I didn't realize I was severely stressed until I stopped being creative
April is Stress Awareness Month.
The term "adulting" was coined by millennials seemingly fed up with the strains of bills, loans, and monotonous tasks one must complete in order to function in society. It started out as a joke—google "adulting" and you won't be disappointed by the onslaught of memes—but I couldn't relate to the struggles it highlighted until I graduated from college and moved out of my mother's house.
I'd moved out for a number of reasons, including graduate school and my career, but that new freedom came with a daunting sense of stress. There was no comfortable safety net to break my fall if I failed on my own, and there were months when I came very close to falling off that ledge. I came home to eviction warnings taped to my front door. My gas bill was backed up several hundred dollars because, for months, the company didn't charge me properly. I realized that a second income would be the only way to stay on top of my finances.
For me, that meant freelance copywriting as a side hustle. And it meant I stopped being creative.
My experience certainly isn't new—people have always relied on second or third jobs to make ends meet. But as living becomes more expensive and wages stagnate, it gets harder and harder to close the gap between barely getting by and paying your bills on time. I know plenty of people who work several jobs at a time, moving from one shift to the next in a seemingly never-ending workday. But the stress doesn't leave us when we finally clock out or finish up our work. It follows us home in our pocket.
"Emails, texts, social media, and other technology make you feel chained to them. We are like Pavlov's dogs, rushing to look at our phone or computer when it pings to tell us we've got mail or something else that's new," says psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. "This adds constant stress."
I honestly thought that I had somehow dodged the "burnout" plague that has defined the millennial generation. I believed that if I just proved my tireless work ethic and carefully managed my time when I wasn't working one of my several jobs, then I would get myself far away from those eviction notices and never be stressed again.
It wasn't until my fiancée asked me why I had stopped writing creatively that I realized how stress had been impacting me. I was burned out. The stress had just revealed itself in a different form than I expected.
I had barely done any creative writing since graduating from college. I had gone from finishing whole novels to barely making it through a few sentences on screen, all in a rush to utilize my writing skills for jobs that would help stabilize my income. To do that, I let my passion fall to the wayside.
"Burnout clouds your head so you can no longer think productively or be creative. You feel perpetually irritated and impatient, desperate to get off the merry-go-round," says Lieberman. It can be hard to break that merry-go-round of expectation too.
Even after working a 40-hour week, I can’t help but treat time meant for relaxing as time when I could somehow be furthering my career.
Being in a constant state of stress isn't sustainable. At some point, it will lead to physical symptoms: chronic headaches, nausea, any number of underlying conditions. But when you've been conditioned to believe the myth that if you just work hard enough, you can achieve anything, it can be hard to pull yourself out of the mindset that you must work until you drop.
When you're overwhelmed, you may think to yourself, "People in previous generations made it work, so why can't we?" The difference lies in the fast pace that people expect everything to get done nowadays. With the world at our fingertips, people can order something online and receive it the same day. Whole business models thrive on the idea of being the fastest while paying the smallest wages to their workers. We apply that to our own work ethic and expectations for ourselves: The faster we get it done, the more successful we are, and the more likely it is that will move on to the next accomplishment.
What does all this have to do with my creative writing?
When I stopped doing writing for myself, I stopped doing something that brought me genuine joy because it wasn't financially sustainable. I didn't receive the same justification and reward for it that my side hustles brought me. As a teenager, I would talk with friends I'd seen only an hour earlier on AIM, and I'd listen to music and browse the internet before dinner. But after that, I would shut all my computer windows, save for my Microsoft Word, and type up whole chapters of a novel before I went to bed. There was no ping notification from my flip phone reminding me of other freelance assignments that were due; it was just me and my writing.
Looking back, I wish I would have appreciated that ability to disconnect more. But it's time to start prioritizing my passions and hobbies again. Realizing my burnout and identifying my stress are the first steps.