Busy Signal

by Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D

Charlie Sheen had nothing on me. I was a crazed, chain smoking madman. But I didn’t need drugs because my bloodstream was manufacturing its own crystal meth. There was a time when I needed my work–and hid it from others–the way my alcoholic father needed and hid his bourbon. And just as I once tried to control my father’s drinking by pouring out his booze and refilling the bottle with vinegar, the people who loved me sulked, pleaded and tore their hair out trying to keep me from working all the time. Every summertime, for instance, just before we left on vacation, my spouse, Jamey, would search my bags and confiscate any work I planned to smuggle into our rented beach house on the South Carolina shore. But however thoroughly he searched, he would always miss the tightly folded papers covered with work notes that I had stuffed into the pockets of my jeans.
Later, when Jamey and our close friends invited me to stroll on the beach, I’d say I was tired and wanted to nap. While they were off swimming and playing in the surf–which I considered a big waste of time–I secretly worked in the empty house, bent over a lap desk fashioned from a board. At the sound of their returning footsteps, I’d stuff my papers back into my jeans, hide the board and stretch out on the bed, pretending to be asleep.
I saw nothing strange about my behavior; it’s only in hindsight that I say that I was a workaholic. By this, I mean something quite different from saying I worked hard. I mean that I used work to defend myself against unwelcome emotional states—to modulate anxiety, sadness and frustration, the way a pothead uses dope and an alcoholic uses booze.
Since childhood, work had been my sanctuary–my source of stability, self-worth and meaning, and my protection against the uncertainties of human relationships. In elementary school, the subject I hated most was recess. When a teacher forgot to assign homework over Christmas vacation, I was the one who raised his hand to remind her. In high school, I wrote, directed and produced the church Christmas play, also designing and building the sets and acting the lead role of Joseph. Doing everything for the play gave me a sense of control and mastery missing from my chaotic family home, where furniture-breaking fights between my mother and my father were a regular occurrence.
As an adult, the thought of a vacation or weekend without work was terrifying to me, and I structured my life accordingly. As a professor, I carried a full college teaching load and volunteered for committee assignments, while also writing books, conducting research and establishing a full clinical practice. Ignoring Jamey’s frequent pleas that we “just do something together,” I would work in my windowless office in our basement through evenings, weekends, Thanksgivings and Christmases. I even worked through most of the day of my father’s funeral: while my mother and sisters broke bread with our old neighbors, I was in my university office 25 miles away, working on a project so insignificant that I no longer remember what it was.
Up until then, I’d been proud of my workaholism, and well rewarded for it. Jamey might complain that I was never home–and that when I was, I didn’t listen—but my university colleagues called me responsible and conscientious. Jamey might call me controlling, inflexible and incapable of living in the moment. But the promotions, accolades and fat paychecks that came my way built an ever-stronger case against his accusations, and I used them to further vilify him: Why couldn’t he pull his own weight? Why couldn’t he be more supportive? Why didn’t he appreciate my hard work and the creature comforts it provided? Why was he constantly bothering me with problems that distracted me from earning a decent living?
After nearly 14 years together, Jamey—who had been trying without success to talk to me about my absence from our relationship and his growing problems with alcohol—told me that he had found someone who would listen to him and moved out. My first book had been published, and I had two more books and several funded research projects in the works. I was also recovering from surgery from stress-related gastrointestinal problems. My life was crumbling under my feet, and there was nothing I could do about it. I lost weight. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t care if I lived or died.
I was a chain-smoking, caffeine-drinking work junkie, dogged by self-doubt. I had no close friends. I didn’t smile. I felt that my colleagues didn’t really appreciate my hard work and were breathing down my neck. My memory got so bad that members of my family wondered if I was developing early onset Alzheimer’s. I snapped at colleagues, and they snapped back. I once angrily confronted a college librarian for the name of the irresponsible faculty member who had kept, for three months, a book I wanted. She gave me the name: my own. Work had been the one thing that I had always done well, and now even that was failing me. Yet I couldn’t stop working.
In the summer of that year, Jamey and I reconciled, and in the fall, he checked himself into a treatment center for alcoholism. When I eagerly took part in the family treatment component to “help Jamey with his problem,” a facilitator confronted me with my own work obsession. I joined Workaholics Anonymous, entered therapy, and stumbled into yoga and meditation. I began my climb out of the work stupors into a saner life. And Jamey and I started to understand the crack in the foundation of our relationship.
Many of the techniques I now use with clients are ones that I used myself. I ditched a Day-At-A-Glance that went from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m. and got one that limited my work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I also set specific hours for working at home, worked only in my study and gave myself 15-minute “time cushions” between appointments to give myself time to stretch or get where I needed to go. I renewed old friendships and developed new ones. And I confronted the fact that I had been hiding from the world since third grade, using work to keep me from close relationships even though I hungered for them. Closeness had felt scary and unpredictable to me, and I’d work to keep Jamey at arm’s length. I felt out of control with someone who in a heartbeat could snap my heart like a brittle twig.
Change was not easy for me, and there was no specific moment when the light switch came on. Like the subtle changing of the seasons, I started to see Jamey with fresh eyes, watching him care for his orchids and realizing the wisdom contained in the pleasure he got from simply working in the yard. One weekend, I finally accepted his invitation and I tried working with him, just to “do something together.” Much to my surprise, I discovered how much I, too, relished the smell of cut grass, the feel of warm earth and our chats with our neighbors.
Now, instead of spending my Saturdays in my basement office, I look forward to weekends of yard work, garage sales and Saturday afternoon matinees. When we go to the South Carolina shore or to our remote cabin on the Suwannee River in northern Florida, I don’t pretend to nap anymore. I’m fishing off the dock or on the beach now, building sandcastles and swimming in the surf. I enjoy and savor my life and our time together as much as I had once savored my endless work.
But old habits die hard. In the course of writing this article, I was finishing up when Jamey yelled from downstairs, and I felt, at first, the workaholic’s reactive annoyance– Don’t you know how important my projects are? But it was immediately replaced with love and gratitude as I realized he was calling me to a big breakfast of French toast, warm maple syrup and butter.
Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Asheville, North Carolina. He is the author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them (New York University Press, 2014). He is also author of the novel, Limestone Gumption: A Brad Pope and Sisterfriends Mystery about a workaholic who is forced out of his work fog to face the fallout from a tortured past—a life and a murder he thought he’d left behind.
If you would like to test your own work addiction, go to www.bryanrobinsononline.com and take the Work Addiction Risk Test (WART).