As you read this I have literally gone fishing. I am in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ontario less than two hours from where I grew up. In fact I am on a small island in the middle of a lake that is only accessible by boat. There is no cell coverage where I am. My phone is off. My computer has to wait until Friday. All I am concentrating on until Friday is making sure my eldest son is having a good time, and his uncle, grandfather and cousin aren’t spinning him tales around the campfire that will keep him up for days.
I wasn’t always this way. The thought of taking time off work used to create huge anxiety for me. When I used to lead a rather large street outreach and housing program I feared that there would be a huge client crisis or a big issue with one of my staff while I was away, or that the Mayor would need me and I would be unavailable and let him down.
Not only would I fear taking vacation, I would keep my phone on all day, every day of the week. No matter what time someone tried to get a hold of me, I was on it. Every vibration of an email elicited the same response of grabbing to scan whom it was from and whether it demanded my attention. In my Blackberry days, I would even feel phantom vibrations on my hip when it wasn’t attached to me.
I also used to work until about 11 or midnight every day and then get up early enough to get to the office for 6am so that I could have a couple hours of quiet time before the noise and demands of the day consumed me. And I worked at least Saturday or Sunday pretty much every week. When I was traveling to help other communities understand what we were doing, I would spend all evening into the wee hours staying current on everything that I couldn’t do because I wasn’t in the office that day.
Why on earth did I do all that?
I was afraid that others measured the value of my contributions by how hard I worked. I was afraid that if I didn’t work that hard I wouldn’t be a credible leader when I asked my staff to do half as much. I was afraid that people would only think I was smart if I churned out a huge volume of high quality work in a short period of time. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid that if I took my foot off the pedal that we would lose momentum in the massive change initiative that we were working through to alter homeless services. I was afraid that my boss would find a replacement for me. I was afraid of not using my talents to their fullest potential. I was afraid of being lonely – even when I felt alone while surrounded by other people. I was afraid that if I took time out for me I would be scared to confront who I had become and all of my shortcomings…my remarkable imperfections.
You may say it all sounds insecure. And it is. You may think it all sounds unhealthy and unreasonable. And it is. You may believe this is exactly the wrong type of behavior to exhibit to a staff time. And it is.
You may be that person or have been that person. Or maybe you have worked with someone that demonstrated similar behavior.
I didn’t know it or appreciate it at the time, but there is a link between these tendencies and depression in some people. I am one of the “some people”. I thought all of this behavior would make me feel whole. It didn’t. I still have the scars of these efforts that damn near killed me – or to be more honest, made me want to kill myself sometimes or at least muse about what the world would be like without me in it. (If you are a new reader and don’t know about my depression you can read this or watch this video I made after the Sandy Hook shootings last year.) No amount of being busy ever actually compensated for the emptiness I felt inside most days.
I am still learning how to relax and truly practice self-care. Make no mistake, I am a work in progress on that front. But over the last three years as I have started to make a conscious effort to practice wellness, I have come to realize that one of the best things I can do every summer is to make sure there is a week that I am gone fishing and completely unwired from the inter-web. It is part of my Wellness Plan, which I have integrated into my life to help me ensure that I am aware of what I need to do to increase the likelihood of remaining well.
Maybe I will hear the loon’s calling each other repeatedly. Maybe I will see a moose or bear or other great Canadian creature. Maybe I’ll catch a bass or 12. Maybe I’ll hear my dad’s fishing stories again. Maybe my brother and I will relive another one of our adventures from our childhood. All that stuff doesn’t matter as much as taking the time to not focus on work and just focus on decompressing…taking time to be well and appreciate wellness.
The outcome of practicing self-care is that I tend to be more relaxed, which in turn makes me more focused. When I am more focused, I am more productive and more attentive to the needs of all the people I support and work with in the pursuit of ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, and putting social policy into practice. I will never be all things to all people; but with the right break, I can be a better person to many people, starting with myself.