This week has been the most gruelling test of endurance at work, and included the first time I’ve gone to work of a morning and worked until the afternoon of the following day in a good long time. I think I was working nights stacking shelves in Somerfield while at college the last time that happened.
That Wednesday morning ’til Thursday afternoon stint was tough, for sure, but the real killer has been the return of the stress related stomach cramps I’ve not suffered for the best part of a decade. It was July 1999, whilst working under ridiculous pressure at Radio Clyde, when I was diagnosed as having chronic stress. For almost a year I had been told by my regular doctor that I kept getting gastroentoritis from all the junk food I was eating.
Sounded pretty plausible to me, because I really was eating a lot of crap at the time.
If it hadn’t been for a graduate doctor working a placement at my local surgery, who I ended up getting an appointment with because my regular doctor was fully booked, I might not have discovered the true cause. As well as examining me, he interviewed me – asked me about my lifestyle, my habits, what my balance of work to home life was. I think I even surprised myself with the answers – it certainly hadn’t occured to me that I’d had nothing but a long weekend off in almost a year. I wasn’t expecting him to suggest I was suffering from stress, though.
To me, stress was something that people in high-power, suit-wearing jobs got. People whose jobs were deadly serious, dry as the desert, and full of difficult and critical decisions. It wasn’t something that should afflict someone who worked in a fantastically creative environment doing something they really loved to do.
But there it was on a piece of official looking paper, written up in reasonably legible handwriting for a doctor. I guess the crazy latin scrawl is for the old school guys. My severe stomach cramps, it said, were being caused by chronic stress, brought on by a severe imbalance of work versus relaxation time. Who knew? Turns out I was probably making them worse by stressing over why I was always getting stomach cramps.
Ironically (i.e. not at all like a death row pardon two minutes too late), it was all the more stressful that I had to hand this note to my boss at the earliest opportunity. She worked in London and was of the suit-wearing, occasionally-difficult decision-making type of person who really knows all about stress.
“Stress is for pussies!” I was sure she’d scoff, before handing me my notice and hiring someone who had the love-spuds to man the fuck up and work an entire year without being the kind of slacker who takes a long weekend. Hey, what can I say, it was my first job out of Uni and I just kind of figured that you worked until you puked and then worked some more.
So it felt like I was handing over one of those “my son won’t be able to do Physical Education today” type of notes to a teacher when I presented the damning piece of A4 documenting my fragility. Which made it even more of a surprise when she gasped in horror and did a very passable impression of being crushed with guilt.
Sending me back to my desk while she had a meeting about it with her own boss, I was pretty sure that he would tell her “Stress is for pussies!”, being that he was of the suit-wearing, difficult decision making… you get the picture, kind of guy.
But no. On the contrary, I was called back into their office shortly after that and told right away not to look so concerned. They assured me that I could take a holiday as soon as I wanted. “We’re going to look at the budget and see about hiring another developer, maybe two, to help you run things. You should book a holiday right away – take two weeks and just go somewhere.” She said.
Looking back I should maybe have said “Call it a month, give me a rise and I might not sue your asses all the way to cash town”, but, as life is so seldom directed by Quentin Tarantino, I was just really pleased that they accepted the diagnosis as true and accurate and didn’t want to replace me.
Hence, myself and Fliss went to Salou in Spain a couple of weeks later for a fortnight where I didn’t use a computer once (okay, one day I checked my mail in an internet cafe in Barcelona harbour – so shoot me) and the stomach cramps magically went away. And they did hire two more people at work, and give me a rise, too, albeit a small one.
Since then, armed with the knowledge of why I get them, the stomach cramps have returned only a couple of times this side of the millennium. Recognising them is half the battle, I think, and I’ve been able to do that and restore the work/life balance more often than not before things got out of control.
Until now, that is. I’ve had knots in my stomach of varying degrees of severity for the past six weeks. I know what they are, I know why I have them, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t take time off because I’m critical to the project, and I can’t just shrug off the stress because I’m working crazy hours trying to keep things on track. Heck, I’m a big part of the problem – if I was better at this line of work then the long hours and frantic work could be avoided. I’m just not as good at this as I am at making websites. (Although it’s so long since I actually did that I might have on the rose-tinted rear view mirror, there.)
At the moment I think maybe it’s a bit like being schizophrenic (or at least that’s what I keep telling myself!), as the part of me that’s feeling the anxiety and the dread of things going wrong at work is being mostly ignored by the part of me that’s trying desperately hard to fight through it. I know from the pains in my gut that have gone from the occasional twinge to almost constant stabbing that I’m on the same rollercoaster I was ten years ago. Realising it almost makes it worse, somehow – ignorance really is bliss at times.
The realisation that I’m doing this to myself, yet can do nothing about it is actually quite frightening. Some days I feel so trapped by circuimstance that it’s suffocating, but while there’s nothing I can do about it I just have to keep my head above water as best I can and know that at some point in the not too distant future it’ll be over.
It just has to be over soon. And I just really can’t wait.