[Click here for other posts in the series Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Life of a Freelance Writer]
Week Twelve –
Sit Down Before You Fall Down (On the Importance of Taking Breaks)
Cried But Did The Thing Anyway is a regular Monday blog. But I’m writing this post on a Tuesday. Not even Tuesday morning, which, here at GMT0, means there’s still twelve hours of Monday left somewhere in the world. No, it’s past lunchtime on Tuesday, and here I am, writing yesterday’s post On the Importance of Taking Breaks.
You see where I’m going with this, right?
A few month ago, I wrote about the glorious 47-hour working week of a freelancer. Give or take, that was what the majority of 2014 has been for me. I was a writer, translator, and volunteer, and on top of that, I was also expected to be a sister, wife and daughter. ‘Expected’ is a wrong word, really – because I wanted to be all those things to people I cared about.
It probably comes as no surprise that after eleven months of balancing these six jobs, something had to give, and since I was refusing to let go of any of my responsibilities, the thing that started giving was my sanity. That meant being unable to sleep and then sleeping too much, being terrified to look at the moleskine with my novel draft, breaking into hysterics when told I put a comma in the wrong place, typing paragraphs of work that was due tomorrow with tears streaming down my face. That meant that an occasional day of extreme irritability and weepyness that I used to refer to as “the regularly scheduled monthly breakdown” became bi-monthly, then weekly, then happened whenever it damn pleased. That meant that sometimes, feeling an onset of anxiety in a public place, I would excuse myself and sit in a bathroom cubicle with a scarf on my head (because somehow, it had a calming effect on me).
The reason I’m describing all that in detail is that now, feeling better and looking back, I can see exactly how much of a mess I was, and, more importantly, how much faster I was spiraling the messier I got. Right now, I can say – boy, I was in a pretty nasty state. Up to three weeks ago, I was saying – I’m okay; I mean, I’m really tired, but it’s not like I’ve got a choice, right; I’ll be fine, I’ll just get this bit done and then I can breathe for a bit.
I learned several important lessons this year, but I think that the most important one of those, when it comes to my continued ability to be creative, productive, and generally give my best shot at being a worthwhile human being, is contained in the title of this post.
Sit down before you fall down.
Five years ago, two years ago, even a year ago, if anyone were to tell me this, I would huff and spit at the speaker, and call them a wimp, and tell them to buck up. Now I’ve learned a hard truth, that when you feel something’s gotta give, but you won’t let it, there will be a moment when everything gives at once. And then things will be so much harder to pick up.
To myself five, two, one year ago, and to everyone who shares her thoughts, I’d like to say – if you think you can keep pushing yourself indefinitely – think again. Your brain can be much smarter than you give it credit for. You know The Red Queen, the delightful AI in Resident Evil? For those who haven’t seen the film, when the AI detected that a facility was contaminated with a dangerous virus, it instituted a state of permanent lock-down and killed everyone inside. Your brain, while hopefully not manifesting in the form of a creepy little girl, can also go to frightening lengths when it wants to protect itself. If it wants you to stop, and you just won’t, it will hurt you. If you don’t pay attention to that, it will hurt you until you can no longer ignore it. And heaven knows what kind of havoc you’ll have wreaked by then, because, take it from me, a stressed person being continuously hurt by their own brain can be a real asshole.
The Current State.
Gotta practice what I preach, right? I did mention that right now, I’m looking BACK at my earlier state. Specifically, I’m looking about two weeks back, because some time in November, after a good talk with Emmi, who’s no stranger to ultra-stressed brain states, I agreed to take a month off from most of my work.
How does that work in practice? I started out by swiping everything off my plate, and then being picky about what I put back on it, one thing at a time. These blogs made it (in fact, in my very first week of ‘vacation’, I made five posts and enjoyed that week of continuous blogging more than any other time in the history of the CBDTTA series). Writing crawled back onto my plate, gradually and partially – I just finished writing a short comic book story, but my novel is still waiting for me to pick it back up. Paid work got blown off almost completely; and while that is the case, volunteer work doesn’t feel like a hassle at all.
Funnily enough, I keep saying I’ve been on vacation for two weeks – but during these two weeks, I’ve done quite a lot of work, and – surprise, surprise – have done that almost completely stress-free. I even rediscovered my love for running around and changing base several times a day – I’d spend a few hours in a library, a few hours at home, or in my favorite Starbucks, doing something useful all the time, and enjoying every moment of it. (I may have also logged 80+ hours in Fallout: New Vegas, because nothing takes one’s mind off troubles and stresses like shooting down some giant geckos from a plasma rifle.)
To everyone out there, but especially every freelancer (because making your own schedule often means forgetting to schedule days off), here’s my piece of 2014 wisdom, reiterated:
After you’ve spent months balancing several schedules, there’s an incredible amount of freedom in waking up with the knowledge that you don’t HAVE to do any work today. Maybe you’ll feel like doing something anyway, and have fun while at it. Maybe you’ll poke at a project you never had the time for. Maybe you’re going to spend the whole day in bed watching TV, or playing a video game. The day is yours, and yours alone.
It’s very important you have a day like that now and again. The weekends are there for a reason, you know. Your days off don’t have to be Saturday and Sunday, and you don’t even need to take two in a row – but working more than five days straight without a break is not a good idea. I found that voluntary downtime feels much nicer than a forced collapse. It’s always better to do maintenance than repairs.
I’ll leave you with this. I know you still may not believe anything I said here, or think that it doesn’t apply to you. I get it. I also didn’t use to believe that the world won’t end if I run away from it for a day. I learned the hard-ish way. Maybe that IS the only way to learn.
But if you’re willing to go out on a limb, and if you ever found anything I said useful – trust me on this one, okay? Look at your schedule for the next week or so, and find what you can shove off of it to accommodate for a mental health day. Just one day. You can spend it at home, or out with friends, or out alone. The only requirement is – you spend it doing whatever makes you happy, whatever makes you relax. Take twenty-four hours and don’t worry about the world. I’ll watch it while you’re on leave, and I promise to blog promptly about anything sufficiently apocalyptic.
Now go, and give yourself a break.