I went back to work on Monday, the first day since my surgery on April 7. Knowing I’d be tired, I planned to be there for just four hours in the afternoon.
But I didn’t make it that long.
After I’d been there about 90 minutes, I felt really tired. I have my computer at a standing desk, which I thought would be good for me, but it proved difficult to stand there and work without straining my back. I moved to a chair with my laptop. These are nice office chairs, expensive ones, but still they make you sit upright, which is also hard, too. I walked to the kitchen to get a spoon for my yogurt and thought I might fall over on the way back up the stairs.
So I called my husband, and he came to pick me up. I made it all of two and a half hours. By the time I got home, all I could do was take an oxycodone (generally I am off of these by now), fall into bed and sleep. The rest of that afternoon and evening, I didn’t feel at all well. I stayed home on Tuesday and didn’t do anything.
So it seems like I need a slower return to work. Almost as soon as I thought that, my familiar negative voices got busy in my head: You’re so bad. You’re a terrible person. You could actually do it, but you are not trying hard enough. You basically want to be lazy. You don’t feel like working and you are looking for reasons to get off the hook. If you really wanted to get better, you could be trying harder, taking more walks, not lying around so much.
And then the voices, out of old habit, go over to some of their favorite name-calling: Bitch. Slut. You don’t even deserve to be here.
I am not in the same mental space that I used to be, however. I am not so inclined to take these negative voices seriously. That is, I do take them seriously as an indication that something is wrong, out of balance. But I don’t believe what they say.
If I’m going to see them as a sign things are not in balance, the important question is then What’s wrong? This is never immediately obvious to me. I have spent so many years denying, burying or burning away my feelings that even when I want to attend to them, I often have trouble figuring out what they are.
Yesterday I thought the issue was my confusion about what I should be doing to heal from my pelvic organ repair surgery. Should I be pushing myself, just a bit? Should I continue to take it easy? To what degree were the pain meds making me more tired? And so much resting, was it sucking my energy away?
Today I realized there was more to it than that. The negative voices are really speaking about my guilt over what I am not doing at work. Just being at the office for a couple of hours on Monday meant that people have expectations. Colleagues have asked me to do things, review their reports, look at their data analyses, provide feedback on their research designs. And I’m not doing them. I think I am not doing them because I am tired and don’t feel well. But I worry that maybe I am not doing them because I don’t want to. Or maybe I don’t want to because it’s too much effort , and I don’t have the stamina or mental focus. Or I’m not committed enough. I am not a good employee. I am not even good at my job, really. I should be… well, you can see how I might start spinning out with that line of thinking.
Okay, wait. I’m into mindfulness lately. I am learning to observe without judging. I can state what I observe from a place of compassion, as I would if I were observing the same things in another person. When I do this, the talk in my head sounds a lot different.
I observe the heaviness in my pelvis and pain in my low back. I observe how tired I feel after a little exertion. I observe my reluctance to get pulled into a hectic workplace. I also note my sense of obligation and commitment to clients and colleagues. I can see how these things (the pain and exhaustion on one side and the sense of obligation on the other) pull me in different directions. No wonder it feels confusing.
I have spent years putting the obligation and commitment above everything else. Doing a good job, providing excellent service and support—these are things I value. In the past I have valued these things over my own well-being. I want to re-order those priorities now.
It is only normal that changing my priorities causes some uneasiness, I tell myself. I can handle Uneasiness. I don’t need to let it grow into Self-Loathing. Self-loathing can rest down in the basement until a day she’s really called for.
Uneasiness, I say to my new emotion-friend, you don’t like change, do you? You want to push me back to familiar thinking patterns, familiar behavior. You think I’ll be safest continuing on as I have been. You think you are helping me. But what you don’t realize is that my wisest self, the Wise Woman who resides in my heart, has given this a lot of thought. I believe her when she says it’s worth making this change. You can breathe with me in my morning meditation. You can ask me to take short breathing breaks during the day. That’s okay. I’m willing to work with you in that way. But you can’t ask me to go back to putting work above health. I’m done with that.
Rather to my surprise, Uneasiness (and her big sister, Anxiety) have calmed down today since we had that little conversation. I managed about two hours worth of work from home, and more importantly, managed to tell colleagues that I couldn’t do everything they wanted me to.