Writing, burnout, and an attempt at a vacation

“Sunbathers” by Edwin Georgi

I took over two weeks off from work over Christmas and New Year’s, and one morning last week I woke up after a fitful night of sleep, feeling adrift, unscheduled, unmoored. I had lost track of the days; I had no plans except to drink coffee and perhaps go for a run at some point. There was nothing I absolutely had to do that day. And I was anxious, guilt-ridden, almost queasy because of it.

I should be writing, was the message on repeat in my head. Throughout a busy autumn, I’d told myself that over winter break — especially once the madness of Christmas was over — I’d buckle down and write. For real. Now here I was, with nothing to write about, much less any will to. It was more than writer’s block. I just didn’t care. Actually, the fact that I didn’t care was the only thing I really cared about. I was supposed to want this, right? I was supposed to want to write, to take the opportunities I could to do it. I called myself a writer. I knew I was good at it and that it could give me expression and satisfaction in a way little else could. But on that early January moment I had nothing but time, and no inclination to do anything except perhaps watch TV. I wanted to want to write, yes. But I didn’t want it at all.

It was an oddly miserable day. I thought perhaps I was depressed, though I’m not prone to depression. The hours ticked by, and I stared at my phone and pet my cats, feeling listless and bored. I went for a run in the bright winter sun, which only helped mildly. I thought about my friends who get their work published, who sell their art on Etsy, who create things and share them with the world. I’ve been that person — an artist, a creator of sorts. I had always assumed that when the responsibilities of my life slowed down for a moment, that inclination to create something would still be there. Yet I was numb.

It was early evening, then, when the truth struck me: my vacation was close to over, but I’d spent the rest of my time off so busy that I still hadn’t rested. My mother had visited my husband and me in Chicago shortly after my break began, and we spent three days together — enjoyable, ultimately relaxing days, but still, she’s my mother and my apartment isn’t that big. And immediately after she’d left, I’d flown to New Hampshire for a six-day ski trip with my dad. Again, a fun trip. And utterly exhausting.

So now here I was, with more free time on my hands than I’d known in years. But I realized there was no way I was going to work. It simply wouldn’t happen. I needed a real, actual break.

My mood shifted immediately. A weight lifted; I saw my situation clearly, finally. I gave myself permission to do nothing, especially write.

Over the next few days, my behavior didn’t change from what it had been on that gloomy Wednesday. I woke up when I wanted; I made cup after cup of coffee; I snuggled into the couch with my cats and a remote, bingeing shows I’d seen a hundred times before. I made no effort to be or do anything new. I rested.

Today was my first day back at work, and I read Anne Helen Petersen’s new Buzzfeed piece about millennial burnout. It resonated with me and brought to mind this feeling I’d had, so hard to shake, that I wasn’t doing enough over my vacation. That I should be using my time off not to relax and recharge, but to get to work on something that matters to me but that I don’t usually have much time for. A lot of things contributed to that feeling that I was doing something wrong, and to the guilt I felt, but it’s true that this cultural drive we have to be always working, always hustling for something new, was a large part of it.

So here I am, writing this. A little blog post on a Monday evening that I’m hoping won’t take me more than an hour to draft and edit and publish. Because there are other things I want to do with my night, and because the hustle, the guilt, the drive to always be doing more is perhaps not working so well for me anymore.

That said, I can’t help but notice that once I gave myself permission to give up…my inclination to write finally returned.