In my overstressed life getting ill meant a rest

15 May 2018

Here’s how I realised I might have a problem with stress. A year ago I made the decision to have corrective surgery on my eyes. Before the procedure took place, I was warned countless times of complications that could arise and cause permanent damage to my eyesight. There was a waiver for me to sign, in case anything went wrong.

As the surgery began, I was wheeled into theatre and my eyelids were pinned open. Two small suckers were lowered on to the surface of my eyeballs and, nearby, some equipment began to whirr in calibration. The surgeon counted down, there was a pop of light and a milky whiteness swarmed in from the peripheries of my vision until I could see nothing else. I was blind.

And I was relieved about it.

The panic I had anticipated – the sweat-drenched, all-consuming fear that this was it and all was lost and my sight would never return – was nowhere to be seen. Instead, against all reasoning, I was overcome with an intense calm. “This gets me out of so much stuff,” I remember thinking.

Oh, the simplifications I’d experience if a stray laser beam had irreparably destroyed my eyeball. No more emails to reply to. No more meetings. No more stupid things to process with my stupid eyes. Admittedly, no more seeing my children grow up either, but I’d probably get over that in time. Especially if it also meant I wouldn’t have to do as much housework.

Clearly, the sight came back. The blindness was just the first step in a relatively simple procedure, and now I can see perfectly. But my reaction to that moment spooked me a little. Not only was it hugely insensitive to people with legitimate eyesight problems but also, somewhere along the line, I’d become so overwhelmed with stress that I’d come to see my own vision as yet another problem I could do without.

In fairness, things were quite full-on last year. There were work problems, there were money problems and I had a pregnant wife and a toddler, and my mother was in the latter stages of terminal cancer. None of these were individually insurmountable, but they all took effort. Combined, they felt like a constant buckshot blast to the face. They felt like I was cycling through a never-ending midge cloud with my mouth wide open.

So, in comparison with that, it felt good to have a breather in a room where the only thing to worry about was the man standing above me pulling wet slivers of ocular matter out of my eyeballs with tweezers. It was a rest. It was my holiday. I began to wonder how uncomfortable things would need to get before I stopped seeing these scenarios as an opportunity to relax. Would I feel the same if I had a full-body wax, for example? Was I so stressed that someone could slide shards of bamboo under my fingernails and I’d still treat it as a day off? Maybe. Anything for some time off.

I’ve come to realise that I’m not the only person who feels like this. At least one of my friends welcomes the onset of illness because it gives them a legitimate excuse to stop. Which isn’t to say that they court it – it’s not like they shuffle up and down tube carriages asking strangers to sneeze into their open mouths – but when it comes, they make the most of it. They’ve used colds to catch up on their paperwork, or finish a box set, or book holidays. And just because someone’s too ill to work, I recently learned, it doesn’t necessarily stop them from publishing loads of smug Instagram stories of their toes sticking out of a duvet in the middle of the afternoon.

But even then, there’s a difference between taking a guilt-free sick day – when, really and truly, anyone who ever takes a sick day should be treated like a hero for not infecting everyone they work with – and actively seeking unpleasant experiences just because they’ll take you out of action for a while.

That difference, I think, is probably down to the logistics of my job. Working from home, and splitting my days between several different jobs for several different people, has blended my life into a mush. All the lines are blurred. When I’m working, I might have to break off and deal with the kids. When I’m looking after the kids, I might have to break off and take a work call. A sick day would change very little. Perhaps that’s why I’ve had to go to such extremes.

Having children definitely exacerbates this sort of behaviour. Before you have kids, there’s a clear delineation between on and off. You work, you exercise, you see your friends; but then you can come home and sit in absolute silence if you want. You can clear the schedules and sleep until noon. You can watch television without needing subtitles, because there isn’t a toddler perpetually screaming Hickory Dickory Dock on a never-ending loop 18in from your face. A lot of the time, pre-kids, multitasking is a choice.

But with children – at least young children – the on switch has been permanently jammed down. Your time is no longer your own, and tasks start flying at you horizontally. The other day I found myself in a situation where I was sitting on the floor playing with our seven-month-old while doing some urgent internet banking on my phone, proofreading something my wife had written while she told a nothingy story about one of her friends in the next room. Meanwhile, I was having an argument with my three-year-old about the Batman film he’d asked to watch on TV because, although it made him cry, the act of me turning it off made him cry even harder. And this was a normal day. It’s become a little pedestrian to point out that men are never asked how they juggle work and home, but I wish they were because I haven’t got the foggiest.

The problem is that time off doesn’t solve anything. Taking a little time to myself just means passing the buck to someone else. To go upstairs for a nap would be to hand over this metal bucket of exploding fireworks to my wife, who already has enough on her plate. The guilt of voluntarily relinquishing responsibility is often too much to bear.

This is why I had to give up transcendental meditation. I took it up in 2014 after writing an article about it but, once we started to have kids, it seemed horrifyingly selfish to whisk myself away to sit in silence for 20 minutes twice a day. Whenever I mention this to meditation proponents, they always claim that the 20 minutes are an investment; that they’d allow me to get more than 20 minutes’ worth of stuff done in the rest of the day. Which, as an abstract concept, is great. But in reality, when everything’s on fire and you’re urgently needed at the coalface, it’s a hard thing to do.

So maybe this is it for the time being. Illness and discomfort are now my main leisure pursuits. As we speak, I’ve got a sore toenail from distance walking. There’s a chance that it’s going to fall off. Part of me can’t wait, just in case it hurts so much that I have to spend a couple of days housebound. Obviously, that won’t stop me from working. But perhaps the weird red heat rash I also developed during my last walk will kick in, spreading to my fingers and preventing me from typing. We can but dream.

Of course, the sensible thing would be to track back a little and attack things anew. Maybe my time and motion is all snarled up, and a series of efficient new workflows would stop me from trying to do everything at once. Perhaps I could even try talking about my stress issues with someone, so that every new request of my time didn’t feel like a hammer attack.

But that in itself would be a new request of my time. Figuring this stuff out is a long-term goal, and the early years of parenthood are a mess of short-term firefighting. When the time comes, when basic autonomy kicks in and I don’t feel like I have to carry the whole world around on my shoulders, maybe then I’ll get this looked at. That’s become my mantra of late: dig in, see it through, this is just a phase, it isn’t for ever.


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