“Can I write you a note? Would that help?” my nurse practitioner asked delicately. She went on to add (just as delicately) that I really needed a few days off to recover from my recent hospitalization.
Part of me wanted so desperately to accept her offer, to tell her a note would help and that I could take a few days. I wanted to give in, to crawl into bed and not get out.
But, it was the busiest and most intense period of the semester, busy enough that I found myself commenting on drafts at 4am in the hospital, grateful I did not have a roommate so I could keep the lights on. I was too uncomfortable to sleep, and I’d hit that early-morning window where Law and Order reruns abated for a few hours.
The numerous side projects I was committed to—both on campus and in my writing life—were all ramping up, and everywhere I turned it was apparent to me that too many people would be affected by my absence if I checked out of life for a few days. It’s one thing for me to be sick and fall behind, but it’s not acceptable to me for others to get behind because I am sick. Thanks to wifi, my laptop, and the impossibility of sleeping in a hospital I’d managed to keep up the charade of business as usual while I was an inpatient, but it was exhausting.
The night I was discharged from the hospital I stayed up past 3am trying to catch up on work, and woke up early the next day for chest PT and another 18 hours of work and catch-up. That set the tone for the next week and a half. By the time I had my discharge follow-up appointment, I’d managed no more than four hours of sleep per night: coughing, wheezing, and fighting for air made it hard to sleep; steroids and stacked nebulizer treatments that make me jittery and wide awake made it even more difficult.
Things were not going well. In the ongoing quest for balance and the negotiation of priorities when it comes to employment and illness, I was floundering. Free-falling, actually.
Since this fall I’ve repeated the mantra of “just make it work.” Find a way to get it done, don’t complain, use every second of time efficiently. When you’re sick, you don’t have the luxury of not working when you don’t feel well, or you’d rarely ever work. People do things even when they don’t feel up to it, that’s part of life. Whatever else happens, just make it work. Get results, don’t make excuses.
And for months, that mantra served me well. I’ve made choices that translate into a consistent 7-day work-week; aside from Thanksgiving Day and two days at Christmas, the last time I had a true day off, including weekends, was sometime last summer. I had (and have) my reasons for these decisions, and do not regret them. I went into this with my eyes wide open and cannot complain about a situation I created. The trade-offs—a big step in academic career development; a second book deal; expansion of my freelance consulting business—are worth the sacrifice.
But all bets are off when my “normal” level of illnesses becomes really acute. Part of it is physical-the exhaustion of infections that last for months, the toll fighting for air takes, the impact of weeks and weeks of poor sleep, hospitalizations, etc.
However, more it is mental and emotional, and is a result of a lifetime of pushing. It’s always jarring for me to go from the hospital right back into “real life” without a chance to stop and process. Since the work always follows me into the hospital (when I was getting stabilized in the ER this last time, my main concern was how to handle my in-person class the next day), it always feels like one big blur.
In a throwback to my old patterns, the longer this recent exacerbation dragged on, the more determined I was to make sure being sick did not impact my ability to do my jobs. When I first got home I turned around 40 rough drafts with substantive comments in two days. I attended meetings and jumped into debates and responded to clients. I’m pretty sure no one knew that days before I’d been hooked up to oxygen or that walking and talking at the same time was not yet possible.
Interestingly, though, the more I built up the façade, the more a little bit of me wished it wasn’t quite so convincing, that I had some sort of buffer. I felt like my grip on things was dangerously tenuous; one tiny slip or extra deadline or new symptom and everything would come crashing down.
For someone so wired to be in control and so focused on not slipping on any of these details, I felt (correction: I still feel) very out of control.
I know something has to give. Even though things are getting a little better by now, I will not fully recover if I keep up this pace. When I found myself negotiating my way out of a second admission last week from the Starbucks at work, armed with a briefcase and a hospital bag (doesn’t everyone bring one of those to work?), I realized I’d reached a tipping point. This is not sustainable. In fact, it’s sort of crazy.
I am not balancing things at all and I know it but I am torn by conflicting responsibilities-to my students, clients, colleagues and myself. I am torn my stubborn pride about never giving in and pragmatism that says if I keep this up I won’t be of much use.
So I have some decisions to make. I have to prioritize my life so I make it through the rest of the semester as effective as I normally am.
And just one good night sleep? That would go a long way, I think.