Thursday, May 7, 2009

Restless pre-dawn ruminations of a tightly-wound laid off journalist

It's 4:35 a.m. and I can't sleep. This happens from time to time, and isn't anything new — it started long before I got laid off and long before I had a child.

It's the old story: The body wakes itself up for whatever reason, and the brain won't let it go back to sleep. I don't know many people who have successfully solved the world's problems at 4:30 in the morning, but I'm surely not one of them. Yet I never stop trying.

I'm a light sleeper by design, but when my brain gets churning like this, it makes it even harder to get back to sleep and stay there. So, here I am at the computer trying to make myself tired again. 

This has been happening a lot since I got laid off, but it's not always a bad thing. Yes, sometimes I wake up worrying about money or losing the house, but other times it's because I'm so damn excited about something that I can't wait to start the day.

A month into my unemployment (holy shit, it's been a month already), I have concluded that I lack the capacity to relax. Or rather, I lack the capacity to allow myself to relax. I'm a great relaxer when I can get there. But getting there has been tough.

I have yet to truly unwind from all of this. Going into my new life as one of the unemployed, I had visions of part-time sloth and full-time chill. Yeah, some days I don't get out of my pajamas until my wife comes home, but it's not like I'm getting loaded in the middle of the afternoon and watching Tron. Most of the time I'm sitting at the computer willing it to make something happen for me.

As for all that time I planned to spend outside? Still working on it. Watching The Price is Right and eating Cocoa Puffs until my stomach hurts? Not yet. Scheduling that massage I've had coming for more than two years? Haven't made the call.

I can't stop myself from doing something — no matter how trivial — that I deem "productive." Maybe it's searching for a job. Maybe it's freelancing. Maybe it's housework. Maybe it's a personal project that I've been trying to catch up on like, forever.

I have multiple theories for why I can't take it easy. They include:

• Journalism ruined me. Working in a deadline-driven environment for 8+ years conditioned me to stay on edge, watch for the curveball and be ready to drop whatever I'm doing and spring into action at any moment. 

Life is now throwing me batting practice balls, but I'm flinching at everything like an errant breaking ball screaming right toward my face.

• A lifetime of responsibility conditions a person to feel uncomfortable doing nothing. First you go to school, then you go to work. There's always somewhere to go, so when you don't have anywhere to go, it feels strange. Wrong, even. And it's hard to break that pattern of thought. Sad.

A friend of mine has a theory about vacation that applies here. He says that you actually need three weeks of vacation as opposed to the traditional one week to fully enjoy the time off — the first week to unwind from work, the second week to really get into the vacation like a dog rolling on the grass, and the third to get yourself ramped back up to reenter the daily grind.

It's a great theory, and one I applied to the three-day weekend: You have the first day to unwind, the second day to let loose and the third day to gear back up. The two-day weekend is never enough to get your mind completely off of work, but there's always a glorious moment during the three-day weekend when you completely lose sense of your day-to-day responsibilities and momentarily forget you even had a job in the first place. It usually occurs sometime after the second bottle of afternoon wine is uncorked.

I don't know how the theory works for unemployment, but it's been hard to adjust to this newfound freedom. And it is freedom, even though there's that whole how-the-hell-will-we-survive? thing that occasionally wakes me up at 4 a.m.

• I am anxious by nature. Worry and fear, as pesky as they are, have been great motivators since my youth. I'm sure they've taken years off my life, and I might one day stroke out, but my strong work ethic is largely tied to my genetic predisposition to neurosis.

Naturally, being unemployed for the first time, worry and fear have driven me into action, be it job searching, maintaining a blog that generates next to no money, or otherwise busying myself with some sort of task, no matter how trivial. Which means no getting loaded in the middle of the afternoon and watching Tron.

• I am dealing with provider issues. We've always been a two-income household, but I was the primary breadwinner before I was laid off. Being a husband and father, there's a sense of duty attached to work, and stripped of that, I think I'm subconsciously compensating. 

When I'm thinking rationally, I know that I'm a good husband and father (and I have plenty of positive reinforcement from others to back that claim), but when you're jobless, it's hard not to feel like you're not doing your job. 

So, I'm keeping myself almost insanely busy — writing this blog, taking over the lion's share of the chores, looking for jobs, freelancing, finishing a screenplay, digitizing my CD collection, attempting to start my own company ... It's maddening some days, but it still beats working for a corporate newspaper.

To be fair, I have been legitimately busy. I'm in the second week of a 60-day freelance contract, and I'm putting a tremendous amount of energy into it because I'm viewing it as a springboard to the next phase of my career. And I'm still trying to fit in all of the other day-to-day shit.

But I'm still waiting for the day when I finally allow myself to fully let go and chill the fuck out. As soon as they add an eighth day to the week, I'll get there, man.

Good night. Or good morning. Whatever. The birds are singing now. Time to go back to bed and give sleep another shot before dawn's early light. I smell a nap today.


  1. Right there with you (here in North Carolina.) Problem is, part of chilling out, back when I did it, was knowing I, ah, had a job, and everything was generally OK. So before I (and possibly you) can chill, we might have to have new jobs.

    This is definitely not good, because I am *constantly* doing stuff, no matter what time it is, until I'm just too exhausted to keep going. This probably isn't healthy.

    However, I'm gradually finding little things that allow escape, and thus relaxation. The latest is PBS. The Nova show on the Mayans the other night helped me turn everything off for an hour. And it's available without cable, ha ha.

  2. Your friend's theory is RIGHT ON. Never heard it put that way before, but it's absolutely true.

    Great post. Hope The Sandman is being a little more generous with the sleepy dust lately.