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Illustration by Hisashi Ohkawa

I Can’t Stop Myself—But I Don’t Know If I Want To

Life without an off-switch.

By Annamarya Scaccia

My son stands in front of me in his diaper, a red-and-white striped shirt covering his top half. We’re on the patio, drawing flowers and stars and hopscotch sets with colorful sidewalk chalk. I watch him move around, this small kid with a mischievous innocence. I snap a photo and post it to Facebook, explaining that I’m on a forced vacation from work.

My friends told me to enjoy every second of my time with him. In the back of my mind, though, all I could think about were the emails I was ignoring and the pitches I could be sending — all the work I could be doing instead. I wanted to be present, but I couldn’t.

I’m not one to take time off — at least no more than a day here or there. Financially, I can’t afford to spend a week away for leisure; my last “vacation” was funded by a journalism grant for a work conference, and that was seven years after my prior break. Mentally, I’m not wired to relax; my brain runs 120 mph per second. If I’m on the couch watching television, I’m still checking work emails on my phone. Same goes if I’m at the park. I’m always rearranging my to-do list, even if it’s in my head in the middle of a kickboxing session.

I don’t have an off switch; if I do, I don’t know where it is.

I always knew I was a workaholic, in everything I do. But I didn’t know the depths of that well until I found myself preparing to stop. In May, my editor at an online publication went on vacation, causing her writers to take two weeks off. Though I could make up the work later, I couldn’t imagine having time off, mandatory or not. The idea of not working made me physically anxious, to the point of tears. But I decided to pull back from freelancing and try to relax — “try” being the operative word.

I was a nervous wreck the entire two weeks. I knew the vacation was good for me, giving me time to connect with my son and recognize what he needs from me as a mother. But the time off was still hard to process. While I may have made the conscious decision to stop working completely for that time, I convinced myself that I was bad worker — a bad person — for doing so.

My therapist and I tried to get to the root of the problem, and we came to one conclusion: My workaholism is directly tied to my depression and anxiety. I associate working hard with feelings of self-worth. If I bury myself in tasks, then that means I am not lazy, and I am good enough. If I am not working, then I am useless and insignificant. It’s a vicious cycle of dependency and self-hate that turns into stomach aches and shaky bones.

Recognizing this was shocking. A part of me, deep down, always knew that my low self-esteem and low confidence drove my ambition. A part of me, deep down, always knew that I was trying to literally work my way into significance. I now understand that I am literally making myself sick partly because of my mental illness, and partly because I refuse to comfort that illness.

I know too, that part of what drives my workaholism are the cultural messages I receive about work: We’re told that our value as professionals — and as people — is based on how far into the ground we drive ourselves. Remember that ad campaign that glorified workaholics like me? The ad that labelled people who lose sleep, time, relationships and, ultimately, themselves to work as “doers”? Or that other ad that told tech entrepreneurs to forgo time with their kids in order to build a platform? It doesn’t matter if you can’t afford a vacation or health insurance. As long as your output is high, that’s all executives care about. At least, that’s what I hear in statements like “If you must take the day off, I understand. But we could really use you today,” when I need to take care of my sick son.

From the early days of my son’s life, I did exactly what that tech ad told freelancers to do: I sacrificed time with my kid in hopes I would have some success down the line. I’ve internalized this message of what it means to be a hard worker, magnifying it to the point that taking even a small break means I am undeserving of success. So much so that I physically tremble at the thought of having idle hands.

Then I think: Is this the message I want to send to my son? Do I want him to be like me, this person who doesn’t know how to not work, how to not be overwhelmed? Who doesn’t sleep well or doesn’t eat full meals or faints while exercising because I’m just going too hard? Do I want him to be this person who’s too obsessed with being busy that he misses out on everything?

After all, I responded to work emails less than 10 hours after giving birth to him. I couldn’t even take a moment to relax after having an emergency C-section the night before.

Right now, as I write this, my son is at the other end of the couch, trying to get my attention. But I am too busy with work — too busy for him. As I type each letter, I worry if he thinks I don’t love him. As I type each line, I worry if he’ll think I was never there for them. How much is “I love you” worth when your actions don’t show it? How much is “I would never trade you for the world” worth when you can’t stop working just for a second?

I have no solid answers, and I am not sure if I ever will. I know that I don’t want him to overwhelm himself and ignore the world around him in order to further his career. But the workaholic in me can’t compute anything other than work plus work plus more work equals self-worth and success. The workaholic in me can’t understand how to exist in a space outside of emails and article drafts and phone calls and to-do lists.

And what worries me most is, maybe I don’t want to.

Annamarya Scaccia is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas, who covers public health and social justice issues.

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