One of the frustrating things since quitting my job sixteen months ago has been the inconsistency in my mental health. I quit due to burnout and, as you might expect, just not having the weight of expectations and deadlines was a huge relief. But, perhaps counterintuitively, that did not translate to an immediate ability to relax and recover. That’s the thing about overwork and burnout: it’s a kind of trauma, which means it affects your behavior long after the triggering circumstances have passed.
So I am still in recovery. I see my therapist every week and we talk through how I’m feeling, what I’m dealing with recently, and how it connects to anxiety and ADHD. And I have to say, it is a relief to have someone to help me sort through all this. I am the type of person who is not afraid of complexity and abstraction, but some problems are too complex, too abstract, and too close for me to make progress on my own. So once a week, we get together and talk, and rather than feeling like I’m under the microscope, I feel like I have a partner helping me with a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Progress is slow but measurable, which is more than I could say before.
Despite having a period a few months ago when I felt like I was thriving, I am still not well. My mental health is frustratingly variable, changing from day to day or even hour to hour. It is a function with many inputs that can affect the result: relationships, productivity, diet, stress, environment, hygiene. The interplay between these factors is undeniably complex, but I also have a feeling the optimal situation can be expressed quite simply as “balance.” The same way juggling is impossible until you do it, and then it’s just a matter of keeping those chainsaws in the air. Not every throw will be perfect, but you still might be able to recover. And if not, if those chainsaws come crashing down, at least you know you’ve done it before and can do it again.
I think this particular trick, of balancing all the variables that contribute to long-term mental health, is not one that I’ve done before. It is kind of astounding to say that as a middle-aged person who has led, by all accounts, a pretty successful life. But it’s the truth. I’m always coping with one thing or another. When I’m productive, I’m losing sleep and skipping meals. When I’m keeping the house clean, I might be neglecting important relationships. When I’m reading and writing a lot, I probably forgot to buy groceries. Rather than being perfect in all these areas, I just want to be OK enough to keep my chainsaws in the air for a little while. If I can do that enough, and pick them up when they fall, people might look at me and think, “Hey, that guy’s a pretty good juggler.”
It’s December, and for this end-of-year reckoning I can only say it’s been another good year for the roses. Like the George Jones song, it hasn’t been a great year for me. But like the recent Kurt Vile homage, I have to believe I’ll get my shit together soon.