didn’t speak much even when others around me were engaged in meaningful conversations. I knew that I was being quiet, quite unlike my normal personality. I was often silent when normally I would have had a great deal to say. I was different, to be sure, but inside myself I was okay. If I had to describe myself I would say that I was soft, broken open and free. And I was content in that place, although my family was concerned about me. I had traveled to a new place in my life, and it was a good place to be.
So here I sit in my “new normal,” tending plants, painting, cooking, writing, reading, and doing all things for pleasure. Most often I am still tempted to dive in and work on something until I am exhausted. But when the tiredness begins to creep up, something in my body remembers. Remembers I need to rest, to embrace stillness, to just “be.”
Still, I fight my old workaholic ways. Sometimes they push me to do things faster and better and longer. Sometimes my old workaholic ways push my button, the button that accuses me of uselessness, as in, “You are not worth much anymore! What are you going to do to change the world?”
Good news! I have finally given myself permission to not change the world. It has been a major shift for me, but I am seeing the truth more clearly, that I never could have changed the world anyway! So most of the time, when I feel myself pushing past my edge, I walk away. I write a blog post or fiddle with my flowers. I cook something fabulous or watch a little Netflix. So what will I do to live happily in these retirement days? I hope that I will keep studying the secret art of rest. I hope that I will continue to learn the grace of mindfulness, just cherishing the moment, every moment.
I used to be a workaholic. Not anymore.
Oh, and one more thing . . . a prayer. Though my faith tradition has always eschewed prayers to Mary, mother of Jesus, many very beautiful and meaningful prayers are prayed to her. I leave you with this one written by Mirabai Starr.
Mother of Consolation, help me to let myself be consoled.
I hold it all together, Blessed One.
I have convinced myself that it is up to me to keep the airplane aloft with my own breath, that I am the only one capable of baking bread and scrubbing floors, that it is my responsibility alone to alleviate the sorrow in the heart of every single person I know.
But I have forgotten how to weep, Tender One.
Teach me to reach out to the ones I comfort and ask for their comfort.
Let me feel the tender touch of the Holy One on my cheek when I wake in the night, weary and frightened.
Help me to be vulnerable and soft now, broken open and free.
— Mirabai Starr