Bump!

Its been a while since I wrote a blog entry, so this is a catch-up to the little chain of events that took up my summer.

On 24th June I was driving from work to do an assessment in the community, when I gave way at a roundabout. Unfortunately the lorry behind me didn’t stop, and went into the back of me. I got jolted forward in my seatbelt, but walked out physically unscathed to find that you could hardly see the impact on the car either. Thankfully the lorry driver was lovely about it; concerned and apologetic and we exchanged details. I was right near the VW dealership where I bought the car, so I got them to check it was roadworthy and went on to my appointment about an hour late. The garage explained that cars are very well protected against straight on collisions, and the bumper would have absorbed most of the impact by crumpling inside, so it was later replaced by my insurance. Likewise I was fine on the outside, but things on the inside started to show the impact in unexpected ways, both physically and psychologically.

Physically I got a typical pattern of whiplash injury – pain in my neck and left shoulder, tightness in my left arm and a restricted range of movement, stiffness in my back, headaches and disrupted sleep. I also got dental pain, along with bruxism, the tendency to clench or grind your teeth, particularly during sleep. I’ve had similar physical symptoms from previous road traffic accidents (I’ve been hit several times before, 3 of which caused whiplash, but I’ve never had an at fault accident in 200,000+ miles since I bought my first car at age 20). But the psychological symptoms were new.

The first thing I noticed was that my concentration was completely shot. I couldn’t sequence tasks into the right order, sustain my attention or gather my thoughts enough to write coherently. I became more anxious, had an increased startle reaction to loud noises and weird scary dreams. I had to work hard to keep my mind on mundane tasks like driving, so I didn’t wander out of my lane on a quiet motorway and was attentive to the speed limit (although driving was limited anyway due to the pain in my shoulder and arm). I couldn’t draw together and reflect on the different information in my court reports, feel confident about my conclusions and present them effectively in a report, so I had to be signed off sick for a month – something I have never done before. However the weighty nature of doing expert witness work for the family court means that I had no other option, it wouldn’t have been ethical to have submitted poor work to inform the court’s decisions on such life-changing matters.

To compound things I started getting severe pain in my teeth and jaw. The dentist was initially unable to identify the source, but eventually found a crack in my wisdom tooth. He tried to fill this, but it caused me levels of pain that I have never experienced before (even in childbirth). A few days later they tried to remove the tooth but had to abort the attempt midway, due to an infection in my jaw. I spent the following week on antibiotics and analgesics, wavering between debilitating pain and a pleasant but unproductive codeine-induced haze. I was reminded how debilitating chronic pain can be, especially as I became more tolerant to codeine and had to alternate with ibuprofen to gain relief. I also found out that dental pain falls in the gaps between the out of hours services (the emergency dentist said “see your dentist on Monday, nothing we can do except let the antibiotics do their stuff, but see your GP if over the counter painkillers are not enough” whilst the walk in clinic said they couldn’t prescribe for dental pain). And to add insult to injury I got a speeding ticket for doing 36 mph on my way to the clinic. The tooth was removed the day before we flew to Scotland for our good friends’ wedding, and once there, I immediately started to feel somewhat better. On my return I was able to complete the delayed court reports and start to catch up with my email, albeit with limited intervals on the computer.

Now I feel like I’m getting back to normal. I’ve still got dental pain, and some physical restrictions (I can’t go weightlifting at the gym, my sleep isn’t 100% and I’m still very stiff on waking or if I do anything physical like playing with the kids or trying to pull a few weeds in the garden), but I feel like myself again psychologically. I can concentrate and plan to levels typical for me, and it has been an interesting experience to reflect upon. Taking time out of work was difficult for me, because it challenges both my expectations of myself as a perfectionist and workaholic, the level of input/control I’ve been able to have over my business, and my reputation as a reliable provider of services. The up side has been spending more time at home with the kids over the summer holidays, taking time to relax and being forced to think about self-care a bit more than usual. I am very lucky that my husband had just left his job and was able to postpone his freelance work and take on a lot of the domestic tasks, otherwise I don’t think that I’d have managed nearly as well.

As a self employed person, taking time off work also lost me a lot of money, but it was difficult to see this as a loss I had no control over (even though this is the case) rather than me being self-indulgent. Even though I was told that I could claim from the lorry driver’s insurance for lost earnings I was still loathe to make a claim. Plus it is hard to quantify losses when you don’t have a steady salary and payments come in months after I complete work. Of course I had to contact my insurer, as the car bumper was structurally compromised and needed replacement, and my insurance company in turn set other wheels in motion.

I genuinely loathe the personal injury claim industry from the speculative cold-calls and TV marketing to drum up trade to the impact on premiums and the motivation to malinger. I hate to be part of it. Yet I watch helplessly from the sidelines as the leaches of the insurance industry cream off maximum profit to take forward my claim, from the hire car whilst mine was in for repair (for more than twice the price of just walking into the local hire shop), to the paralegals at the ambulance-chasing law firm charging an obscene hourly rate for their cut-and-paste letters and calls. Yesterday I had my medical interview/examination with a very nice doctor who took 16 minutes to complete his assessment. Certainly an interesting contrast to the detailed day of interviews and assessments of each person I do for the family court!

So, its been an interesting summer. Despite the hiatus there is a lot I want to write about.

Confessions of a workaholic

Hi, I’m Miriam. I’m a workaholic.

I face that fact with insight that it is somewhat akin to an addiction. But there is no 12 step program for this (and I’m an atheist so it probably wouldn’t suit me if there was) and total abstinence is not an option. There is little around in terms of evidence-based intervention either. This might be due to the lack of stigma involved in working too much, and the way that having a job at all is a mark of relative success. In fact society somehow endorses overwork, and there is almost a culture of humble-bragging about how much we let work take over our lives. Our phones and computers bring us calls, emails and texts 24/7 and it is hard to know where work ends and our lives outside of work begin.

So let me start by describing the problem: I have too many plates to keep spinning. I take on much too much at work. On top of all the psychology work I am struggling to get on top of the invoicing and the finances of the business (I don’t really enjoy doing that side of things, but I haven’t found a successful way to delegate it yet). I bring work home. I work as if its a hobby by running a website, a blog, several twitter accounts and now a patreon service in which I offer personal development support to early career stage psychologists. I am making an app, developing an online outcome tracking system and writing a book. Plus I talk at conferences and do training. And I do court work. I provide supervision and personal development support. I sit on numerous committees and working groups. I fill my diary chock full of commitments and let the admin spill outside working hours. And I am writing grant applications (I’ve got one, part-written, on my screen at this very moment). But it is not just in work that my workaholism shows. I create little work-like activities to populate my life. We have some investments that I manage. I used to trade on eBay and at sci-fi fairs. Even giving stuff away to charities and freecycle takes time to organise. I do little fundraising activities for good causes. I’ve done up a series of houses (and even helped friends to do up theirs when I have spare time).I grow vegetables. Even the way I shop is influenced by my business brain, so I’m very conscious of relative prices in different supermarkets and I like to get reductions and offers.  There is a half-written novel too (but everyone has one of those, right?).

Since I’ve left the NHS to set up my business I’ve worked many more hours than I did before that. But even in the NHS I’d often stay late to finish admin, and I took on court work outside of my NHS hours. I’d guess I worked 40-45 hours per week then if I averaged it out. Last year I would work from waking up until the kids needed putting to bed, when I’d stop for half an hour to chat and then sing to them, then I’d make a meal and eat with my husband before resuming work again until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I’d fit in bits of work (and catching up on sleep) at the weekend. There were many weeks I probably clocked up over 70 hours of work. And that leaves very little time for anything else.

I’ve come to think of the space that work takes in my life being like that expanding foam filler you can use to fill the gaps where pipes enter your home. At its worst, every minute of my time that isn’t taken up with something else gets filled with work, or work-like activities. The only spaces that are protected are for the things that I value more than work and have defined really clearly – the half hour in which I put the kids to bed is sacrosanct. As is an evening meal with my husband. If I have made arrangements with friends or family then work has to fit around. On the times when we go out for meals or do things as a family, I try to make sure work does not impinge. I’ve also tried to carve out time to get to the gym three times a week, and only miss this when working away from base or where there is an immediate deadline. Some things that waste a lot of time for other people, I have simply chosen not to do (for example, I haven’t watched any live TV in over five years now). But many things that should be prioritised are not. I stay up late and sacrifice my sleep pattern far too often. I work through meals. I miss out on relaxation time. I haven’t found time for my hobbies in years. I don’t take a full quota of leave. Nor do I have as many holidays as I would like. Plus I’m embarrassed to say I’ve taken reports to finish with on several UK short breaks with my family. Once we went somewhere without wi-fi and I ended up driving around and using the BT hotspots from domestic customers to work in my car for 3 hours to get a report in, because a colleague had sent me their contribution 2 days later than planned and it didn’t meet my standards without substantial editing.

So, given there was no risk of getting fired or not being able to pay the mortgage, why would I give work such precedence against everything else in my life?

I keep asking myself that, and its a tough question to answer. I am not hugely motivated to maximise my income and I’m not competing against someone else. I’ve never had ambitions to drive a porsche or own a huge house with a swimming pool or any form of status symbols – in fact I hate ostentatiousness. I don’t have a goal for turnover, or numbers of employees, to win a particular contract, or to take over the NHS. I just want to do worthwhile work that improves life for people who have been dealt a bad hand, in a way that is delivered to them for free and according to need. I want to spend my working time with people I like around me, and to have shared goals and achievements.

I think the things that motivate me to work hard are complex and interwoven. Part of it is my heritage, and the stories about the importance of work that have carried through the generations in my family. My dad rebelled against expectations to be a doctor, and has always been creative, which is a much harder niche in which to find success (he has written many children’s books and has latterly become a skilled photographer). He spent much of his working life as a house husband, dealing in antiques or doing jobs he didn’t like, and had a lot of time off with ME like symptoms when I was a kid. My mum has always been a hard worker and the main provider in my family. My maternal grandmother was a hard working single mother in an era and cultural group where there were not really single mothers, and remarried unhappily but wished she hadn’t (and probably impressed upon my mum at some level the value of supporting yourself and marrying for love). Plus my heritage is as an immigrant squared – my great grandparents/grandparents were persecuted Jews who earned their way up from nothing when they fled from Russia to South Africa, and then my parents came to the UK and built a new life here from scratch. There is a high value placed on taking advantage of the opportunity for a good education that people take for granted in the UK, and there are many examples of the value of hard work. The family is very well educated (my dad is the only one who didn’t finish his doctorate) and has implicit ethical rules about the kind of work that we do. I’d think about these as stepping up to the challenge, and seeking to advance knowledge or make people happier, rather than maximising profit or power. There is a definite drive to achieve, though no-one would explicitly want to pass this on to me and I know they would want me to prioritise happiness.

Another part is my moral values, approach to life and personality. Being a psychologist is core to my identity, but so is a sort of entrepreneurial view of the world. I approach everything with curiosity and a desire to problem solve. When it comes to issues that lead people to be less happy or achieve less than optimal outcomes, I genuinely love the process of formulating what is going on, designing innovative solutions that might be effective, evaluating whether they work and disseminating the results. I gain satisfaction from the intellectual challenge, being able to influence practise. I like getting positive feedback for good work, feeling that I have been helpful to others or had a positive impact on systems or decisions. I like the fact my reputation means I am constantly in demand – interestingly in the public sector a waiting list feels like a sign of failure, of not keeping pace with demand, whilst in the private sector it is a marker of success as people are prepared to wait to see you, and the demand for your services exceeds your capacity to supply them. I also feel that people who are gifted with the resources of resilience, intellect, empathy and knowledge should put them to good use, and that the value of my life and the legacy I leave behind will be the impact I have had upon the happiness of others. I’m not a perfectionist, but I do set myself high standards. Finally, it is hard to turn down work that is so badly needed or that you feel might be done poorly in your absence. I know that sounds grandiose, but I’ve seen really bad examples of court reports that led to ill-informed decisions, and it adds to my sense of responsibility to do things well.

I also think that the nature of being self-employed, and of feeling responsible for employees has added to my pressure to work. I feel like I need to put the effort in to establish the business, to ensure we have enough cash flow to pay everyone, and to feel I am pulling my weight. I also feel there is something difficult about turning down work that pays amounts of money that seem almost obscene when compared with what some of the population have to live on. Doing this kind of work is such a privilege compared to having to work in a factory or doing hard physical labour or monotonous office work, or having to do voluntary work experience to claim their benefits. I compare myself to someone trying to eke out £150 of job seeker’s allowance to pay for a fortnight of food and fuel and think how bizarre it would seem to them that I had turned down work that would earn that in just a couple of hours. Or I compare what I earn now to myself as a graduate psychologist earning £9500/year and self-funding an MSc from it. I think about how that extra money could keep on the assistant who really needs the work, or pay for us to have a holiday, or a cleaner, or how far it would go if donated to a charity.  It just seems so ungrateful and lazy not to be willing to do the extra work in that context.

It is also to do with how I think about my own work. I always try to help others and say yes to requests unless I have a reason to say no. I’m dreadful at thinking “oh it will just take me a couple of hours” and taking on new responsibilities without being realistic about my existing commitments. I don’t put sufficient value on my time. And I hide the amount of work I do from others (and myself) by flexing my working pattern. I’m a night owl. I can work until I get things done, into the small hours of the morning taking advantage of the quiet solitude that gives me, and being self-employed and having a sympathetic partner I can often work a late start into my week or lie in at the weekend to catch up. But it makes me tired/hungry/cold (which are all very connected for me) and sabotages my daytime activities if I do it too much. From lying in rather than being up with the kids in the morning, to being grumpy and half-focused during interactions later in the day, there is always a price to pay. But my tendency to put things in to this quiet time, or to need it to catch up with things I have taken on means that I don’t stop at bedtime, and I certainly don’t stop in time to wind down for bedtime. I don’t think it makes me a very good role model. My kids ask why I am up late at night, or sleep in during the morning, and I feel embarrassed that I haven’t organised my time better. My colleagues are used to me taking work home and end up adding things to my calendar to fill up all the gaps, reinforcing the pattern that the 10 hours it takes to write a court report is outside of my working hours, and that no admin time is scheduled for writing bids, contributing to committee work outside of meetings, catching up with email or making calls.

Ironically perhaps, my internal sense of myself is of a lazy and disorganised person. It has been interesting to me to have friends, colleagues and online folks reflect how they perceive me as hardworking, organised and successful. The contrast between my sense of self as never doing enough, and the external perceptions that I do more than is necessary is something I have been increasingly reflecting on. I recognise that my pattern of work is quite masochistic at times. I’m also aware that my expectations of myself are unrealistic and can’t be sustained. Overworking means I end up feeling like I end up with no down time, or at least very little that is entirely disconnected from my professional role or being a mum. I sometimes hit a kind of gridlock where there are so many demands I don’t know where to begin and end up doing none of them! And, like the emotional burnout I wrote about in an earlier blog, this has to stop.

A previous supervisor once talked to me about needing balance between multiple roles as a professional, a parent, a partner and a person. I’m trying to take stock and to chase work back into working hours so that I can focus on the other roles. I think they get more and more neglected as I go down the list. But kids grow up fast, and time with loved ones is precious and shouldn’t be put on hold for some imaginary future point at which there is more time. And I need to also find better ways to care for myself, so that I am happier and have more emotional resources to share with those around me. No more postponing going to the optician or physio. No more working through lunch, and no more super-late nights. I need to set aside time in my diary for all of my work commitments, including those that are currently invisible, and to prioritise better amongst what I take on. Instead of being pulled in all directions I need to work out where my highest point of contribution and greatest enjoyment are, and concentrate more of my efforts in a single direction. I need to have firmer boundaries and say no more often.

I read an article recently about a man who was diagnosed with cancer and given a very poor prognosis who then made a very positive response to treatment. When his cancer was treated and doctors said he had returned to a normal life expectancy he said that the experience had given him an unexpected gift – the insight that time is a precious and finite resource. He recommends that everyone thinks about what they would do if they had only a week to live, or only a month, or only a year, or only five years and identifies their priorities for this time. He points that at best we only have the remainder of our lifetime to live (in my case, probably another 50 years) and that now is the time to do the things that are the most important. So many people on their deathbed look back wish that they had recognised what was really important while they still had time, but we have this time ahead of us, and the option to choose to use it wisely. So whilst I have time, I am going to work out how I want to spend it. And that doesn’t involve work filling up all the gaps in my life. I suspect it involves more cuddles, more singing, more making things and cooking. More time socialising. More walks in the countryside. More holidays and travel. Regular exercise. Relaxation. Going to watch gigs, films, comedy and shows. Finishing my Adventure Diver certification. Making a mosaic. Laughing.

Work isn’t really so important. It doesn’t have the right to crowd out all the fun.