Two days ago, Kristin, my wife, observed that I seemed unable to simply enjoy something without being critical of it. She’s right. I can hardly watch a movie, read a book, or have a conversation without my analytical mind going full tilt to catch every nuance, thesis, and interconnection. It’s an exhausting way to go through life.
Life as a freelancer is a lot like how my critical mind won’t stop, can’t stop. It’s a go go go lifestyle. Slowing down isn’t an option because, so the logic goes, if you stop, you die (prefessionally speaking). I lived as a full time freelancer for three years and I still carry that sense of go go go with me all the time. Even as a part-time freelancer I feel the ever present pressure of deadlines and finding new clients.
I wasn’t always this stressed. It’s a learned habit from my MFA years onward, and I don’t think I’m alone. Thousands of artists, designers, and programmers probably feel the same way. There was a time in my life when I could really, truly relax, and it helped me through a painful experience.
In High School, in the high desert of California, I joined the wrestling team my sophomore year. I wasn’t that great but I loved the sport. Yet I kept getting injured. My right shoulder would dislocate almost every other week. I eventually had it checked, and found some muscles and tendons that had been torn from an old karate injury (more on this in another post). I had to have reconstructive surgery.
The night after my surgery I was alone in the military hospital (we lived on Edwards Air Force Base). My arm was still numb from the nerve block. My family had left a few hours earlier when visiting time ended. I could hear the nurses laughing down the hall to a loud episode of Jerry Springer. I couldn’t sleep. Another hour later I was clicking the call button furiously. The nerve block had worn off. I was in pain like I had never known.
The nurse who was assigned to me came in. She said she would get me some tylonol 3 since that was all the doctor had prescribed. I took the medicine. The nurse told me I could have a new dose every 4 hours. It barely helped. An hour later I was hitting the call button again. Begging the nurse to give me something stronger. She couldn’t, but she gave me some ice water and told me to try and get some sleep.
It’s hard to fall asleep when it feels like a knife is being twisted in your shoulder with each breath. So I stared at the clock waiting until the time for a new dose. It must’ve been a late night marathon of the Springer show. I could hear his nasally Midwestern voice punctuated by bleeps and shouting from the guests. The nurses would laugh. I watched the clock.
When it was time for my new dose I clicked the call button. The nurse came and gave me my medicine. I think she finally saw that her 15 year old patient was tired, in pain, and scared. What was she going to do? The doctor was not on call. She couldn’t give me stronger medicine. So, she did the only thing she could think of, walk me through a guided meditation to calm me down.
If you have never done this before, it’s a truly amazing experience. She asked me to focus on my breathing, I had never done that before. She then asked if I had a place where I felt perfectly safe and relaxed. I told her yes, my family cottage on a small lake in Michigan. She asked me to describe it to her. The dock. The two tall, strong pines. The smell of the water. The buzz of speed boats and skidoos. My grandparents talking. My family laughing. The sway of the porch swing. I slept.
In the morning, my doctor gave me some sort of opioid and sent me home in the afternoon to recover. I never had the chance to thank that nurse for what she had done.
Eighteen years later, I’m sitting in the family cottage. My life as a freelancer has made me unable to relax. My philosophy courses in college keep me from enjoying anything without tearing it apart. I am here, in my place of refuge when I was a scared boy in a hospital bed at 2AM. For the last several years when I came here I couldn’t relax. I thought of all I had to do. I thought of all my professional failures. I was worried; I was stressed.
This weekend is different. I am trying to remember that nurse and the comfort I was able to conjure from my youth. I have some Westerns to read, some wine to drink, and an amazing family. I’m learning to let go of the pressure to win all the time. I’m learning to let go of things I have no way of changing.
It’s a strange irony that one has to work at rest and relaxation as an adult. I have to push certain worries from my mind. I close my eyes. Open my other senses, and I focus on my breathing.