I took a break from work a few weeks ago because I wasn’t/am not well.

I used to wake up every day, check myself like one checks the battery on their phone, then decide how to take the day on. I realize now that I was using ALL my energy to show up for work, leaving none for myself. I had no energy reserves; an anxious night could domino a week. It did not bother me that, in the process, I was leaving myself defenseless against the future PTSD storms. When I took a break, I didn’t take it for myself; I took a break so my colleagues wouldn’t have to suffer through my ailments. Taking a break for myself would make me a loser (ref. orthodox adult ideas about ‘gap years’), and putting myself before people/’success’ would make me selfish/stupid.

I don’t know what to do when on a break. My culture never taught me how to not do something-you-have-done-so-long-it-makes-no-sense-to-not-do-it-when-you-wake-up. So imagine my shock when I realized that my self-esteem was using work and productivity as a walking stick; when I discovered that an indefinite break, taken without having accomplished all your parents’ hopes and dreams, puts you at the risk of staying up at night wondering what the point of your existence is.

The last conscious break I took was when I quit engineering 9 years ago. I had faced push-back from my family. I know how to deal with that. But the break taken from work brought pushback from within. Imagine a tiny, stone-cold P, raised and stewed in hard-coded disciplinarian rules of her stoic family yelling at me. In the imagination, have her look like Wednesday Addams and in monotone saying stuff like: “this break is just an excuse for your laziness, who doesn’t like to not work? you are losing to your sickness. Now your colleagues/boss will know that you are unreliable, start preparing to become redundant.” She replays harsh things from the past- people who either didn’t know me or any other way of being. Imagine (preferably in black and white) my Nani telling me that I would amount to nothing (a break from work may look like a ‘nothing’ if you aren’t paying close attention) as I grow up in time-lapse. Then imagine looking at silhouettes of well-intentioned tall people telling me to “push yourself” and “Don’t whine” without knowing the state of my mind-body.

So, in taking a break I fight myself (as a superhuman if you please) and a bunch of people who care about me (intensifying the superhuman plot IMO).

Yet here I am, on a break- with more energy to deal with triggers, facing the sickness that I am only comfortable sweeping under the carpet, redefining success. I am near close to being good at this. Well, at least I am good at dealing with the push-back now. Here I am noting some down for the future P or any other P who may be struggling, pushing herself too hard, or not putting herself on the priority list.

Things that help:

  • Write down why you are taking this break- whatever it is that pushed me to do it. It could be a statement or a question “I am happy with the money I am making but do I want to keep doing this work?” “I need time to figure out why I am not feeling satisfied doing this” “I want to understand what else I can do”
    In my case it was: I am in pain. I need to figure out new options and systems that work for me.
  • Give yourself permission. Literally saying “you can take this break. Don’t grapple with the questions of deserving and needs, you can’t know right now. You can do this for itself.
    It helped me unclog the metaphorical drain that was blocking all the stinking water of “you should”s, “your cousins are doing this” in my mind.
  • Knowing that your break does not have to be strewn with insights, side projects, new hobbies, and skills. It has to give me a break from the norm, that is its whole purpose.
    I was hoping that in the break I will get back to doing yoga, learning illustration, and completing my portfolio. But I haven’t. All I do is wake up every morning, and get through the day without pushing myself to tears.
  • Keep people from the public narrative, and role models in mind. My therapist told me that Lokmanya Tilak took 2 years for himself, to grow mentally and physically, before fighting for the country. He said he cannot serve well if he isn’t well. I think of this when I feel insecure about not working. Find your own.
  • A buddy who you can turn to in the middle of the existential night, who knows of your goals, intentions, and history.
    My buddy told me last week “I would tell you how much you mean and the work you do, but you probably won’t believe it right now. Know that you are a beautiful person doing beautiful things and your worth doesn’t reside in money or work, exs, certificates, or the social differences you make. I promise.”
    Finding the right buddy is not a one-shot game. It’s an iterative process in which you may land on unkind/stupid people before you find the person who speaks your language. Your romantic partner is most likely not this person.
  • Remember a break is not a vacation. It may be for some, but for you it isn’t. It is okay if you still haven’t started taking care of your skin, exercising, or doing whatever else movies and magazines tell you to do to rejuvenate yourself.

Till now my breaks have helped me:

  • Go back to the principles, re-evaluating myself. I quit a job to start working for myself because I wanted to do work whose impact I cared about, do different work that lets me grow into different things. When I take a break, I take a step back, look at the work I am currently doing, look at the ideas I started with and evaluate if I am doing what I set out to do, if not find ways to jibe. It’s a process.
  • Look at my sickness in the eye, slowly understand it so I am no more functioning in fear, avoiding the closet in which I stuck it, but work with it; to say these are the cards I am dealt with, what is the best hand I can play with them?
  • Redirect energy into building coping mechanisms and strength for making my future work more stable and breaks useful.

Of course, these goals, and strategies will differ for you, future P. But the backbone principle will be the same.

This is how you may want to think about your problem and the aim of your break:

Rajvi is scared of dark staircases. She asks me to drop her upstairs at night. 10 months ago, I had to pick her up and carry her. 6 months ago we started walking hand in hand. Now we walk without holding hands and only halfway together, the other half of the journey she takes on her own. We also talk about her fear of darkness, now that it is a manageable amount she won’t drown in it, dissect it and figure out what is at the core of it. The core is not darkness itself, but the unknown that may be lurking there. We address those.

This is your dark staircase.

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