Health

When This Is Over, I Don't Want to Return to the Same Grind

When I was laid off, my headaches vanished. It took a pandemic to see that overwork isn’t achievement.
May 15, 2020, 12:15pm
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Photo by Claudia Barbosa / Pexels

The headaches started about a year ago during a particularly intense period of work—the mishmash of copywriting, journalism, and podcasting that I usually enjoy despite feeling like a woman-sized hamster in a wheel, free to work mostly from home but also never quite free to leave work. The pain was a low-grade but daily pressure in my temples, accompanied by strange patterns of facial numbness and that foggy brain feeling usually reserved for hangovers. The headaches fed my anxiety; my anxiety fed my headaches. I saw doctors and massage therapists and the inside of a CT scanner, desperate for a simple fix. I didn’t get one.

And then the pandemic hit. I was laid off from two of my jobs and the relief was near-immediate. As businesses shut down and people shut themselves in, I began to feel healthier than I had in a very long time. My energy increased. Anxiety dwindled. The headaches vanished.

I should have known this might happen. Last fall, I began to notice that if I took a break from not only my working life (the 10ish hours of screen time a day, the terrible posture), but also my regular social life, my headaches would stop. If I went to my parents’ house for a weekend or ventured off the grid completely, I usually felt clear. But I also felt paralyzed because if something as seemingly benign as “regular life” was my problem, well I was powerless to fix it. My life had momentum. I liked my life. Peacing out to the woods forever seemed neither doable nor desirable.

So in essence, the pandemic has given me a void—a space to rest and be still—that I didn’t have the guts to create for myself. Yet to whisper “thanks, pandemic” feels gross. Even declaring my state of wellbeing feels a little wrong because by saying “I feel okay” I risk flaunting my privilege in the face of other peoples’ grief. The fact is, I wouldn’t be well if I weren’t somewhat well-off. I may not be a celebrity living in a huge house livestreaming my elaborate bath routine or gifting myself tap dancing shoes, but I do have a comfortable place to live, healthy friends and family, a caring partner, and financial assistance from the government—at least for now.

Like your most annoying Twitter pals, I have taken the call to (in)action very seriously. I am reading books (to completion!) again. I am busting out my apron on a regular basis and using my kitchen mainly as a bread factory. I am taking long, meandering walks and observing the fact that my neighbourhood is a floral paradise that, previously, I’d been too self-absorbed to fully notice. For over two months I have been partaking in pretty much every Twitter-endorsed wellness activity and I have to say: these things are working. I feel cared for in a deep way—by me, and by my community—and it feels like breathing.

Complicating matters is of course the fact that these activities are Pandemic Activities™, made possible by spare time that wouldn’t exist if others weren’t suffering. You’d think the surface-level benefits of, say, an afternoon walk or an apartment that smells like a bakery would collapse in the face of what these pleasantries symbolize: a crumbling economy, an uncertain future, a whole lot of people sick and dying.

What does it say about the culture we’re situated in that, during this period of mass unwellness, it is possible for some human beings to feel healthier than they did while things were “normal”?

It says that “normal” wasn’t very healthy to begin with. Prior to all this, I had never taken a sick day from work. In my life. I don’t know how this happened, but it did, probably because it’s been my life-long mission to undermine the sexist assumption—whether it was actually placed on me or not—that because I am small and female I am fragile and not tough. Never admitting to sickness at work was, I thought, a simple way to prove I was someone who got shit done, regardless of what my body looked or felt capable of doing.

Is there a more dangerous mentality? The belief that we must push through unless we are “at death’s door” (the appropriate level of sick to miss a soccer practice, my coach used to say) is literally going to kill us and we’re only just realizing it. At one of my first jobs—a summer gig reserved for university students—I was told the 40-hour per week schedule had zero flexibility. When I asked what would happen if I got sick, my employer sort of shrugged and made an “eek” face, as if to say, “hopefully that doesn’t happen because it would be pretty inconvenient!” A lot of non-unionized work seems to operate under the assumption that humans are infallible machines with a predictable and constant labour output. If we get sick, we either lose money, inconvenience others, or make more work for ourselves in the future.

Like a lot of us, I have been over-indoctrinated into hustle culture—the capitalist mania that prioritizes productivity above all else. I should be more specific: monetizable productivity. There’s a reason you probably feel more accomplished after giving a successful presentation than after pulling off a Sopranos_-level baked ziti. It’s because one form of labour is bankable, a shimmering promise of higher status to come, while the other labour, the ziti, will only elevate you to the point of nourishment (unless you have an Italian catering business or want to be a food influencer) and what good is that? It’s sad that accomplishments that are not status-driven—mainly, domestic activities like grocery shopping, laundry, tending to plant children or actual children—do not give us that same hit of _I did something good. But in quarantine, maybe they do.

So there’s another reason for my quarantine health: I have received permission from the highest possible authorities to do what makes me feel good (barring physical interaction) instead of what hustle culture has conditioned me to think feels good. Take my little bread project. Maybe you’re sick of sourdough sermons, but I cannot express how good it feels to pursue a hobby without the usual worry that my time spent kneading dough could be put to better use making a more “valuable” type of dough. (I say “valuable” because money isn’t actually worth more than bread outside a capitalist framework, as we’re learning. You can’t survive on a diet of hundred-dollar bills and expect to live long, which is probably why most people took to hoarding beans instead of cash at the start of this.)

Quarantine has also illuminated how badly I needed a break from The Grind as it exists in a social context. I am grateful for my large and loving group of friends, but sometimes piecing together a social life is just as taxing as piecing together a work life. Should I go out tonight or stay in? Can I afford that show? Will I offend my friend if I say I’m too tired to hang out? Just how bad will my FOMO be if I’m not at that party? Quarantine has shut down the part of ourselves that is constantly unsatisfied because we can’t live out all the possible lives we’re told are available if we just work hard enough. Quarantine enforces strict guidelines to live by. Ironically, I find it freeing, and I’m nervous to leave the bubble.

I’m not asking to not work. I am asking for us to reexamine the relationship between so-called productivity and wellness, and I am calling on us all to prioritize our personal, communal, and environmental health like it’s going out of style (which it fully did, by the way, up until two months ago). I am asking for us to build space into our working lives—or the working lives of our employees, if we have that power—to accommodate the hard fact that people get sick, both mentally and physically.

I recognize that, as individuals, it’s easy to feel powerless when we know that large scale change—whether it has to do with the environment or work-life balance—cannot happen unless The Powers That Be (governments across the globe, other institutions of wealth) place more importance on the health of human lives than their idea of a healthy economy. But there’s a lot of comfort to be taken in the fact that hustle culture does not own us, as magnetic as it may be. Taking time to properly care for yourself while employed is, I believe, an act of resistance against The Grind as we know it. And I think if enough people practice this resistance, a ripple effect can and will happen, possibly amounting to a future where less people brag about how little sleep they got, which I’ll interpret as a sign of progress.

Because overwork isn’t an achievement; it is, in a lot of cases, complicity.

Follow Mica Lemiski on Twitter.