A little over a year ago, in June of 2015, I found myself in the health clinic at my office complaining of vertigo. All weekend, I’d been knocked flat with a serious case of the spins and their accompanying nausea. My dad complains of vertigo sometimes, so I wondered if I had some predisposition. Maybe I’d picked up an ear infection swimming. But just in case it was a deadly brain tumor, I went to a medical professional. (If worrying about fast-spreading brain tumors caused fast-spreading brain tumors, I would be dead a thousand times over by now.)
The nurse practitioner checked my ears, asked a few questions, and said he couldn’t find anything notable. “Are you under a lot of stress?” he asked. I laughed weakly. Stressed? Ha! Maybe? Not really! I sit at a desk and think about things most of the day! Ask my friends, the ER doctor, the social worker, or the crime victims’ advocate, about stress. Ask someone who is working full-time in a foreign country. I had a very healthy perspective on stress, which was, mine didn’t count because other people’s was worse.
And then a month later, I spent a weekend breaking out in hives. I tried to laugh about it. It was so uncomfortable and seemed like a dramatic overreaction by my body. What do you have to be so hivey about? Should we cancel this fundraiser for victims of a typhoon because you’re itchy? When the hives persisted into the workweek, I went all the way to my physician. I mentioned the vertigo, how I couldn’t stop thinking about whether or not I was stressed enough to have physical reactions. The physician sent me to an allergist.
If this had been a story about allergies, I would have given it a different title. The allergist found nothing.
In August, I took a long vacation in California and came back without hives or an eye twitch. Then the whole thing with my job, followed by months of elevated anxiety, difficulty sleeping, the works. In February, I took a week off. I got wildly sick.
Stress is cumulative, it turns out. Despite my protests, I seemed to have hit a wall trying to outrun it. Since then, I’ve tried to better manage my own stress through a few tried-and-true techniques.
Talk to a professional
My former employer had counselors on-site for staff to deal with stress and grief. Being sad about my job seemed trivial compared to what other people might be going through, but the counselor welcomed me and listened conscientiously from week to week. We talked through what I could do to regain some control in my life. She made the next two suggestions, which have been invaluable.
I’m probably not doing this right, and I say that because I respect that this is a religious act that people spend years practicing. I can’t find the line between meditating and a really great nap, except to say that my naps are significantly more restful when there’s some chill drone-and-chimes music happening.
Make Time to Not Work
The counselor rightly pointed out that even things we think are fun or recreational can easily become stressful, become work, if we feel too obligated to them. I told her about crying on the floor in my apartment the day before I set a half-marathon PR in March 2015. “I just want the race to be over!” I wailed, all because when my boyfriend patted my knee, it hurt my hip flexors. Even though it’s counter-intuitive in a work-obsessed, internet-enabled culture, I started making time for myself to be done with obligations sometimes.
Specifically, Schedule an Unscheduled Day
I was perhaps too honest about this one at first. I stopped making plans on Sundays for a while, and I told people this when they invited me out. They weren’t comfortable with me declining any invitation for the express purpose of doing nothing. I think they thought it was personal. I’m sure I could have used better words to describe it; “invite me on Sunday instead of today” probably would have sufficed. I don’t think I ever did anything wild or remarkable on these days, but that was the point.
Stop Over-Caring For Others
I don’t do my boyfriend’s dishes any more. He’s an adult and he doesn’t return the favor. I told him about this big decision and he said, “When did you do my dishes?” Surely Sheryl Sandberg wrote a chapter about this.
Change Birth Control
NOW IT GETS REAL, doesn’t it?! One of the great outcomes of the Affordable Care Act was insurance coverage for the more effective hormonal contraceptives that you (if you’re a lady) get from your doctor. Almost every childless woman I know in DC under age 35 got herself a shiny IUD. I did too. But mine did not agree with me and now it is gone.
Honestly, the IUD probably didn’t cause all of the problems I attributed to it, but the ones I was sure of have cleared up nicely, and when paired with quitting my job, I’ve had quite the turnaround.
Gettin’ the Hell Out
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful to be out of a job. Ask anyone who doesn’t have the luxury of their last paycheck to tide them over for a while. Even with some modicum of financial protection, being alone with your mind and your time is intimidating. Who are you if your days aren’t filled with work? What if you don’t do anything worthwhile? What if you’re boring?
What if you start a blog spouting inanities about how hard it is to be out of work by choice in a liberal city in the wealthiest country in the world and nobody reads it? Hello from the other side; it’s fine.
And at least it’s not the same persistent anxiety about how much I have to do and whether or not I’m going to have a job in some number of months, let alone ever get a promotion, and whether I’ll ever earn enough to own a home or become a fabulous patron of the arts. We rarely change except by force or by choice. I went with choice because it was available to me. My funemployment is by no means stress-free, and life almost certainly never will be, but I continue to work on managing each shade of it the best that I can. I still get the occasional eye twitch this summer, but I don’t break out in fucking hives when I exercise, so there’s that.