I titled my last entry “January Ends Tomorrow,” and I could title this one “March Ends Tomorrow.” However, I think the common thread running through much of my work (and off-work) time lately has been burnout.
Recently, I posted on a depression support page about burnout, especially as it relates to my job. I mentioned that I really had no reason to feel it–the work is not mentally exhausting, I am earning that ever-elusive living wage, the insurance benefits are second to none, and I like my co-workers, as much as they can get on my nerves. However, every morning is an internal battle to summon the mental energy to get outside and catch my bus to work.
The burnout is not the “compassion fatigue” that many people in the high-stress helping and healing professions–such as nurses, social workers, and teachers–experience. Nor is it from overworking at tasks that are physically tasking.
At the same time, I am not seeking another job, either in my department or elsewhere with the State of Ohio. I won’t say it’s “the hell I know,” because the job is not unpleasant. I have a perilously low tolerance for boredom, because it leads to depression, and the job can often be dull.
The punch line here is that I genuinely like to work. Some people who have not seen me since I was a young teenager may be rolling eyes while reading the previous sentence, but once I got my first “real” job (typesetting The Harvard Crimson), I jumped into the working world with both feet. I took pride in the fact that I worked a 21½-hour shift to set the fall literary supplement in time for printing Sunday night, and my supervisor had to put her foot down at one point and restrict the number of hours I signed up to work. (There were several factors in play there–need of money in a very expensive city, and the fact that The Crimson was pretty much my community and surrogate family. At the time I was learning about families of choice versus families dictated by DNA.) I mastered the CRTronic Linotype to the point that I eventually wrote a manual for it used by my successors. At the same time, I was romanticizing and basking in the heavy caffeine consumption, poor sleep, and multiple hours I was working. I would have treated a heart attack, ulcer, or stroke (even at the age of 20!) as a badge of honor.
When I became an honorary editor of The Crimson in 1983, I received a gift, a book called The Art of Fine Words: Offerings in Honor of Arthur H. Hopkins, dedicated to a man who served as The Crimson‘s printer and Linotypist for over 35 years. One writer wrote that one telltale way The Crimson was in crisis mode was when Hopkins would stop doing everyone’s job and focus on his own. This is similar to a passage in John Updike’s 1971 novel Rabbit Redux, describing one of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s fellow employees at the print shop where he works. This employee’s sole responsibility was proofreading and hand-setting a German language magazine. “[He] had been likable in that he had done something scrupulously that others could not do at all.” When my mental energy is at its peak, I have this type of mentality.
And even now, when it’s on the wane, it comes through, sometimes to the point of being a nuisance to others. One of my responsibilities is typing ex parte orders for the Industrial Commission’s attorneys, and I have engaged in lengthy email disputes with attorneys over whether to italicize a word, citation formats, etc. Even though the prevailing wisdom is to do it their way, and any mistake is on them, it is hard for me to go through with something I know is incorrect. I know it’s not a hill I want to die on, but the feeling nags at me.
The common thread running through much of my working life has been that I seek jobs that I can leave behind. A doctor, an attorney, or a student always have the lingering feeling that there is something more they can be doing. A doctor always has more charts to update, or medical journals to study. A lawyer can never be too prepared for an upcoming case or brief. The specter of an upcoming exam or quiz always lingers in the mind of the conscientious student I never was.
It has been a long time since I have had a genuinely bad day at work, but I am thankful that when I leave at 5 p.m., I do not need or have to even think of the place until 8 a.m. the following day. The walk from the bus stop home usually goes a long way toward decompressing me, but since I am living alone, I can vent in ways that will not upset or scare anyone else. (This rarely happens.)
One of the few times I agreed with Archie Bunker on All in the Family was in an episode called “Archie and the Kiss,” when Archie came home from work and slammed the door behind him. His son-in-law Mike complained about it, and Archie said:
“Listen, Meathead, when I come home from a hard day’s work, that means I been working hard all day. Why? To make money to buy things, like a house.
“And on that house is a door, which I also bought. Why? So when I come home from a hard day’s work, I got something to slam!”
This overall feeling of ennui (and caffard) has extended into other portions of my life. Tonight, before sitting down to type this blog entry, I paced around and avoided this laptop like a junior high kid getting up the nerve to call to ask for a date. I bought a new Jensen turntable, and from the moment I ordered it online until it was in my hands, I was impatient, like a kid on Christmas Eve. I set it up, and it occupies a prominent place in a corner of the living room, and yet I’ve played less than two hours of music on it. Of course, it’s surrounded by compact disks and records I don’t play.
The fact that I haven’t written in, or even looked at, this blog in eight weeks is another symptom. I picked up and tried to resume the novel I began for NaNoWriMo, 50K in Thirty Days, but my momentum ran out after about two days, even as I tried to remember the words of a journalism professor at Ohio University, who counseled me to “write a few pages every day, and before you know it you’ll have a finished book.” Also, I have gone from being a person very conscientious about writing in my diary to someone who takes the composition book out of the backpack maybe weekly.
The biggest contradiction here is that my personal life is on the upswing. I have been spending time with a woman who has been making me very happy, and we have spent many days and nights together, as well as enjoyed planned and spontaneous road trips (to Cleveland and to Marietta, for example). I will truly worry when my overall lassitude crosses over into the relationship. The loved ones of people with depression tend to take it as a personal reflection of them, which is not the case. They are no more to blame for it than they would be for their loved one having a physical illness (unless the person caught something contagious from them).
I managed to make it through a blog entry, so apparently this hasn’t been all-consuming. You take your small victories where you can.