Overcome by Overdrive
The title of my book? “Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age.” The irony was not lost on me.
The stress of promoting my book and my ensuing near-meltdown made me think twice about giving advice. At my workshops, the participants always looked at me as if I had the answers to fix all that overwhelmed them. They asked me how to sleep better, get their husbands to do more, cure sciatica, learn how to say no, redefine the “Second Shift” and solve the socioeconomic woes of working mothers.
It was killing me. All the while I heard a voice: You can’t change the external stresses around you, but you can change how you react to them. Who was this wise and knowing voice? That would be … me.
But if I did everything on my to-do list, I would never sleep. The public-speaking gigs left me depleted; the highs of a reading or workshop catapulted me into a mild depression for days. My back was tweaked from nights at the computer, trying to convince journalist friends of friends of friends that my book was worthier for a mention than the 90,000 other books published each year.
Against my instinct, I set up blogs, plogs and Web pages, which then had to be maintained. I checked my Amazon.com listing for hourly changes in my sales rank and followed up on my follow-up calls. Meanwhile, I kept up on my freelance writing gigs and did everything required of a mother of a toddler: middle-of-the-night coddling, filling and refilling Tupperware containers, constant loads of laundry.
Then my husband contracted a digestive problem and needed attention. He could only eat whole foods, making dining out a challenge and ordering in impossible, leaving me to find a creative way to make chard every night. A familiar tight feeling crept up my neck and shoulders, threatening a migraine. The low point came when I hit my head on a kitchen cabinet. I was on the way to set the table, with knife and fork in hand. In other circumstances, I might have rebounded. Instead I threw a knife and fork across the room as the tears flowed.
In that moment I knew I couldn’t keep promoting a book on burnout through a haze of exhaustion and self-loathing. People counted on me to tell them how to take a break from their breakneck pace. I had to act the part.
The only thing I knew how to do was take my own advice: Stay calm, breathe deeply and listen to my soul. I plucked out notes from my lectures: Nora’s Top Five Ways to Get Out of Overdrive: Wake Up Slowly, Take a Media Fast, Plan Unstructured Time, Stop Multitasking, Learn How to Breathe. So for four days over the Thanksgiving holiday, I employed all five techniques at once, taking a crash course of my own making.
First I woke up slowly, taking three deep breaths and saying a little non-denominational prayer, often something like, “Let me make it through this day without throwing silverware.”
Next I shut off the computer. I created unstructured time in my day, which is different from leisure time. Leisure time — cooking for friends, going to the movies — takes energy and planning. Unstructured time, which has sadly fallen by the wayside in our culture, involves no planning . During this time, you decide what you really want to do, whether it’s spontaneously picking up your violin or doing a puzzle.
What I wanted to do in my unstructured time, it turned out, was sleep. Every time I put my body on a soft surface like a couch or a rug, I woke up two hours later. I slept through my baby crying, the phone ringing, my husband plucking away at the guitar. Each time I awoke, I felt a few weeks of accumulated exhaustion melt off my body.
Next I stopped doing so many things at once. When I talked on the phone, I didn’t check my e-mail. When I did the dishes, I focused on not hating it so much and paid attention to what I was doing. When I went to the store, I didn’t think about how I was going to drive home, unpack, cook up the fish, catch up on the last two New Yorkers and then eat a sandwich.
Amazing things happened.
By Sunday morning, I looked different. My face was clear and my eyes a bit shinier. I woke up with clarity: I understood that I couldn’t keep going at this pace, and that living the kind of quieter life I illuminated in my book took more than just putting some of the principles into action every now and then. It took commitment and sacrifice to feel comfortable with quiet and not get caught in life’s seductive momentum. I took my 1-year-old son to the playground. The day was bright, sunny and chilly. As he played, I did nothing but watch him. With no cell phone, inane chatter with other moms or reading material, I just sat there. I tilted my face to the sun and didn’t worry about skin cancer. When another boy snatched my son’s toy, I took deep breaths and let them figure it out. A feeling of fullness and vibrancy filled me.
Maybe I’m onto something.
Nora Isaacs, a freelance journalist who writes about health, fitness and spirituality, is the author of “Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age” (Seal Press, 2006).