They oughta send me to rehab

Is there rehab for people who are addicted to email?

One of the hardest things for me to accept as my layoff wears on is the dwindling of traffic in my inbox. I keep it open all the time, and check the tab obsessively to see if the ticker has changed — and every few hours when there’s been no activity I’ll refresh, just to be sure.

Email addiction is the scourge of the modern age. I started out with a home address back in the days when everybody sent jokes to everyone in their address books. There was almost always email in my inbox. Then I got a work email address that kept me occupied for the first hour or so of my night shift. Then I opened a webmail account, not realizing that my home email address also had a webmail option, so that I could send personal emails from work without using my work account. More than a decade later, when I logged on to a computer I’d open up my original personal email, my work email, my Facebook account, my gmail account and my Twitter account . It was constant gratification because one or several of them would be active at any given time, and my mood would lag if any of them went dark for too long. For example, I can tell you that very few of my friends do anything on Facebook between noon and five — because I pay attention. And I miss them. I either have an undiagnosed case of ADD or an addiction.

That constant stream of new information on my social media sites hits a real pleasure centre in my brain — it’s seductive, to think people are out there wanting to contact you, bringingĀ  you new shiny things to look at and think about. And if you’re easily bored, you grow to rely on it for stimulation.

I’m not like one of those Crackberry addicts who has to check every 10 seconds for email — I don’t own a smartphone, which means I can be disengaged from my online habit for hours or even days at a time. But when I’m online, the strategic reallocation of my attention to something other than my email or other social media only happens when they’re not open as a possibility, or when I’m too busy to check them.

The week I was laid off, and the first few weeks of my layoff, when I was actively contacting everyone I’d ever heard of looking for a job, my email inbox was gratifyingly active. But six weeks in, traffic has slowed to a crawl. So buddy, can you spare an email? I’m dying here!

Take care of yourself

Adios. Au revoir. Auf wiedersehen. Go with God. Until the next time. Goodbye, which stems from “God be with you” and essentially means “I hope you don’t die before I can see you again.”

Take care of yourself. We say it all the time, and don’t even think about what it means before we say “you too!” and hang up, close the email or move along.

But there’s a real message there for everyone, and the unemployed in particular. I learned on a Monday afternoon that I had lost my job, would be out of work in five days. That announcement had not only a psychological effect, but a physical effect as well. I completely lost my appetite — and I’m a stress eater. When I’m angry, when I’m sad, or stressed, I eat, so not caring whether I put food in my mouth was unusual, to say the least. ThatĀ  lasted a full week — I ate because it was time to eat, or because someone put food in front of me, not because I experienced hunger.

I’m not a drinker — I’ll have a drink or two socially, once a year or so I might drink to excess, but I suffer sometimesĀ  from debilitating hangovers (not always, but I’ve never figured out when they might hit) so I avoid alcohol as a rule. But I consumed more alcohol in the 10 days after the announcement than I’d had in the preceding two years (and that includes a vacation at a Dominican Republic resort). There seemed to be more invitations to imbibe and fewer reasons not to.

I’d greeted my first Monday of layoff with a plan to get up early, go for a walk in the cool morning air (and perhaps again in the evening before bed) and to eat really well now that I was freed from the restrictions of Hours of Work that cut into gym time or forced me to eat lunch at my desk or meant I got home too late to feel like cooking and eating a proper meal. I don’t eat lunch at my desk any more, but I also might not eat lunch at all. One night this week I had cheesies for supper. And while I’ve joined my neighbour a few times as she walks her dog in the evening (her cats sometimes come too, which is kinda cool) that’s the exception, not the rule.

I feel like I’m spending more time in front of the computer than I did when I was paid to do so. I sit down in the morning, check my emails, check Facebook, play a game or two then start looking for work, working on work, sending out emails, writing letters, doing research, and before I know it it’s 4:30 or 5:00 and my eyes are sore and … maybe if I just check my email one more time there will be a job offer there. It’s a little bit manic, and I don’t know that I get much accomplished professionally, but I sure as hell don’t get any taking care of myself accomplished.

In that, I am not unlike many small business owners (right now I am my own small business, so I guess the analogy works) who put every waking hour into ensuring the success of their enterprise, neglecting their own health in the process. There’s an article about it in Fortune magazine: http://tinyurl.com/83kuajk

What those small business owners need to remember — and what I need to remember too — is that there is no success without health. Or if you have success, you can’t enjoy it if you’re on your deathbed. Taking care of your business starts with taking care of yourself. So here’s my new game plan: I’m going to cook (and eat) the broccoli in my fridge before it goes bad; I’m going to eat cherries instead of cheesies; and I’m going to beg my neighbour not to take no for an answer again when she invites me to join her on her nightly constitutional with the animals, or to tai chi on Wednesdays. It’ll help me stay sound of mind and body.

The seven stages

I was walking down the street one day when I heard a loud, sharp noise behind me. I was in the process of turning around to see what it was when I noticed the woman in front of me turning first. The expression on her face was not surprise, or concern — it was anger and, strangely, disgust. The split-second timing of her turn led me to think that she must have been making her way downtown prepared to be offended by something, anything, and the noise was what did it.

I’m like that with bad news. I call myself a cynical optimist, which means, to me, that I hope for the best but I’m never entirely surprised when it turns out to be the worst. Glass half-empty. Always seeing the lead lining. Perfect journalist material, really.

And that’s why I was surprised (and most of the people I know were as well) that I approached the first few weeks of my layoff with such … well… joy. The economists have a term for when the markets rise for no good reason: irrational exuberance. And that’s exactly what I was experiencing, an ecstatic moment completely divorced from logic. People told me not to fight it, and I didn’t, but at the same time I knew it wasn’t natural.

I didn’t start happy — when I heard the news I was being laid off my stomach fell to the floor and my first thought was “Oh my god, my mortgage.” I had just bought a house not a year earlier. My second thought was that this would have been a good time to have a second income in the house. And then I just wanted to cry. And I felt like that all week, going to work in an office where the survival guilt was palpable, where I couldn’t even look at some co-workers without tearing up as we all shared each other’s misery.

But on the last day I walked out of the office having, it seemed, shed my last tear. My mood lifted, my heart sang. Being me, I had to dissect the feeling: part of it was relief at leaving what had become an unfulfilling job, for many reasons. I’ve been having, for years, these circular conversations with friends which start out “If we didn’t do this, what would we do?” and never finding an answer. But this looked like my chance to find an answer, to dip my toes in different pools and see where the water was finest.

A few weeks further on I know that I was deeply in the first stage of grief — shock and denial. That’s not to gainsay my willingness to try new things, that was and is real, but it is mitigated now by the realization that freelancing in this town is a hard, hard slog and I am unlikely to make it pay right away — not enough to live on, in any case.

I think I experienced the second stage first — pain. That first week was horrid.

Anger came the third week when my company laid off more people and made clear its master plan, to get rid of us, expand a centralized location six hours away and then hire back as many of us as it could at lower pay. I’m now I think in the fourth stage, not so much depressed and lonely, though there’s a bit of each, but reflective, about what I want and how I can get it — and what I might have to do in the meantime. I sincerely hope I don’t have to forgo this chance to reinvent myself just to keep me and the cat in kibble.

The silver lining in my lead cloud is that according to the grief literature, the upward turn is next and it’s all roses and sunshine thereafter.