Not Now, Honey. I've Got a Client.

Snapshots of a Workaholic 

March 2013. Nashville, Tennessee. 

I'm on vacation. Well, I'm supposed to be on vacation. 

My (second) husband moved to Nashville six weeks earlier to get acquainted with the music scene. He's spent time in Austin and New York, and Nashville seems like the next logical step. 

I bring the dog along. My husband misses the dog. He misses me. I miss him. But he's been on tour most of our relationship, so we're conditioned to our times apart. 

I'm not needy. 

We're celebrating by staying in a nice hotel downtown. Because I work for myself, I check my email first thing Monday morning. There's an email from my biggest client. He needs something. 

I love this person. His group has put me on a sizeable retainer. Even before all that, I really do love him and his group. 

But they always contact me at the wrong time. 

Like every time. Out of the blue. Without warning. 

You're thinking: isn't that what the retainer is for? One could think that. But my other retainer clients give me schedules and timelines and consider my availability. So I can condition myself to their needs. 

This client always takes me by surprise. And because I'm on retainer, I never feel like I can say no. And I never feel relaxed when I hear from him. Because he always needs me in a panic. 

You might think I'm annoyed because my vacation got upended. I've been a solopreneur long enough to know that I'd have a working vacation even before I got to Nashville. 

But I didn't need to hear from this client. This adds to the work I already brought with me. 

While I'm stressing out and muttering curses under my breath in front of my computer, really wanting my husband to take the dog out in the rain because I now have so much work to do, my husband is in the shower. Taking the longest shower in human history. 

I think he's avoiding tending to the dog. 

He thinks he's having a heart attack. 

When he comes out of the shower, he tries to get my attention. He sits on the couch and says, "Hope, Hope, Hope, I don't know what I need to do." 

Annoyed that now he needs me, along with the dog and the client, I look up from my computer. Kind would not be the expression on my face. "What's going on?" 

He describes his symptoms. Before he even finishes, I surmise that he's in the throes of a panic attack, not a heart attack. 

"And I can't help you right now. I've gotta take care of this. I've got this client," I say. Then, mustering a more human response to his pain, though still prioritizing my own panic, I offer, "Just try to relax and breathe for a bit. We'll look into it as soon as I'm done." 

Long story short, he had a panic attack. We found some solutions that week. He's been managing his anxiety now for many years. 

Longer story short, we divorced in May. It took me a while to realize, but this interaction seems like the pivot point in our relationship. 

Rewind 20 years. The recession of the early 1990s. 

Spring 1993. Boston, Massachusetts. 

After a couple periods of enforced vacation under the guise of unemployment, I find myself working in a long-term psychiatric residence for adolescent girls who had spent most of their youth in state psych hospitals. 

I have worked with lots of kids. But I steered my education and my career away from major mental illness. Despite how happy I am to have a job essentially in my field, I feel out of my depths from Day One. 

My office is on the second floor with all the girls' bedrooms. I'm the only therapist up there. I have a door with a lock, but the walls are thin. 

Imagine this workplace. Through the thin walls, you hear crying. You hear yelling. You hear swearing. You hear pounding. You hear random thuds. 

As a therapist, you don't get to cry, yell, swear, pound, or randomly thud back. 

When the girls are in the school building, it's quiet. It can be eerily quiet, with new age music playing to soothe the girl who's lying on the ad hoc mattress in front of my office because the quiet room is occupied by another girl. And it all could erupt at any moment. 

Anyone who has worked in hospitals or other healthcare settings might recognize—and even thrive on—this level of tension. Most other workplaces—except those that have a high percentage of jerks—maintain a more, shall we say, professional decorum. Easier going. More predictable. At least in tone, if not workflow. 

Because this is my chosen field, it should come as no surprise that I like my clients. Fascinating individuals all. Ignored, abused, and misunderstood most of their lives. Plus, I find the clinical challenges intriguing. It feels important for someone to like these clients. 

However, the job is fatiguing and, as I realize in retrospect, traumatizing. So—despite my goodwill and clinical training—I have to shut off my brain. 

Working out helps. Venting helps. Vodka helps. 

But I could erupt at any moment. 

One night, my (first) husband tries to understand why I am so worked up, even though I really don't know why I'm so worked up. 

I become so frustrated trying to explain my day to him that I throw a glass across the room. 

Ok, so vodka might not help. 

That scares the hell out of my husband. I tend to marry kind, smart men. This outburst, though building, comes out of no where. 

Actually, it comes out of being immersed in a toxic work environment. 

And it doesn't even mean to be toxic. No one is doing anything wrong. It's a group home filled with teenagers. It's gonna be messy. 

But it was toxic for me. 

My husband looks at me and says, "Hope, it's just a job." 

I find myself saying, "No, it's not. You might have just a job, but this is my career. This is important work. This needs to be done." 

Long story short, I left that job. It also put the final nail in the coffin of that career. 

Longer story short, I left that husband too. And again, this violent outburst and unbridled defense of others outside of my marriage—who have no stake in my primary relationships—seems like a pivot point too. 

I mean. Why would you trust me? I could turn on you at any moment. 

Fast forward to today. 

Fall 2020. COVID-19 Pandemic. 

Post-(my most recent)divorce, I've moved back in my with folks. I haven't lived here in 35 years. 

They're not quite sure who I am. Both in their 80s, they each worked throughout their lives as professionals. My mother as a chemist. My father as an architect (who retired only after having a stroke at age 86). 

However, they have only ever been employees. They never tried to build anything from the ground up. And they raised a family. Together. Very much so. So they can't quite understand how I can work so much. Or even why I would work so much. 

I find myself getting annoyed at them because, I dunno, they want to spend time with me. I haven't lived here in 35 years. And I've been married most of that time. So, sure, I'm back home. Let's spend time together. 

I catch myself being annoyed. For them doing nothing. Nothing more than caring for me. Liking their kid. Wanting to spend time together. 

That's when it hits me. 

My name is Hope, and I'm a workaholic. 

Postscript: Hold That Thought 

I'll be going more in depth in this discovery on my podcast, so feel free to catch up with the other episodes where I have uncovered or discovered that which I have covered through my life. 

At the risk of always working, more soon... 

#wellness #workaholic #work #lifeafterwellness #hopester


(originally published October 27, 2020, as an article on LinkedIn) (c) Nora Canfield

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