I have lately been blessed by the ADHD diety with hyperfocus on a relevant task. I am in charge of our campus writing contest, and last year the person who did the layout for our annual print journal moved on to a new job. Last summer, then, I took it upon myself to learn about layout and typography. Besides being fun to learn something new and a creative endeavor to boot, it had practical purposes. I had started teaching more sections of technical writing and so needed to learn more about design.
The new layout looks fantastic, and I am proud of the work. I’ve been able over the last two weeks to invest many hours in the editing of the journal as we near publication (though, by all rights, it should have been done last fall . . .). I realized, as I spent at least fifteen hours over the weekend working on it, that I was in hyperfocus/new toy/slightly obsessive realm. The work gave me a strong sense of calm engagement, though, and I came out of the weekend feeling renewed and refreshed. In fact, Monday was one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a long time.
While that’s great, it shows me that my inner values say to me that I must have worked to my full potential before I am allowed to relax. This semester has been enormously busy with extra committee work (which I agreed to). I’ve had more than a few fifteen-hour days since January. If I can fill up a day with meetings (conferences with students, classes, and long committee meetings) the day is actually pretty exhilarating. I also give myself permission to stoke up on caffeine and sugar to keep going. On those days, I have a lot of face-time, which is stimulating as well (along the same lines as the body double strategy for getting work done).
At the end of a day like that, I am exhausted, but not depressed. Usually, tiredness gives me a creeping sense of doom. I feel my own mortality most deeply right before bed after a day of bad procrastination. After a full day of meetings, I am in happy exhaustion mode, sort of like after finishing a long run.
There’s another word for this habit: workaholism. It stands to reason that if a brain gets a certain kind of stimulation from filling up a day like this, that a person would continue to fill days up like this. I need accomplishment (at least I think I do). That became part of my identity early in school. I have enormous difficulty doing something in a mediocre fashion (and that perfectionism ironically creates mediocrity).
For a short period, right before I had children, I managed to live the workaholic life. I taught full time in one city, lived in a second, and was doing Ph.D. coursework in a third. I often got up at 5:00 in the morning and would spend ten hours a week on the road. It was the only time in my life prior to using ADHD strategies that I could keep up with grading papers. I felt fully engaged.
It was, however, enormously unhealthy. I had a serious lack of sleep. I often ate two drive-thru meals a day in the car. My caffeine consumption was record high. I never exercised. I gained weight. I’m sure, if I had bothered to go to the doctor, that my blood-pressure was too high. The strangest thing, though, was that it all felt so normal. I got praise for the hard work I was doing, and eventually a tenure-line job, the job I hold today. And I never thought about my own mortality.
It turned out not to be sustainable, thankfully. We decided to have children and buy a house, and the added pressure made this shaky artifice crumble. Soon after, I sought therapy for the first time.
It is so very easy to get caught up in the busyness and drama of a professor’s job, at least here. Someone is always outraged at something. The rumor mill is worse than middle school. At some point, I cross over from the instinct of wanting to do good, meaningful work into a competitive, perfectionistic mode where I want to be the best at anything I do, which means insulating myself from criticism. That’s not good. When I’m at my best, I am focused, principled, and open. When I’m at the other pole, I’m that overly ambitious child who gets caught up in all that mess.