I’m a working wife and mum.
Two children, both under 16.
There’ve been moments when I wanted to leave everything and run far, far away. Quite a few moments, actually.
My long-running joke was that Carte Blanche often felt like a hobby… it was where I escaped… to feel human. Imagine that? In my head I saw in-your-face, often confrontational, journalism (which includes chasing crooks and holding corporates and government accountable) as easier?
Whenever I shared that joke, people laughed but I could see, in their eyes, they thought I had a few missing screws upstairs.
But, I’m not the only slightly tilted one.
Around the world, millions of working mums burn the candle at both ends. We don’t stop working. Work… at home. Work… at work. Work for our extended families. Work, work, work, work, work. Too many balls in the air and every year, somehow, there are more balls bouncing cheerfully up there. Tough juggling act. Crazy, if you ask me. But it’s what women do… we kill ourselves to save others… it’s the old sacrifice game.
At the end of last year, 22 years after starting out in this tough industry, working every day that came my way, I was bone-tired. Mentally, I felt fried. Exhaustion had become an unwelcome visitor – the kind of visitor you can’t get rid of, despite dropping heavy hints. I felt shattered getting out of bed every morning. And, it took every bit of my energy to put on a brave face and pretend everything was ok. Inside, I felt dead.
I didn’t need a doctor to tell me I was heading for burn-out. The signs were all there. I had to change. Permanent change. I had to save myself. Nobody had even noticed anything was wrong.
Whenever I need clarity in my life, I find it on a blank page. Late one night, feeling a bit teary, I wrote down five things I wanted to change in my life.
1. GET INTO BED AT 8PM
2. GET 8 HOURS SLEEP AT NIGHT
3. STOP WORKING AT 5PM (IF NOT CHASING CROOKS)
4. GO BACK TO READING AT NIGHT AGAIN
I folded the page and went to bed, hoping I wouldn’t spend the night with another old friend, Insomnia, where we would write endless lists on the ceiling with my tired eyes.
In the morning, drained as usual, I looked at the list and wondered if I had lost my mind? How was I ever going make ANY of those changes happen? I didn’t have time to make changes. Too many people depended on me. Besides, everything on my list was selfish. I had two growing children who needed me. I was already spending a lot of time away from home and now I wanted to steal more time from my family?
I was introspective for a few days after writing that list. Those five points made me feel so sad when I figured that my proposed changes weren’t extraordinary. I wasn’t asking for a QE 2 cruise around the world. My simple asks were just undoable.
In that moment, a paparazzi of bulbs went off in my head. Why did I believe I didn’t deserve to sleep? To exercise? To read? To live? If I carried on with my old habits, chances were I was inviting medical and mental trouble into my life. Then… I would be of no use to anybody.
I gave myself a fat klap.
I had no choice. I had to save myself.
I’d spent my life saving others…
Nobody was going to save me… nobody even knew I needed saving.
So… I chose ME.
One year later, I’m happy to share the fact that that list is my daily mantra.
I’m at the top of my list now and… I love it.
I held myself back, all those years because I told myself the story that everybody else’s needs were more important than my own. Aircraft stewards remind us, that in the event of an emergency we must put on our own oxygen masks before helping anybody else.
That’s practical. Because you will be of no use to anybody if you don’t access your own oxygen first.
It wasn’t easy making those changes. But, I broached no discussion with my inner critical voice (you know, that nagging aunty in your head who constantly puts down every idea you have). I cleared space in my life to make my list possible… as one does when you bring home a loved one from hospital. I put on velvet gloves and nurtured my soul. I convalesced. After just a month, I felt something change in my DNA. It was as if I was writing new software for myself. It felt glorious.
My changes brought a few surprises too.
My family shockingly survived me taking three hours away from them during the week so I could go to gym.
Nothing and nobody fell apart (I was both happy and slightly sad about that!).
I also discovered that they didn’t expect home-cooked meals every day. I had heaped that expectation on myself. Woolies roast chicken, boxed hake and cheese toast works like a bomb too.
I learnt that I was a more relaxed mum after eight hours sleep and I loved my job even more deeply.
I have fewer balls in the air. I have chosen them carefully. I dropped the others. They were getting a free ride at my expense. I don’t even care if they got hurt when I dropped them – I giggle when I hear myself say that!
And, that’s another thing… I actually feel joyful these days. I laugh more. I take things less personally. I breathe deeply. All the time.
I’ve relapsed. A few times. The difference now is that I recognise madness from a distance. She waves at me cheerily, hoping to distract. But, I see through it and make quick U-turns. I lived in that world and I’m not going back.
Meeting Arianna Huffington last week reminded me of how close I had come to self-inflicted, permanent damage.
In her old life, Arianna was also on a mad merry-go-round. Her focus on balance and well-being is a reminder that in order to succeed, you don’t need to burnout. A breakdown isn’t a badge of honour to carry around. Getting home from work at 10pm is not something to boast about. Your bosses may love your dedication but in the long run, you will hate the resentment that will come when you realise you have been stealing from your own essence. Who steals from themselves and then shows off about it? I’ll tell you. People who’ve been taught to believe self-sacrifice is a virtue.
Life is short. I’m no longer a self-appointed slave.
I chose me.
You can choose YOU.
The world spins differently once you’ve done that.
~Devi Sankaree Govender, November 2016.