If there is such a thing as an addictive personality, then I certainly have one.
In the deepest core of my character from an early age was a toxic combination of low self-esteem and perfectionism. I desperately sought validation of my worth from external sources. This became the root from which my anxieties and eating disorders grew.
I was an early bloomer, and from as young as 10 years old I had already started to hate my body. In a frenzied attempt to control the runaway development of curves, I would cycle between starving, binging and purging ― habits that would stick with me until my late 20s. Losing weight felt incredibly validating and helped mask the feelings of worthlessness that I felt. My anxiety was an ever-present companion, and the rush I’d get from destructive behaviors like drinking, doing drugs and engaging in self-harm was simultaneously toxic and soothing.
However, when I found out I was pregnant at 18, I knew things had to change. I turned away from drugs, alcohol and other risky behaviors. But all those things set the stage for my later workaholism.
As I entered into adulthood, I craved the rush that came from control and from being acknowledged as worthy. This same craving had fueled many destructive behaviors. However, it also gave me the drive to finish a degree as a high-school dropout and single parent in my 20s. The pride I felt and the positive recognition I received from doing so fed right into my desire to be valued.
I continued to chase that feeling through my brand-new career in social work, a profession that required me to be “on” all the time. I worked specifically with adults with developmental disabilities. As such, my job was very interpersonal, and the emotional stakes were high. I was an overachiever and was quickly promoted. This put me in a position of overseeing the whole program; the clients, the staff and the day-to-day operations. I threw myself into this role completely.
Unlike the other hats I wore at the time ― mother, wife and friend ― this position came with guidelines, expectations and frequent positive acknowledgment. It filled the void of feeling adrift. I knew who I was in this role, what was expected of me and what I, in turn, could expect. No other role could give me that, and in other areas of life, I often felt lost and completely inadequate.
The term workaholism brings to mind long hours at the office, resistance to taking time off and a compulsive need to be connected to your workplace at all times. For me, and I’m guessing many like me, it was far more insidious.
Although I did work far beyond the hours I was assigned, and blurred work-life boundaries in ways like being available while technically on holiday, the root problem of my addiction to my work (and yes it was an addiction) was that I identified so deeply with my job that I viewed my occupation to be as much a part of my character as my personality traits themselves. When you do that, it becomes impossible to untangle your “self” from your profession ― which in turn annihilates the possibility of having any sort of work-life balance.
Although I had a set number of work hours, I would exceed that and was never more than a few feet away from my phone. I justified my connection to my workplace by saying that “working tonight would make my day easier tomorrow” or that the quality of care my clients would receive depended on me just “finishing up this thing, real quick.” However, the truth was that I was simply addicted to the validation that came from doing a good job.
It was a high to succeed at work ― that same rush I’d felt so many times from drugs, from love, from rapid unhealthy weight loss. And I was more than willing to work myself into the ground to get my fix.
During this time I got engaged, then married. I had one child, then two, then three. My husband resented the time I spent on the phone, interrupting dinner to fill shifts and respond to emails.
I went through two maternity leaves and still kept my finger on the pulse of the program. I missed many moments with my family because I was not mentally present. My anxieties manifested themselves in physical maladies such as headaches and stomachaches. I had difficulty sleeping, as I would think of some pressing issue right before drifting off that would gnaw at me as I lay with my eyes open trying to brainstorm possible solutions.
Occasionally I would try to take a mental health day and would end up working from my phone despite promising myself to disconnect. My rock-bottom moment came when I was at the hospital with my son who had been ill, and my phone was blowing up with calls from my staff. I stood staring at the little screen, completely overcome with anxiety and guilt. I made a promise to myself that something had to change.
The interesting thing about our culture is that we are rewarded for this behavior. We reap the benefits in the form of money, preferential treatment and praise. When I finally reached my breaking point (and you better believe that every obsession will eventually break you), I found that paradoxically I couldn’t quit my addiction cold turkey. I needed an income, so my solution was to start setting boundaries.
You can really see the extent to which our culture rewards workaholism when you try to break the cycle. Typically, the rewards stop, and you are left staring at just how expendable you really are.
The entire time I was a workaholic, I simply told myself I was driven. Realizing that I was absent from my own life to chase the praise of excelling at my job was a hard pill to swallow. I can see now that workaholism is a lot more complex and nuanced than we are shown on TV. I have many regrets, as there was so much that I missed. I had no idea that what I was doing was toxic, a bastardized version of work ethic and ambition.
My addictive nature primed me for this condition and the only solution has been to work on the root cause ― to cut the cord between my self-worth and an external measuring system. This includes praise, the numbers on a scale, titles and wages.
Setting boundaries and working on my self-esteem has been my own personal treatment plan. I ended up leaving that job and am now a freelancer, which means that only I am in charge of how much I take on. This can be precarious, as I still feel that pull to do too much.
Like most addictions, I can never assume that I’m out of the woods. Workaholism is not tied to a work site or a job title. For me, it was something that lived inside my chest, feeding on the positive acknowledgment that I never gave myself.
My main healing strategy is to do mini check-ins, taking an honest look at the balance in my life. I also started adopting other hobbies to give myself a sense of purpose beyond work, and I unapologetically schedule downtime. I’m also not afraid to approach my husband for an objective opinion of whether I am going “too hard.” Workaholism will always be a part of me, and I will forever need to be diligent to keep it in check.