A Day in the Life of a Workaholic’s Bystander

In my lifetime i’ve had the distinct misfortune of having a few people very close to me become addicted to work. 

I understand people who are passionate, who want to keep doing what they’re doing for what may seem like ridiculously long spurts because they simply love it that much – they are in the zone. I have been in this state myself many many times: dancing in the studio nearly all night – writing for a full day because the ideas are flowing that good. In that case it is not work being engaged in, it’s love, and love is fabulously intoxicating. It’s Work with a capital W: life work, passion work, your work.

It seems to me that addiction to work is in large part the addiction to the image of yourself as a worker. Reliable. Sturdy. Never sick, never too tired to do what needs to be done, never giving up. Someone with work ethic. When this image takes it’s place above all other priorities it is a very dangerous thing. Because it means a worker is who you are at all costs. It doesn’t matter how you feel: if you truly are sick, if you haven’t slept in 3 days, or even if you actually don’t like the work you do. All that matters is that you push through, and keep working. As long as you do that you are doing the good thing. You are a good worker. You are succeeding. 

What’s more, you aren’t going to listen to anyone who might tell you you are working too hard. This is the role I have found myself playing. The concerned friend, daughter, sister. Sure the workaholic might seem like they want relief – maybe they are complaining about it constantly and are miserable in the conditions they’ve placed themselves in. But in my experience that does not mean they want to hear the sensible advice: “make a change,” “call in sick tomorrow and take a break,” “quit,” “don’t accept this other responsibility there’s too much on your plate.” That kind of concern is seen as negativity: “you don’t want me to succeed.”

The workaholic often sees self-care as a hindrance to work and a place they can neglect in order to make up for the feeling of over-work they experience. Maybe they get home late at night and gorge on shit food thinking “I work so hard, I deserve this.” Maybe they see things as basic as showering as a waste of time they could be using to be “productive.” Maybe they identify feelings of depression and hopelessness but can’t seem to view their own emotions as meaningful in any way.

I find myself frequently in the place of an enabler. Because when in the vicinity of a loved one who is suffering because they are overloaded, it feels nicer to stay up till 4am with them for just a couple nights when they really need to get this thing done when they’re crying about how they are exhausted but can’t stop working. It would seem cruel to instead to say “just go to sleep” when you know they won’t. Actually, I’ve found it quite impossible to sleep with the knowledge that there is a suffering workaholic in the other room torturing themselves. SO I stay up an help, and am thanked profusely afterwards, but all I want is to say “don’t thank me, thank the gods you didn’t kill yourself any of the times you are driving to work on less than 3 hours sleep…” 

But a workaholic will wear all the times they’ve puked from stress, passed out on the kitchen floor, or dozed off while driving as a badge of honor. They’re just SO hard working! And they will brag about their suffering while reveling in the kind of character it takes to go through what they put themselves through on a daily basis.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that snaps a workaholic out of this incredibly toxic, and creepily functioning-looking (from the outside) addiction. But I’ll just say…If you are putting work above your own health and safety, think about the people in your life who love you and who worry about you. Don’t look down on the people who are telling you to stop working yourself half to death because they just aren’t as hard of a worker as you are. Realize, it’s not that everyone else are lazy sacks of potatoes who don’t know what its like to work hard, its just that they understand that you as a living person: your mental and physical health and well-being…your happiness… are more important than the work that you do.

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