Thursday, July 5, 2012

:: oh the things i'll achieve! ::

i find that the older i get, the more depressed i get.

strangely, though, i don't actually feel like my sads are particularly sadder than before, nor do i feel like i spend any less time happy than i did before, which is weird. my joys are as joyous as they ever were. i laugh as much. i make people laugh as much. i still rock out to my favorite songs when they come on the radio. i still delight in the grand fireworks finale. but some physiological and mental set point seems to be falling lower and lower, and somewhat regularly now i find myself in full-on crisis. 

i make no claims to understand this, and even metaphors, which usually help me both understand and explain how i am feeling, seem to fail me here.

i'm still on anti-depressants, which i think are what allow me to be here and not some darker, scarier place. and i'm still in therapy, which certainly has helped me better understand some of my more maladaptive behaviors and thought patterns. but objectively speaking, i'm more depressed than i was, say, a year ago, at which point i was more depressed, i think, than i was a year prior to that. 

up until now i have adopted the position that if i was feeling depressed, i needed to make a major overhaul. i have always felt like that's what i've needed: drastic and overarching change. a clean slate. stop writing the dissertation. start a new business. put the kids in full-time daycare and work a more typical 9-5 M-F work week. transfer to a different college. drop out of a particular program. quit a certain job.

with each big change there comes a sense of sureness: yes. this was the right choice. hooray.

still to this day i believe that each of those choices was the right one. i have never been happier that i gave myself permission to stop writing my dissertation. leaving my corporate IT consulting job and moving home to rochester was surely the best choice for me. i was much happier at cornell than i was at chapel hill. i stand by every single decision. each one put me in a better place than i had been in before.

but what if i'm only getting it partially right?

i'm wicked smart and super motivated. what i put my mind to i achieve. i don't just go to grad school. i go to grad school in a field i do not have an undergraduate degree in, i bypass the MA with special permission and head straight into my phd coursework, and i spend two of my five years on prestigious, merit-based fellowships. i take my first job out of college with one of the "big five" consulting firms, which provides me with a signing bonus, a car and a per diem, and moves me to two states i've never lived in before over the course of just six months. i don't just open an etsy shop; i open an etsy shop, code my own e-commerce shop to sit alongside it, revamp that three times over three years, get featured in BRIDES and other prestigious magazines (did i mention that martha stewart living recently requested some of my things to photograph for a story that may or may not be forthcoming?). i don't just start working after realizing that i can't only be a stay-at-home mom, i start overworking. i try to work full time and stay home with them. then i put them in full-time daycare, but not without first starting a new business that has incredibly fierce demands on my time. i don't just transfer to cornell. i transfer after my first semester at unc and then proceed to graduate from college a full year early, with highest honors, and with a GPA that put me among the top 1% at the entire (ivy league) university. when i decide to start running i end up completing my first triathlon. 

i am, to put it mildly, an overachiever. 

which it occurs to me now might just be the problem. or if not the problem, a problem.

i've had two major and two minor breakdowns in the last four years. four occasions in the last four years when life's demands became too overwhelming for me to continue to function normally. i couldn't eat or sleep. i couldn't be around my kids. i basically could not do the things a person needs to do to get through a day.

and i feel another one coming on. not, like, this weekend or anything. but in the coming weeks or months.

which leads me to this: i am a firm believer that the things we do in the space of our recovery from these mental breakdowns can teach us something. they are, as in yoga, counterposes meant to bring our psyches back into a more balanced state. they play yin to the yang of whatever it is that has led to the mental breakdown.

in my recoveries, i've benefitted the most from the following: talking with other human beings, reading, writing, taking walks, sleeping, being creative, asking for help handling day-to-day stressors, and spending time alone, in the quiet, often outdoors.

and when i feel better? when i feel better and my recovery period is "over" i usually feel i've done three things:

1 - i've given myself permission to make whatever change it is i feel i need to make.
2 - i've sorted out some problem that has been gnawing at me.
3 - i've figured out some new direction to move in.

and then i move in that direction. swiftly and with determination. at which point i promptly stop: talking with other human beings, reading, writing, taking walks, sleeping as much, being creative, asking for help handling day-to-day stressors, and spending time alone, in the quiet, often outdoors. but change feels good, and success feels good, and so i feel good. i'm "better" and i'm so glad about it.

until it's too much and i fall apart all over again.

in november of last year i had an idea: i would start a print shop. and in february of this year, i started it, right alongside my other business. and by the end of 2012, that print shop will almost certainly gross more than $100,000. possibly even significantly more than that. by the end of its second year i expect it will gross in the quarter-million range.  if i can keep up with it. which already i can't. 

which is where the impending breakdown comes in. i can see already how it will happen. i'll continue to work like crazy, pushing the business to grow even as it has already outstripped me of my ability to keep up. i'll bring on new and awesome customers. i'll buy more equipment and continue to talk about hiring. i might even actually hire. i'll work evenings and weekends to stay relatively on top of things, even though i'll feel perpetually behind. and then some life stressor, like a sick child or a car accident or some other uncontrollable and disconcerting event, will reduce me to an anxious mess. i won't be able to eat or sleep. i'll spend my time taking xanax and watching teen dramas from the CW on netflix for weeks, at which point i'll substitute healthier behaviors like reading and doing puzzles for the xanax and teen dramas, taking a month off from work to recover.

i tell myself that i work the way i do because we need the money.

i tell myself that i work the way i do because i need to feel empowered.

i tell myself that i achieve things because i'm smart and achieving things comes easily to me.

all of this is true. 

we need the money, i need the sense of purpose and personal fulfillment, and achieving at high levels really does come naturally, and even easily, to me. but at a cost.

which of course makes me feel like i need to make some major, overarching changes. which then of course gets me already started thinking about the amazing things i'll be able to accomplish when i make those changes. perhaps i'll write a book about it or something. or become a guru like leo babauta of zen habits. when i stop being an over achiever, oh the things i'll achieve!

some things i know that are true:

i am working too hard now.
i am under too much stress.
i spend too much time thinking about how to be more successful.
i also spend too much time thinking about how to be happier.
i do not exercise enough.
i do not have enough leisure time.
i have too many things going.
i spend too little time doing the things that make me feel healthy.
i cannot keep up the pace i have established.
no one can.

but what can i do with all of this? knowing my own patterns of overexertion / burnout / breakdown / solace / overexertion / repeat, how can i intervene and change the cycle? how can i stop experiencing burnout? how can i stop having breakdowns? is there a place between overexertion and complete and utter solace that might be a healthier, more balanced place?