I Struggle To Spend Money On Myself

For the first time in enough years that I can’t actually figure out exactly how long it has been, I’m taking a week off work at a time that isn’t the week between Christmas and New Year’s. For the first time in my life as an adult in the workforce, I’m taking a week off of work to go on a vacation. Even when I was still willing to endure the stress of my family to access the lakehouse every summer, I never managed to take a full week off. I always had to align the trip with a holiday and take only a part of the week off. But this time I’m actually leaving my home to go someplace I’ve never been before with no intention other than to relax and enjoy myself.

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Readying Myself For Summer

Even after nearly a decade away from anything resembling the US school year, I still find myself thinking that the coming of summer heralds a shift from my busy and exhausting days to a time when I can take a load off mentally and physically. I haven’t had more than a week away from my labors in nearly a decade and I still find myself mentally preparing for the coming warm months and the freedom they once brought me. It’s a weird mental space to be in. I know I won’t have any extra time off or a chance to enjoy being outside in the summer without much restriction, but I still find myself hoping for it just as fervently as I did when I was a student.

I haven’t actually had a summer break in much longer than that, though. When I was in high school, my parents forced me to find ways to fill my time. Either by getting a job of some time, by doing chores around the house (usually gardening on behalf of my mother), or by taking care of my younger siblings who needed minding while my mother did other stuff. In college, I had to work since I couldn’t return to my parents house and I needed to pay for summer housing at my college. Even before high school, I was usually occupied with some form of household chores or other work assigned to me by my parents, so I really can’t imagine why I expect a chance to rest and relax.

What the summer has actually brought me is change. In college I shifted from work and school to just work, and in high school I could stay up and sleep in as late as I wanted. My schedule shifted from what was demanded by the world I lived in to one that I could largely set for myself. Sure, I had to be at work at specific times, but the other sixteen hours of the day were mine to spend as I wished. Nowadays, though, the only change the summer brings is how generally sweaty and gross I feel at the end of the day. And I supposed the number of blankets I keep on the bed also changes, so there’s that too.

When I graduated college, I wanted to eventually get into academia in some form, probably as a college professor, so I could stick with that schedule. And, you know, because I loved what I was doing with my degree and wanted to keep doing that kind of stuff (still do, honestly). I eventually realized that a career in academia was likely not in the books for me, given my already substantial burden of student loans and the need for more loans if I wanted to continue my education, not to mention the generally sorry state of academia today. I used to keep up on articles about what was going on in the world of academia, tenure, and literary studies, but that effort was what eventually convinced me I would probably be happier sticking with work outside of academia and writing in my time away from my occupation rather than as a part of it (in an academic sense, specifically. I still think i’ love being a full-time writer of fiction)

Still, as the grey, chilly April days come to a close and we head toward whatever the hell May has in store (it has been unseasonably cold and cloudy thus far this spring, so all bets are off), I find myself planning vacations I’ll never take and looking at my life for whatever big changes I might make. I don’t really have any right now, since I’m trying to work on feeling more at-home in my apartment (rent is rising too quickly to make it worth moving this year, at least at my current income), but I keep taking stock of my life in the hope that something will jump out at me. I’m already making slow but steady steps toward most of my goals, so there really isn’t much to do other than stay the course, keep up the life maintenance, and keep my eyes peeled for any opportunities that show up within my reach.

A Small Vacation

I have a difficult time actually taking vacations. I’ve written before about my struggles, mostly in terms of financial cost, but I also struggle with taking a break from a mental and personal perspective, too. One of my oldest and least-healthy coping mechanism has always been “keep busy.” Which isn’t necessarily unhealthy on it’s own, but if you’re going into this with the thought of “gotta stay too busy to be sad,” then you’ve strayed into an unhealthy mindset and mechanism. The other side of this, which makes this into a problem I actively struggle with, is the fact that I also just like to keep busy. I like having things to do.

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Video Games or Vacations

It is incredibly difficult for me to plan and then take a good vacation. Specifically, I mean that I have never once taken a proper “leave my common sphere of activity” style vacation that wasn’t to a lake house owned by my grandparents since I left for college. Well, I recently had one exception to that, which was a camping trip with some friends, but a crown I’d just gotten not long before the trip broke on the first day and left me feeling pretty awful for the whole weekend so I’m not counting that due to the lack of actual relaxation or rest that one single moment caused.

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A Late Post

My grandfather was prescribed Hospice Care today. That bit of news, accompanied by the tidbit that his tests all came back saying he wasn’t a match to the genetic profile they needed for a last-ditch treatment effort, has thrown off not just my plans for today but my plans for the next few weeks. When I found out he had only a few weeks left unless he was a genetic match for this special treatment, I planned on heading back to Chicago at a moment’s notice in case something happened and that I’d spent at least one day every weekend in Chicago, visiting family with a particular emphasis on my grandpa. Now I’m planning the same thing, along with preparing a long-term bag that I’ll keep in the trunk of my car and getting my computer area reconfigured so I can dismantle it quickly for travel so I can work remotely if I wind up staying in Chicago for any length of time. We don’t know for sure how long he has left, but it’s probably more accurate to measure in weeks than anything else.

It’s difficult to focus on writing anything, right now. I’ve been trying all day to get my mind into gear for this and it’s basically just grinding the gears rather than actually slipping into gear. Trying to make myself write anything is doing more harm than good and I wasn’t able to create the stockpile of blog posts I wanted to have finished by now, so I’m going on hiatus for a bit.

I hate the thought of stopping, honestly. This decision has been tearing at me all day, despite the fact that it’s been lurking in the back of my mind every time I’ve gotten to my daily writing time and felt the black wave of grief and exhaustion (which are all I have left at this point) wash over me. I want to write more, but trying to make it happen is just making things worse on myself. As is the thought of stopping something I’ve done for four hundred thirteen consecutive days. I’m immensely proud of that streak of daily posts and the daily writing they represent, but I’ve pretty much run myself to the point of a breakdown and I can’t afford to have one of those right now. My stress levels are higher than they’ve ever been, I’m dealing with difficult emotions, I constantly feel run down and exhausted no matter how much rest I get, I’m pretty sure I’m currently sick and only not laid up in bed because I can’t afford to be, and all I want in the world is to keep writing and updating this blog because at least then I can point at it and say “look what I’ve done.”

This past year has been pretty awful for me and it has taken every scrap of willpower I have to make it this far right now. Choosing to take a break feels like giving up and writing this post, making this decision, feels like I’m rolling my soul in a pile of broken glass because daily writing and daily blog posts was all I fucking wanted out of this year. That’s it. My one goal for 2018 was to update this blog every day, write every day, and do whatever it takes to keep those things going. Just thinking about it and everything I’ve worked through up to this point makes me want to delete this entire post and re-write it as a “I’m not going to let this stop me” post. I’m not going to do that, though. I’m going to take a break. I’m going to stop making myself do this every day. I’m going to go back to journaling extensively every day. I’m going to reflect, try to deal with my emotions, deal with my anticipatory grieving, deal with my regular grieving, and then try to come back to this in the new year once I’m no longer traveling every weekend or constantly fighting back exhaustion that makes me want to just dissolve into a puddle of tears on my bed when I get home from work.

I am tempted to leave myself wiggle room for musing posts over the next few weeks, like I did seven or eight months ago when I was stressed and trying to figure out what was going on with my emotions. That might allow me to continue updating every day without the stress of creating new fiction, poetry, and reviewing things, but I think I really need a break from the internet in addition to every thing else as well. I don’t know if that’s going to mean deactivating Facebook and removing Twitter from my phone, or if that’s just going to mean I spend more time away from the computer, but I think I need that right now. Beyond the grief and pain I’m dealing with right now, I haven’t taken a break in over a year. Even the planned breaks wound up not being breaks because I was always working on something during that time. I had a project to do or some writing goal to accomplish. Whatever it was, it pretty much negated the whole point of the break, even if I tried to convince myself otherwise.

So I get I’m concurrently going on vacation and taking a hiatus. The vacation will end on the second of January, so that’s the earliest I’ll be back to writing. The hiatus will end once I’ve dealt with my grief enough to not feel like I’m shaving years off my life and pulling off splinters of my soul to sit down and make something specific. I’ll probably keep writing, but that’ll be expressive stuff rather than following the planned posts ideas I picked out a few weeks ago. I’ll be exploring my emotions and trying to cope with what’s going on rather than writing about pre-established fictional characters or creating parodies of famous poems.

See? I can’t even take a break without planning something for me to be doing while taking said break. Whatever. The point is I’m taking away the obligation and drive parts. I’m just going to create if I feel like and catch up on my giant collection of unread books if not. I’m going to try to figure out better routines for myself, ones that incorporate better physical self-care, and see if I can finally do something about the burn-out I’ve been fighting for almost an entire year.

Or maybe two weeks will pass and I’ll still be tired. Who knows. All I know is that writing feels incredibly painful today and I need it to stop feeling painful. Even if I want to write, even if I’m willing to put up with the pain (which I clearly am, given this blog post), I don’t think it’s going to be healthy to pull more than this out of my for the next couple weeks, at least. Catch you all later. You know how to reach me.

Babysitting

“You sure you’re going to be alright watching our little girl for a week?”

“I’m a professional!”

“But you’re an accountant.”

“Yes, but I did this throughout high school and college.” I smiled and walked inside, suitcase in tow. “I’ve got everything covered.”

“If you’re sure…” Felicia smiled and stepped aside. “Anthony will be back shortly, so I’ll give you the run-down.”

I took the piece of paper she handed me. “Doctor’s office, insurance information, and allergies?”

“All there, no allergies.” Felicia tapped the paper. “There’s plenty of food in the fridge, she likes her wet food. If she gets fussy, there’s some dry stuff in the cabinets, but she’s rarely fussy.”

“Sounds like she’s an ideal baby.”

Felicia smiled. “She’s a doll. So well-behaved, loves to talk but never cries, eats well, and never has accidents.”

“She’s potty-trained?”

“Of course she is. She’s over a year old. Why wouldn’t she be?”

“Wow. That’s incredible!”

“I guess.” Felicia looked over her shoulder. “I just cleaned everything, so you should be good for a week. If she makes a mess, there’s some supplies in the bathroom.” She pointed to a door. “She still throws up sometimes, but not as much as she used to now that we switched to her current diet.”

“Sounds good!” A car pulled into the driveway. “Tony’s here.”

“Right! Suzy is in her room, sleeping. I said goodbye a minute ago. Go check on her in a bit and let me know if anything happens. Bye, Jordan!”

Felicia grabbed her suitcase and ran out the door. I waved as she rode away with Tony. A few minutes later, after I unpacked my bag, I crept into Suzy’s room to check on her. A minute later, Felicia picked up her phone and I screamed “Suzy is a cat?”

Saturday Morning Musing

You know what I’d love to do? I’d love to take a month off from work and all obligations so I could stock up on groceries and hide away in a cozy cabin on the side of a mountain somewhere. Set myself up with no obligations, no social media, and no schedule so I can just live for a month. Eat when I’m hungry, sleep when I’m tired, and just let my life drift into some kind of equilibrium. Rest up from the exhaustion of worrying about money, about my job, and all the anxieties of living in the modern world so I can figure out how much of my constant exhaustion is me wearing myself out with constantly working on stuff or not getting enough sleep and how much is from trying to cope in a world that seems to always be somewhat offset from my natural pace.

I’m currently promising myself that, once I’ve eliminated all of my debt, I’m going to take that vacation. It’s still a few years off, yet, but I feel like I’ve finally got a realistic grasp of how long it’ll take me. Back when I moved to Madison and had to deal with the prospect of paying back my student loans, I slapped a bunch of numbers together and figured I’d need about five years at my then salary to get everything paid off. That was untrue. I failed to account for taxes, the much higher cost of living in Madison, the fact that my minimum monthly loan payments would be mostly interest at first, and that I’d need a new car almost immediately on moving to Madison. Turns out that, even with about ten thousand dollars worth of raises over the three years I had that first job, I was just barely making ends meet (and spent a lot of time sliding into a decent a mount of credit card debt because I actually couldn’t afford to live at my initially salary once my car payments kicked in).

I’m in a better situation now, thanks to clearing up some of the debt, a much cheaper living situation, and the fact that I get paid for any overtime I work, now. I’m finally getting a good handle on my finances and get to enjoy the feeling of watching the numbers in my bank accounts go up until I dump it into a loan or something. Financial security feels nice, even if the forty-eight hour work weeks I need to do it leave me often at odds with my desire to rest more or try to get more writing done. An extra eight hours doesn’t sound like much until you’re cramming it into four days. I won’t deny I have it way better than people who need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, but I wish we could all just do forty hours of work and not need to worry about money. That’d be really nice.

Ever since I left college, I’ve lived pretty much every day with the mantra of “pay off my loans and do whatever it is I have to do in order to maximize my long-term financial and personal health.” It’s a long mantra, but it’s important to stay focused on that specific goal. Being debt free isn’t going to be helpful at all if I’ve got stressed-induced health issues or I’m constantly sick from years of living in terrible situations and a horrible diet. I can’t spend my money frivolously, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t buy myself things to make me happy or that are perhaps a little more expensive. The whole point of having money beyond what I need to support the requirements of a (relatively) healthy life is to enrich my life. New foods, the occasional convenience, hobbies, and good causes. All of them are fair game because they’re usually things that inject some positivity into my life when I’m struggling. Which is usually when I’m making a decision that’s the right choice in the long-term but means being upset or suffering or being majorly put out right now.

It’s kind of interesting to know you’re making the right choice and still feel miserable. Whenever I fall into a pit of self-pity, this is usually my focus. Thankfully, it isn’t as often as it used to be. Still, though, it can be really easy to get focused on how my life is nothing but an endless string of decisions made to maximize my future potential for success or happiness or whatever in exchange for present-day discomfort or negative feelings. If I didn’t allow myself some hobbies and the occasional bit of short-term happiness, I’d probably struggle with it more. Nowadays, I actually make sure to spend my personal interests budget every month, usually on a new game or going to the movies. I used to tell myself I had to make one dumb but fun decision every month, but it usually wound up being something along the lines of staying up all night playing video games. Now I just stay up all night writing or watching the stars, often more frequently than once a month.

The original intent was to get myself to move outside of my comfort zone a little more, to do something relatively harmless that would encourage the kind of impulsive joy I used to occasionally indulge in when I was still a college student. Stuff like random all-nighters at the library with my friends, drinks before writing a paper, getting the gang together for an all-day D&D session,  going to a bar and flirting with a random stranger while we both watched the Lord of the Rings marathon that was on the TV. You know, normal stuff. It’s just a lot harder to swing once you’re out of college because the bars feel louder and you can’t always just stagger back to your room if you drink too much. The college libraries don’t really like being filled with non-students and you’re probably not going to run into anyone you know anyway. Walking into a random bar and flirting with a stranger still works, but you generally don’t get to do it until the bars are too noisy to hold a conversation and my conversation skills are 99% of my ability to flirt.

It’s kinda difficult to be impulsive and thrill-seeking when that mostly means buying a tube of cookie dough and eating it with a spoon. Life as an adult is weird, sometimes. Or maybe it’s just my life that’s weird.

Saturday Morning Musing

After a week back at work, I can definitely say that I miss being on vacation. Normally, I am glad to be back to my routines and my habits, but I definitely miss my leisurely days and lack of anything but time and a list of things I’d like to do. Work is fine, of course, but I miss the feeling of being in command of my schedule and feeling like I am the master of my day-to-day fate rather than someone swept up in the rigors of modern life. I do not miss sitting on the couch and watching Psych for 12 hours while also playing Legend of Zelda from when I wake up until I go to sleep. I just miss feeling like the day was entirely mine to spend.

That being said, I still don’t really feel different from how I felt before the vacation. I took the whole week off of work and writing because I felt burned out and used up. I needed to rest and recharge, to let myself unwind. However, whatever I expected didn’t really happen. I thought maybe I needed to go back to work for a bit, to see how my weeks contrasted, to really appreciate the change my break had wrought. Unfortunately, I still feel no different from before. Maybe a little less burned out, but not any less cosmically or existentially tired.

I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy my vacation. I enjoyed the shit out of it. I read a bunch, went on walks every day, actually got a good amount of sleep each night instead of just making do with 4-6 hours like I do when I’m trying to write and work 10 hour days. I cut way down on my caffeine intake, spent time away from the internet, and took the time to just let everything go for a while. I spent most of Thursday just existing. Sitting in my armchair, watching the cat jump at leaves blowing past the sliding door and staring out at the bare trees and empty blue sky. It was peaceful and an excellent change of pace.

Afterwards, though, I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering what it will take for me to feel more relaxed. To escape the feeling that there’s always something more I could be or should be doing. I’ve even spent some time wondering if I ever will. If I’ll be able to look back and say that this was good or that was what I wanted. If I’ll ever be able to not wish that I’d done or was doing more.

Part of me wonders if that feeling was a result of so many people in my life telling me that I was going to do great things and change the world when I grew up. Maybe I’ve got unreasonable expectations. I’ve spoken about it with my therapist and she recommended that I focus on the times I used words like “should” to describe the items on my to-do list. None of those things are really “shoulds.” They’re “coulds,” at best. If I’m constantly recriminating myself for not getting something done, I’m being too strict with myself. Yes, I enjoy feeling productive and actively pursuing my goals is the only way they’ll get done, but I could probably stand to give myself a little more slack.

 

I’m not very good at that. No one has higher expectations for myself than I do. I’m pretty certain that’s at least part of the problem. I expect so much of myself that any time taken to rest or recover from how hard I work is time wasted. I know exactly what will happen when I start drinking energy drinks every day at 5pm. I know how depressed and worn out I will get if I don’t get enough sleep a few days in a row. I know nothing good comes from a caffeine dependency and worsening depression. I really don’t have enough nights where I felt energized and productive as a result of these things to make it worth it. I have some nights and those nights feel amazing, but I have many more days of lethargy, exhaustion, and depression and those feel horrible.

And yet here I am. One week after the end of my vacation and I’m barely sleeping enough to get by each night, drinking more caffeine than usual to keep myself going, and trying to fill my nights with work on any one of my several writing projects just so I can silence that voice in my head that says I’m not doing enough. I am doing enough. I’m doing too much. I work harder than most people I know. One day it will pay off, but I can’t forget that this is a marathon and I’m never going to win it unless I learn to take care of myself the entire time. I need more breaks, more mindfulness, more time to rest my mind each day. I need to push myself enough to get things done, but not so hard that I don’t have the energy to do some reading every night.

That last thing is probably the most important. I need to read every day. Even with the caffeine and the lack of sleep, I’m feeling stronger than I normally would because I’ve taking the time to read. As long as I can make sure to do that, I think I’ll be able to keep myself on track. Reading is the ultimate self-care for me because I never feel guilty for spending time reading. Exposure to new stories and different writers will make me a better writer over all. So long as I am reading, I am enjoying myself and investing time in improving myself.

I don’t think I can say that I’ll get through a book a day or even a book a week, like I do when I am on vacation, but it will keep me going longer than rest alone.

 

Saturday Morning Musing

Growing up, because my parents were a single-income household and they had four children, most of our vacations were trips to campgrounds, the lake houses of my grandparents, or to visit family friends. There were a few exceptions, of course, like my trip to Boston with my mother so I could check out the Mount Washington Observatory because I was a weather nerd as a child and the entire family’s trip to Montana and Washington. I’ve never been to Disneyland and my memories of the Mall of America are vague and distant because I’m pretty sure they happened before I turned six. Probably much earlier.

I’m not complaining. My vacations were just different, not necessarily better or worse. The parts I remember most fondly aren’t even the vacations themselves, but the things around the vacation. Getting excited for the upcoming trip and the books, audio books, and GameBoy games I’d line up for what seemed like car trips that lasted forever. Getting takeout the night before so there were no dishes to do and no mess to clean up. Getting woken up at 4 in the morning by my dad because I was only kid who wouldn’t try to go back to sleep and could be trusted to get myself into the car. When I was younger, getting wrapped up in blankets against the chilly morning air and bundled into the car amongst our bags and coolers so that I got to spend the entire car trip wrapped in a cozy cocoon. The sense of safety and warmth I felt as my dad drove us through the dark early morning hours of the day and I knew that I could sleep safely because he’d never let anything happen to us. The fascination I learned staring at the horizon as the sun rose and at the sky or horizon as the miles passed. The satisfaction and comfort that came from being my dad’s copilot when I was older, the person trusted to stay awake and sit in the front seat because I would talk and could read the map.

Trips are different now. I still love the sun rises, leaving early in the morning, and watching the horizon as the miles roll by, but now I take my trips mostly on my own. I drive to my grandparents’ cottage or to visit friends in different cities. Occasionally, I drive someplace for a camping trip or to visit family. The feeling of wonder and other-worldliness is gone, replaced by a mental checklist of things to bring, where my gas station stops will be, and where my turns are. I think I’m starting to understand how my dad felt when we prepared and went on trips, perhaps minus the sense of responsibility for all the other occupants of my car as there are none.

These days, my vacations tend to focus more on resting and recovering than going somewhere. I don’t really have the money to take short trip to Portland or Seattle. Leaving the country is incredibly complicated and even more expensive, so that’s out as well. I could go camping, sure, but I usually only take vacations when I am in desperate need of relaxation and rest. Then, I generally want to stay around my apartment and save money because going places, doing things, and trying to figure out how to squeeze money out of my budget is exhausting.

That’s what this week’s vacation was. I did a single day trip to visit some college professors and friends, and then stayed at home the rest of the time, doing little things around the house and trying to focus on sleeping well, eating well, and doing some maintenance work on my life. Clutter clearing has been going well and I’ve completely cleaned my room. I also reorganized my bookshelves, so I’ll hopefully be able to handle new books without having to move pretty much every book I own for at least the rest of the calendar year. After that, all bets are off.

We’ll see whether or not it worked as time goes on. Going back to work after a vacation is always difficult and I’m struggling a little harder than usual because my soul yearns to write constantly. I had a taste of the freedom that sort of life could afford me and I’m going to be fighting myself when it comes to going in to work on Monday…