Busy. Active. Ambitious. Busy. Purposeful. Fulfilled. Energized. Busy.

Did I mention busy?

The Beginning of The Trap

The words above best describe the first thirty-nine and a half years of my life. At the age of fourteen, I made the connection that hard work paid off. That hard work meant success. That hard work would lead to what I wanted to achieve. It was a conscious realization. For the first time ever, I had actively sat down and revised for a test. And for the first time ever, I got over ninety per cent. That buzz of success was electrifying. Until then I had been a bit of a plodder. Then I suddenly realized that I could do more than plod. So I did.

Both my latter years at school and three years at university were characterized by the ‘work hard, play hard’ approach to life. Studying, sport, socializing and part-time jobs. Term-time. Holiday-time. Week days. Weekends. That’s what I did. Non-stop. My only ‘down-time’ was bed. Whatever was going on, whether work or play, I always had my eight hours sleep because I knew I needed it.

What’s the big deal you may ask? That sounds like most people’s university years, except maybe the extra time in bed.

Well, eighteen months post a significant breakdown with PTSD and severe depression, I can see now what was missing and the habits of a lifetime I was setting up for myself. You see, amongst the ‘work hard, play hard and sleep,’ there was no time to pause. No time to breathe. No time to think. No time to just sit. And to simply ‘be’.
And that carried on.

Racing, Striving, Improving

Even a post-degree year in Italy, that should have been all about unwinding and relaxing after achieving exactly what I’d hoped for, was never about relaxing and unwinding. Simply because I didn’t know how to. I dashed from looking after the children (as an au-pair), to meeting new people, to cycling (and proudly surviving) around Rome…eventually getting an extra part-time job because my days weren’t busy enough.

Training as a teacher then fulfilled a dream, gave me an opportunity to follow a passion and was the ultimate death-knell for my chances of ever slowing down. You see, teaching for those who really care is inspiring, challenging, motivating and beautiful all at once. There is always something else to do because a lesson will never be perfect, an idea can get even better, the class could be even more inspired…

The list goes on. And so did I.

I threw myself into this career that I adored; got married, moved to Italy permanently and had twins; and pushed myself to extremes both at work and at home. So here came the inevitable breakdown, you might think? You can see it coming, can’t you? And you’d think I might have done too. But I didn’t. I actually thought my extreme pace of life was life. That life was just like that for everyone. And that not pausing to think, to breathe, to take time to myself, to just vegetate on the sofa, was pretty normal.

When our twins turned nine, I had suggested…no, sorry pushed…a family move to The Netherlands. A great work opportunity for me, a straight forward transfer for my husband and an outstanding education for our daughters.

With much excitement, and a fair amount of trepidation, we moved to a country that belonged neither to my English self nor my Italian husband. Even if you’ve never done it before, I’m sure that you can imagine that a change of home, school, language, culture, food and climate, was quite a shock to us all. But, after a few wobbly months, we all settled in and took off.

New friends, opportunities and challenges were exciting for everyone. Seeing that our daughters were happy, meant so much to me and I threw myself into my career. After eleven years in the same school in Rome, it was a huge change. But I thrived on the challenge, the dynamism and the positivity working in a school that is ambitious and highly successful.

Again, there was no time to pause, to breathe or to reflect. Work was good. Home was good. I played in a squash league. Holidays were spent travelling back to Rome or the UK. It was all go. But it was a great go. And I didn’t question it for a second.

Triggered

Then, out of nowhere, I hit a major curve ball.

My twin sister underwent a leg amputation. Her operation triggered memories of the traumatic time I had spent with her following her accident four years before. Memories I had buried. Memories I had never talked about. Memories I had never reflected on because there simply wasn’t time.

Well, this is the point where my mind said, ‘That is Enough.’ No more pretending. No more ignoring. No more being too busy to deal with how you feel.

PTSD kicked in, causing extreme nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and a major depressive episode. For six months, this strong, active and energetic woman, was reduced to a shell, clinging to the sofa or her bed and unable to spend any time alone. Family, work, ambitions, everything…it all lost its significance as I plunged into a deep, dark pit that I didn’t even know existed.

Recovery

It took me another year to recover. A year of slowly getting used to the ‘normal’ of every-day life, if I knew what was normal any more. A year of learning to communicate, to express my feelings, to deal with shit rather than bury it.

A year of building up time at work, from two hours a week to the four and a half days I am currently managing. A year of learning that I had got it so wrong for the first thirty-nine and a half years of my life. A year of understanding that being constantly busy is not good. It does not prove you are more worthy than others. It does not show you are the superwoman you aspire to be.

Just this morning I woke up to an empty house. My husband is away for work and my daughters are at friends’ houses. With three hours stretching before me, I asked the question: ‘So what am I going to do for me this morning?

Maybe read. Maybe write. Or maybe, simply, just be.

And that was when I realized how far I have come. Just be? That phrase didn’t exist in my life for such a long time.

How about you? Are you in the ‘work hard, play hard’ trap? What can you do to alter if it you are?

I hope you do it more willingly than I did. I had to learn the hard way. I hope you don’t.

Pause now. Breathe, think and reflect. It’ll be worth it. I promise.

Related Resources

Are you caught in the 'work hard play hard' trap? It's so common! Most people think it's normal to go, go, go, not taking time to pause, breathe and be. #thedailypositive #wellbeing #stress #overwhelm
Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco

Raw, honest and open as a mental health warrior. Keen mental health advocate. Writer, poet and lover of words that encourage and inspire. Third culture, bilingual kids in a fab family of four + one (four-legged fluff ball that barks). Identical twin and mother of twins. Lived in UK, Italy and The Netherlands. Passionate primary school teacher. Mad about sport – cycling, squash, swimming, tennis, football – it varies. I just need to move!


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