The Social was talking to the author of Achiever Fever a week or so ago( here is a review of the book I found if you are intrigued). And I found it profoundly interesting when she said she developed insomnia and then started having fantasies about getting in a car crash… just to earn a nice coma break.
And that resonated with me. When I was working full-time and exceeding my pain limits I often had that same fantasy. Just something to force me to take a break. Because, damn, I needed to just rest.
In some sense, I had the chronic pain version of Achiever Fever. I think most of us have had this struggle. Where you do not want to give up your career, you ignore your body, and you just push and push through. Until you can’t. And I pushed for way too long. Up until those car fantasies became fantasies of just dying. Like maybe a well-timed fatal stroke. And then ardently suicidal thoughts. And two attempts.
But I get it. I do. I am a bit of a perfectionist, I have ambitions, and I have a strong work ethic (that I cannot achieve, ever. Any of them). We all have desires and goals. We all want to progress in our careers.
With perfectionists, in particular, we do not want to accept defeat or what we perceive to be failure. And we perceive a lot to be failure that actually is anything but. So we want to achieve our goals and desire and when we can’t, literally can’t, we feel that sense of defeat and failure. So we do it even though we can’t. And with chronic pain, pain pushes back when you over-extend yourself. Hard. So you push back hard. And inevitably it wins that game. It always wins that game. And you end up with lower self-worth and a sense of failure. Failure you didn’t earn. It is just that we have limitations and when we consistently do not follow them there are consequences. If we are not capable of something it is Not failure to not actually be able to do it.
So you… compromise
So maybe you can’t Not work. But maybe you can work less. Or try to improve every aspect of our health humanly possible and hopes it does something before things get mentally and emotionally rather difficult. Like yoga. Or acupuncture. Psychology. Meditation. Supplements. Hell, you will try them all and more in hopes that doing that will enable you to work. You may then slow down all other aspects of life in order to partially function at work. So there goes the social life. You may go on several leaves of absence in hopes something done during them will solve the problem. You may try to get certain accommodations. But when you show you are not dependable, not reliable, and not able to be consistently functional there is a problem. That is when I went down to part-time. And it was the same. High pain doesn’t wait for days off, unfortunately. And then, of course, I did get sicker again, this time with vertigo. Some compromises work. Some work for a short duration. Some just do not work at all.
The blame game
It is that sense of failure and lower self-worth that makes you blame yourself for being weak or not pushing through better. And then comes a crapton of guilt. And you think I am just not functional in society as a human being. Because perfectionism dictates constant and consistent effort towards an unattainable goal. You never achieve perfection. And with chronic illness, you may not be able to achieve basic goals. That just rubs the wrong way with your perfectionism and achiever fever. It makes you feel lesser as a person because you cannot do something you feel you should be able to do. At all. Let alone to our standards, which are epically high.
Eventually, after bashing yourself against a wall for a long time, you come to the conclusion what you are doing isn’t working. And that work ambitions and goals might have to be given up for a more flexible work or less taxing work. Or for a time, no work at all. It is a real battle to give up on a career. It brings up a lot of self-identity issues. And you have to just let some ambitions go. And we mourn that, a lot. But accepting things as they are in the moment is a sort of relief. Because when you make yourself so much worse it is mentally and emotionally and physically exhausting. Accepting you can slow down and help yourself cope feels like you give yourself permission to take care of your well-being.
I got to say achiever fever doesn’t work well with chronic pain and chronic illness. We will never be able to attain our impossible standards. And I think that is the same for healthy people who get locked into this cycle… they burn out. We just burn out faster or harder. It sounds like a fascinating book but I have dealt with the consequences of not being able to function for a long time. I know the answer is focusing on well-being. I know if I don’t, I tank health wise as well as mentally and emotionally.
I also know how it feels to tell yourself ‘Maybe this time it will be different’ and go back to work when you are too ill and suffer the same consequences. Because you just want things to be different and for some reason, you think ‘yeah, this time I can just push through more’. And you just learn the lesson all over again, the hard way.
So we don’t have typical achiever fever for sure. But we have a chronic pain and illness sort where we just do not want to give up on our career no matter the consequences. Then there are the consequences. And that doesn’t work out well at all. Not that some of us can hold onto a career. It is all about not exceeding your pain limits every day. If you are not, then you can certainly keep up with your career with accommodations and some careful pacing. But when it gets to the point where you are consistently exceeding your pain limits and cutting down all other aspects of life… it is a danger zone.
And then when you do accept you cannot work you have to replace that with things you can do. And make you feel productive and useful. And that can be tricky if we do not Value the things we can do and don’t stop focusing on what we can’t. I am still working on this one. My psychologist told me that my writing has value. And I said, oh, just a hobby. But he is right. It has value to me and to others. And it makes me feel productive.