I have had a lot of decisions to make lately. There’s been a huge amount going on. I’ve been finding it hard to sleep, and causing myself quite a lot of stress. There’s been a lot of guilt. A lot of second guessing other people’s reactions.
I was unloading this on the other half of my brain yesterday via messenger, and she was asleep at the time. Which turned out quite well, because I switched on my “What would she say?” filter, and had a revelation: almost all of my stress was around the impact of my decisions on other people, and fear of the way they would react.
But it’s my life.
For a long time now, my happiness has barely made my list of priorities at all. It certainly hasn’t been at the top.
And because I haven’t valued my own happiness, I’ve become increasingly toxic to the people around me. I’ve been grumpy. I’ve been disorganised. I’ve been letting people down.
I’ve been trying to be all things to all people, and nothing to myself.
I’ve had severe plantar fasciitis in my right heel since June. In July I was referred to a sports doctor with the promise that it was fixable. In all that time I have not made an appointment to see the doctor. I just didn’t have the time or the headspace. I’ve been so busy worrying about everything else, and trying to fix everything else, that I’ve been putting up with quite intense pain rather than make some time to get myself sorted. And if you’ve never had plantar fasciitis, count yourself lucky, because the pain is truly astounding.
And it has made everything worse. Because I’ve been in pain. I’ve been grumpy. I’ve been over the edge stressed. And nothing I’ve done – at work or at home – has been as good as it could have been if I had made the time for some self care.
We are taught to be selfless. We are taught to look after other people. We are taught that selfishness is bad. But we do need to practice a little selfishness to stay functional. It’s like fitting your own oxygen mask before you help others. If you have passed out from lack of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else. And if you have broken from lack of self care, you’re no help to anyone around you.
So today, rather than head into work early as I had planned, I have stayed home. I have finished my tax and done some paperwork. I have made an appointment to see the doctor tomorrow and get this heel thing sorted. I am determined to make the time to do the necessary exercises to put it right. And now I’m going to go and have a coffee and breathe for a bit, before heading in to work on time.
And maybe, just maybe, I can put myself back together if I do a bit of this every day. Because thinking about what’s best for me means I can be at my best for other people, too.
I’m spending a lot of time this weekend trying to catch up on my marking and get ahead on my lesson planning. Because I’m teaching Science for the first time, I’ve been sending a few emails checking on different details. From two different teachers I’ve had emails back almost immediately, answering my questions and apologising that they couldn’t do so in more detail, or fix other things, because they were out. They promised to get to it ASAP.
But it’s the weekend! When you think about it, it’s really disturbing that they felt they had to respond while they were out, and even more disturbing that they also felt they needed to apologise for not doing more. ON THE WEEKEND.
Unfortunately, this is normal. Not merely in education. Most professional roles seem to expect people to be on constantly, at least as long as they’re awake. To some extent we have done this to ourselves with our fervent embrace of the smartphone, but in other ways the “productivity” expectations of our workplaces have done it to us.
I love my smartphone, I have to admit. I have close friends interstate and overseas, and with a smartphone those friends are in my pocket all the time. I love that. I can reach out when I feel stressed, tired, lonely, or when I have good news to share, and have someone reach back. That’s priceless.
But it was months ago that I turned off work email notifications on my phone. Last week I also turned them off for my personal email. Because when I saw those emails come through, I felt obliged to respond to them immediately. An immediate response was almost never truly necessary, but as soon as I saw it, it nagged at me until I responded. Which led to me walking out of my daughter’s school after the drop off in the morning, answering email. Or pausing in the supermarket to reply to a query. Or waiting in line for the cinema typing frantically in response to an email that could very easily have waited until Monday.
Some time ago an article showed up on Facebook about how Universities wouldn’t be able to sort the diversity issue until they accepted 40 hour weeks as reasonable. A friend shared it along with a comment about how people get treated when they are part time. And it struck me (although my friend didn’t necessarily mean it that way) that 40 hours per week has, indeed, become part time. That a full time workload sees many of my friends working 60 or 70 hour weeks – and that’s just the ones who try to have a life. 80 hour weeks are not uncommon. And this is taken for granted as normal.
Indeed, people who try to advocate for more reasonable workloads are often asked if they are really serious about the job, or the organisation. “Do you want this job?” can be both question and threat.
The thing is, we know from many studies that this is both bad for workers and bad for the organisation. There have been numerous studies showing that real productivity goes up when working hours go down. Longer working hours, with their accompanying tiredness and stress, lead to bad decisions. Lack of work-life balance damages both work and life. We know this. But as far as I can tell from looking around me, working hours and expectations are both on the rise.
We’re slowly killing ourselves in the name of doing bad work, and lots of it. Heart disease and other stress-related illnesses are on the rise, and our response to that is to push harder. It’s like an arms race. When everyone else is working harder it’s hard to dial back without both feeling guilty and looking bad.
It’s time that we all banded together and said “this is not ok”. France has made a good start, by legislating the right to switch off. Organisations can take control for themselves, by banning out of hours email and placing limits on working hours. As individuals, we can stop contributing to the problem by not sending out of hours email ourselves, and by not replying to it until we’re next at work. We could even be really radical and not read them until it’s work time (but that one will be a challenge for me, at least!).
Let’s face it, urgent requests that are actually urgent don’t come via email. No-one will die if you don’t read your email until Monday. Not finishing a report or not getting your marking done this instant has never been listed as the cause of death on any real life death certificate. But working too hard can literally kill you.
My 13 year old has thus far avoided the Facebook trap, but she has been utterly hooked on Instagram for some months now. Like an obedient parent, when she got Instagram I did too, so that I knew what she was dealing with. One thing regular readers may have noticed about me is that I am not a visual person. I was given a beautiful illustrated copy of the Da Vinci code once and I barely looked at the pictures. I am obsessed with text. I compulsively read text when it is in front of me. I can’t help myself. And while I can objectively appreciate a beautiful image, I’ve never thought of myself as being able to create them.
I was going to say “I can’t draw” but that’s a lie, much like people saying “I can’t code”. It would be more accurate to say “I never learnt to draw”. The visual medium is never going to be my way of reaching people.
But somehow Instagram began to draw me in and influence the way I see the world. When I see a Spring flower, or a beautiful sunrise, I want to capture it and share it. With a decent camera on my smartphone, I’ve got the means in my pocket all the time, so stopping to take a photo is easier than it ever was before. And it turns out that people like to see these snapshots of life.
But what has been really interesting about this newfound passion for pictures is that it draws me outside in the mornings.
Whether it’s the sunshine causing the fence to steam after a wet night
Or a beautiful fungus on a tree
the world is drawing me outside in the mornings. And that’s having an unexpected impact on my mental health.
I’ve always felt that outside has some indefinable quality that inside, however attractive and comfortable, can’t possibly match. There’s a feeling to the air. There’s a sense of peace, of freedom. It feels as though the cleaner, fresher air of the outside is bringing energy into my lungs and washing the stress out. I walk out hunched and crumpled by the stresses of life, and I am suddenly able to stretch and straighten in the light.
I don’t know why this should be. Perhaps there’s a scientific explanation involving quality of light and components of the air, or perhaps it’s entirely psychological. But either way, being outside watching the birds and breathing the air is good for me in a way that nothing else can match. And there’s a particular bliss to be found in the early morning air that transcends all else.
I struggle to manage mindful meditation. I just can’t seem to commit to sitting still and focusing on a regular basis, even though I know that it helps. But outside in the early morning I am mindful in an entirely new way. I am thinking only of the things I can see, smell, and feel. Although my phone is in my pocket in case there’s something to photograph, I’m not on Facebook or checking my email. I’m in the moment. Breathing the air. Inhaling the peace.
People are always saying that social media is not real life. That the internet stands between us and the real world. But social media has drawn me outside and grounded me firmly in the real world. It has reminded me to breathe, to watch, and to be still. So now that I’ve shared that thought, I’m going back outside to breathe.
Australians tend to be rather contemptuous of the US health system. We brag about universal healthcare, and deride a system that only provides care to those who can afford it. But our universal healthcare is being steadily eroded, as people are pushed into private healthcare.
I have a minor heart condition. For the most part it’s not an issue, but it has escalated over the past week or so and I felt pretty ordinary this morning. I called the Nurse on Call advice line, described my history and my symptoms and she calmly told me that I needed to get myself to an Emergency department. Now. She said if I couldn’t get there within 45 minutes I should call an ambulance. She was quite forceful about it. Unnervingly so.
So I told my husband and we scuttled off to the nearest public hospital. Where I stood in a queue around 6 people deep and waited for 20 minutes before even telling anyone why I was there. They took my history, checked the oxygenation of my blood, and then told me to talk to the clerk and give my details, and then sit down and someone would come and get me to do an ECG.
So I did all that. And I sat. And I waited. And I looked at all the people who had been there before me, who weren’t being taken in. And I reminded myself that clearly the oxygenation of my blood must have been ok, or they’d have rushed, right? (Although they hadn’t actually told me what it was…)
So I sat.
And I waited.
After one and a half hours I asked them if they had any idea how long it would be. They said “hopefully not long, now that we’ve got some more staff on. But we don’t know how long it will be before you actually see a doctor.” They looked harassed.
So I sat.
And I waited.
Meanwhile I was getting dizzy, and nauseous, as well as very aware that my heart was doing funky things. My heart.
So I bailed. I called the two nearest private hospitals with emergency departments and asked about their queues. One had a queue of 2 (there’d been a “bit of a rush in the last half an hour” apparently). One had no queue at all. So we went there.
Two hours later I had been tested, treated, fed, and sent home. Not two hours of sitting in the waiting room. Two hours of active treatment, compassionate care, and several interactions with nurses and a doctor.
Had I not been able to afford the private hospital, I have no doubt I would still be waiting in that public hospital 8 hours later. Likely in a bed in the emergency ward by now, but maybe not even having seen a doctor.
I was lucky. I am fine. But that whole scenario could have ended very badly.
My bank account determined my level of care.
Apparently being financially secure means I am worth looking after.
My bank account does not determine my intrinsic worth as a human being.
The quality of my healthcare should NEVER be determined by my ability to pay.
People are worthy of compassion. Quality healthcare. Timely healthcare. And dignity. All people. Bank account status just should never appear in this context. We already have an education system that allocates opportunity and resources based on wealth. And it is so many levels of wrong I can’t even begin to cover it. But we are now moving faster and faster towards a health system that does the same.
We have to stop. Now. Malcolm Turnbull with his millions is worth no more as a human being then a homeless woman without a penny to her name.
Money should not determine the worth of a human life. Not now. Not ever.
I have come to realise that there are two types of people in the world. There are those who expect far more of others than they expect of themselves. And then there are the ones at risk of burnout: those who set a higher bar for themselves than they would ever dream of setting for someone else.
I’ve got nothing but contempt for the former, to be honest. I would never ask anything of anyone that I’m not willing to do myself. (Except for spider management, ok? I do expect somebody to deal with spiders, and it ain’t gonna be me. We all have our rubicons. Spiders are mine.) But apart from spiders, I can’t see how you can reasonably expect anything that you’re not willing to give.
Going to expect students to do something? Learn it yourself. Going to demand punctuality? Be on time. Expect people to treat you with respect? That’s a two way street, sunshine.
I’ve worked with people who like to make themselves look good by trashing others. It’s catastrophically bad for an organisation, both in terms of morale and overall work quality.
I’ve also worked with people who focus quite deliberately on raising others up: building their self esteem, publicly acknowledging good work, and generally making a much bigger fuss about the achievements of everyone else than about their own work.
They are louder about success than about failure. They will help you learn from mistakes, but they will never, ever, make a big deal out of them.
These people are society’s anti-depressants. I count some as dear friends, and some as work colleagues, and they would probably never recognise themselves here, because they also tend to be breathtakingly humble.
This humility is endearing, but it’s also dangerous. It comes back to those expectations – those who accept fallibility in others are often brutally hard on it in themselves.
I find myself drawn these days to anything that contains compassion. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, art, work, or science, I look for the love, the compassion, and the beauty. Life has enough trauma, enough harshness, enough brutality. I have a massive nerd crush on Brian Cox because he speaks so passionately about the beauty and wondrous variation of all life, including mankind. In episode 1 of Forces of Nature, for example, he said, “we’re all made out of the same building blocks, but we’re all slightly & magnificently different because of the history of our construction.” In his extraordinary lyricality there is a huge amount of compassion. I can’t get enough of it.
It’s odd, though, that despite being irresistibly drawn to compassion, I am singularly challenged to apply it to myself. My class goes badly? I excoriate myself. Someone else’s class goes badly? I’ll empathise, point out mitigating factors, think about how the same problem could be avoided another time, and help them move on. For myself, there can’t be mitigating factors. Everything is my fault. I expect myself to be perfect, even though I would never ask it of anyone else.
“Do unto others as you would have done unto you” doesn’t go quite far enough, does it? For some the message “do unto yourself as you would do unto others” has a lot more significance. Compassion is a powerful and healing thing.
The really compelling argument for me is that the less compassionate I am to myself, the less compassion I have to spare for others. If I have spent the day brutalising myself for some perceived failing, when I get home to my kids I am likely to be impatient and grumpy with them. It also makes me a lot less resilient. When I’m being hard on myself I can’t cope with life being hard on me as well.
So I have decided to look up to my role models. To those awesome people who lift me up on the low days. The generous souls who are kind and compassionate to those around them. I’m going to ask myself what they would tell me. And I’m going to try to treat myself as I treat others. Maybe if I do that, I might just avoid burnout.
I didn’t think anyone would be particularly interested in my sleep medicine saga, but I wanted to write it up because that’s one of the ways I process things. So I wrote it as a really long facebook status (I know, I know, facebook is not far from public) and figured people could choose to read it or ignore it. I expected most to ignore it, and I was therefore fascinated to find that it got a lot of attention. Maybe there is a hitherto unexpected hunger out there for information on sleep disorders and doctor shopping. Or maybe my facebook friends are just weird. You decide.
For those interested in tales of bizarre sleep therapies, read on. For those who are not, I’m sure there are some cat videos further on in your feed. Move along, and whatever you do don’t make eye contact with the crazy lady.
My sleep is lousy and has been for a very long time. I went to one sleep specialist who agreed there was a pretty severe problem. He did a sleep study on me (which involves being wired up like a processor board and then told to “sleep normally” in a hospital bed) which proved that, yup, my sleep is woeful.
The study showed mild sleep apnoea and a whole lot of unexplained, but extraordinarily poor quality sleep. My doctor therefore declared that there was no real problem, and very helpfully suggested I lose weight. Let’s not even talk about how hard it is to diet when you are beyond exhausted. That’s only a minor issue. It turns out that sleep deprivation actually changes your blood sugar regulation making weight gain more likely.
Let’s just say that particular specialist didn’t get another visit (except in my dreams where I shouted at him a lot). What I was dealing with wasn’t the problem he was looking for (severe sleep apnoea), therefore as far as he was concerned there wasn’t a problem. This seems to be a surprisingly common attitude among specialists. “You don’t have my problem, so you don’t have any problem.”
I felt utterly defeated,and quite desperate. After doing a lot of reading, and against the advice of my specialist, I treated the mild sleep apnoea with a CPAP machine (Continuous Positive Air Pressure), which helped a lot, but didn’t quite get me over the line. The initial bounce eventually settled and I remained exhausted. Not as exhausted as I was before, but it was still dragging my quality of life way down. In despair, I slugged about feeling rotten for months. Feeling exhausted all the time is second only to being in a lot of pain all the time – I have tried both, and I really don’t recommend either!
Finally I decided to try a different specialist. I went back to my GP who didn’t know who to recommend, so we perused the list and eventually chose one for the very technical reason that he was nearby. Well. That turned out to be an extraordinarily good move. This guy listened. And cared. And talked about evidence. While the previous specialist seemed rather disconcerted by the way I turned up to our first appointment with graphs, and horrified by the way I wanted access to the data from my own sleep study, this new doctor actually seemed to find my nerdy, data-centric approach useful. After a full, frank and quite entertaining exchange of views, and a few attempts at more conventional therapies, he suggested sleep restriction – basically an attempt to persuade my body to maximise its sleep quality by restricting the amount of sleep it has access to. Not for the faint hearted!
Taking an exhausted person who is getting around 10 hours of sleep per night and suggesting she cut back to 6.5 is a brave move – my kids were concerned it was some kind of oblique murder attempt aimed at them – but I was desperate enough to try anything. In a move that endeared my doctor to me no end, he was quite open about the fact that although it is well studied and documented for insomniacs, there is limited evidence for sleep restriction in cases like mine, where the sleep quality is poor but getting to sleep and staying asleep is not a problem. He was very clear that it was a long shot, but I figured it was worth a try. I’m a sucker for scientific honesty.
So for 2 weeks I cut back to 6.5 hours of sleep per night and went quite spectacularly mad… and then, quite suddenly, it started to work. Subjectively I was feeling a lot better, and objectively my actigraphic sleep tracker was actually showing flat spots – I was lying still! – as much as 75 minutes long. This is something I have never seen before. My usual sleep pattern has no flat spots at all. Constant movement is my theme – I sleep like a threshing machine.
Interestingly when I extended the sleep back out to 8 hours the wheels fell off, so it’s back to 7.5 for me, and maybe 7 if that’s no good. I can tinker with it from here to get it as close to perfect as possible. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had a couple of days of bounce – and it’s been a long, long time since I have bounced. If this really works my students are in for quite a shock.
There is one chief lesson I take from this, which is that when a doctor tells you that you don’t have a problem, or that nothing can be done, you have only his or her word for it. Doctors are as fallible as the next person, and the human body is far more complex and variable than we really know how to admit. Just because one doctor is stumped, or uninterested, doesn’t mean that there is no-one out there who can help you. Finding a doctor who takes you seriously, listens, and is willing to experiment, is sometimes a challenge, but it is definitely worth the struggle.
The second chief lesson is that your health is in your hands and nobody else’s. You don’t have to do what you are told by a doctor, however eminent, and you are always entitled to a second, third, or even fourth opinion. Medical professionals may rail against “Dr Google”, but an educated patient is best equipped to participate in his or her own treatment. I don’t have medical training or specialist knowledge, but I need to understand my own condition and explore my options. A doctor who doesn’t think that’s a good idea is not someone I can work with.
The third chief lesson (I’ll come in again) is that quality sleep is the foundation of absolutely everything, and more sleep is not necessarily the answer. I was tired, so I slept more, which worsened my sleep, so I slept more (I think you can see where this is going). I needed expert advice to fix that, but I needed a good relationship with that expert to make it possible. Some relationships are never going to work, in which case you should not hesitate to move on and find one that does. It can change your whole life.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some bouncing to do.
I am, it must be said, a terrible control freak. Or, if you take the positive view, I am a truly excellent control freak. I am very, very good at it. I like things locked in, nailed down, and spelt out in lists. I have lists of things to buy, broken down by where we need to go to buy them. I have lists of things to do at work and things to do at home. I have lists of possible gifts for people, and lists of questions I need to ask my boss. All neatly laid out. Nailed to the perch with seriously heavy duty nails.
I have deadlines, external and self-imposed. I have classes to teach, assignments to mark, lesson planning to do, curriculum to innovate, my daughter’s primary school events to be at, yoga classes to attend, and friends to catch up with. All calendarised, listed, and planned.
And I have a virus. It started as a sniffle – annoying, but manageable. I pushed through it. I had things to do. I was a woman with a plan.
It may not surprise you at this point to learn that my virus also had a plan, which involved intensifying into the mother and father of all sinus headaches, and ripping my plan right out from under me.
So here I am, home on sick leave, watching sulfur crested cockatoos career raucously through my local skies. I can’t control the cockies, any more than I can control my virus. There is no magic pill I can take to make it all go away. I can’t schedule a fixed amount of rest time and get better. I just have to rest and wait, and hope it won’t take too long. These things do happen, after all.
Yet it sometimes feels as though we rely on them not happening. We make these plans that have no space built into them for life taking place. We drive ourselves from one busy day to the next, and exclaim that we don’t have time to have lunch, exercise, take a slower but more pleasant route to work, or have coffee with a friend, because there is too much to do.
We have all these labour saving devices and no time to appreciate them. We are constantly berating ourselves for not doing more, for not achieving more, and for wasting time. We are too busy to be sick. Too busy to allow life to happen.
A friend of mine recently had her hand broken by a stray ball when she was watching her son play soccer. I randomly broke my toe last year running past a couch (they’re dangerous, I tell you!). Viruses, car accidents, heart attacks, injuries, family crises. They happen. And when they do, we handle them.
Because it turns out that we do have time when we really need it. My workplace won’t crumble without me (magnificently indispensable though I like to believe I am). The grass won’t mount an armed takeover if we don’t mow it this weekend. (Although it’s possible there’s an advanced civilization developing under the trampoline – we’re hoping they are a peaceful species.) My students won’t die if their work gets marked a little later, or if the feedback takes an extra day or two to arrive.
We take time when we are forced to, but I can’t help wondering if we’d need less time if we took more time. Maybe this virus wouldn’t have hit me so hard if I made time to be kinder to myself. If my day off, from time to time, was actually a day off, rather than simply a day working at home instead of at school. If my weekends involved more leisurely coffees on the balcony and less hurtling.
Maybe, just maybe, time could be our friend, if we only let it. Maybe we could make it our ally, instead of trying to make it our slave – and winding up slaves ourselves. I’ll think about it. When I have time.