Kill or cure Some­times be­ing ill is the only way to get a rest. Plus, Sofia Helin

The Observer Magazine - - CONTENTS - Words STU­ART HER­ITAGE

Here’s how I re­alised I might have a prob­lem with stress. A year ago I made the de­ci­sion to have cor­rec­tive surgery on my eyes. Be­fore the pro­ce­dure took place, I was warned count­less times of com­pli­ca­tions that could arise and cause per­ma­nent dam­age to my eye­sight. There was a waiver for me to sign, in case any­thing went wrong.

As the surgery be­gan, I was wheeled into theatre and my eye­lids were pinned open. Two small suck­ers were low­ered on to the sur­face of my eye­balls and, nearby, some equip­ment be­gan to whirr in cal­i­bra­tion. The sur­geon counted down, there was a pop of light and a milky white­ness swarmed in from the pe­riph­eries of my vi­sion un­til I could see noth­ing else. I was blind. And I was re­lieved about it. The panic I had an­tic­i­pated – the sweat-drenched, all-con­sum­ing fear that this was it and all was lost and my sight would never re­turn – was nowhere to be seen. In­stead, against all rea­son­ing, I was over­come with an in­tense calm. “This gets me out of so much stuff,” I re­mem­ber think­ing.

Oh, the sim­pli­fi­ca­tions I’d ex­pe­ri­ence if a stray laser beam had ir­repara­bly de­stroyed my eye­ball. No more emails to re­ply to. No more meet­ings. No more stupid things to process with my stupid eyes. Ad­mit­tedly, no more see­ing my chil­dren grow up ei­ther, but I’d prob­a­bly get over that in time. Es­pe­cially if it also meant I wouldn’t have to do as much house­work.

Clearly, the sight came back. The blind­ness was just the first step in a rel­a­tively sim­ple pro­ce­dure, and now I can see per­fectly. But my re­ac­tion to that mo­ment spooked me a lit­tle. Not only was it hugely in­sen­si­tive to peo­ple with le­git­i­mate eye­sight prob­lems but also, some­where along the line, I’d be­come so over­whelmed with stress that I’d come to see my own vi­sion as yet an­other prob­lem I could do with­out.

In fair­ness, things were quite full-on last year. There were work prob­lems, there were money prob­lems and I had a preg­nant wife and a tod­dler, and my mother was in the lat­ter stages of ter­mi­nal can­cer. None of these were in­di­vid­u­ally in­sur­mount­able, but they all took ef­fort. Com­bined, they felt like a con­stant buck­shot blast to the face. They felt like I was cy­cling through a nev­erend­ing midge cloud with my mouth wide open.

So, in com­par­i­son with that, it felt good to have a breather in a room where the only thing to worry about was the man stand­ing above me pulling wet sliv­ers of oc­u­lar mat­ter out of my eye­balls with tweez­ers. It was a rest. It was my hol­i­day. I be­gan to won­der how un­com­fort­able things would need to get be­fore I stopped see­ing these sce­nar­ios as an op­por­tu­nity to re­lax. Would I feel the same if I had a full-body wax, for ex­am­ple? Was I so stressed that some­one could slide shards of bam­boo un­der my fin­ger­nails and I’d still treat it as a day off? Could I fea­si­bly equate an ag­gres­sive tes­ti­cle-taser­ing ses­sion with a day at the spa? Maybe. Any­thing for some time off.

I’ve come to re­alise that I’m not the only per­son who feels like this. At least one of my friends wel­comes the on­set of ill­ness be­cause it gives them a le­git­i­mate ex­cuse to stop. Which isn’t to say that they court it – it’s not like they shuf­fle up and down tube car­riages ask­ing strangers to sneeze into their open mouths – but when it comes, they make the most of it. They’ve used colds to catch up on their pa­per­work, or fin­ish a box set, or book hol­i­days. And just be­cause some­one’s too ill to work, I re­cently learned, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily stop them from pub­lish­ing loads of smug In­sta­gram sto­ries of their toes stick­ing out of a du­vet in the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon.

But even then, there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween tak­ing a guilt-free sick day – when, re­ally and truly, any­one who ever takes a sick day should be treated like a hero for not

‘Ill­ness and dis­com­fort are now my main leisure pur­suits’

in­fect­ing ev­ery­one they work with – and ac­tively seek­ing un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ences just be­cause they’ll take you out of ac­tion for a while.

That dif­fer­ence, I think, is prob­a­bly down to the lo­gis­tics of my job. Work­ing from home, and split­ting my days be­tween sev­eral dif­fer­ent jobs for sev­eral dif­fer­ent peo­ple, has blended my life into a mush. All the lines are blurred. When I’m work­ing, I might have to break off and deal with the kids. When I’m look­ing af­ter the kids, I might have to break off and take a work call. A sick day would change very lit­tle. Per­haps that’s why I’ve had to go to such ex­tremes.

Hav­ing chil­dren def­i­nitely ex­ac­er­bates this sort of be­hav­iour. Be­fore you have kids, there’s a clear de­lin­eation be­tween on and off. You work, you ex­er­cise, you see your friends; but then you can come home and sit in ab­so­lute si­lence if you want. You can clear the sched­ules and sleep un­til noon. You can watch tele­vi­sion with­out need­ing sub­ti­tles, be­cause there isn’t a tod­dler per­pet­u­ally scream­ing Hick­ory Dick­ory Dock on a nev­erend­ing loop 18in from your face. A lot of the time, pre-kids, mul­ti­task­ing is a choice.

But with chil­dren – at least young chil­dren – the on switch has been per­ma­nently jammed down. Your time

is no longer your own, and tasks start fly­ing at you hor­i­zon­tally. The other day I found my­self in a sit­u­a­tion where I was sit­ting on the floor play­ing with our sev­en­month-old while do­ing some ur­gent in­ter­net bank­ing on my phone, proof­read­ing some­thing my wife had writ­ten while she told a noth­ingy story about one of her friends in the next room. Mean­while, I was hav­ing an ar­gu­ment with my three-year-old about the Bat­man film he’d asked to watch on TV be­cause, al­though it made him cry, the act of me turn­ing it off made him cry even harder. And this was a nor­mal day. It’s be­come a lit­tle pedes­trian to point out that men are never asked how they jug­gle work and home, but I wish they were be­cause I haven’t got the fog­gi­est.

The prob­lem is that time off doesn’t solve any­thing. Tak­ing a lit­tle time to my­self just means pass­ing the buck to some­one else. To go up­stairs for a nap would be to hand over this metal bucket of ex­plod­ing fire­works to my wife, who al­ready has enough on her plate. The guilt of vol­un­tar­ily re­lin­quish­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity is of­ten too much to bear.

This is why I had to give up tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion. I took it up in 2014 af­ter writ­ing an ar­ti­cle about it but, once we started to have kids, it seemed hor­ri­fy­ingly self­ish to whisk my­self away to sit in si­lence for 20 min­utes twice a day. Whenever I men­tion this to med­i­ta­tion pro­po­nents, they al­ways claim that the 20 min­utes are an in­vest­ment; that they’d al­low me to get more than 20 min­utes’ worth of stuff done in the rest of the day. Which, as an ab­stract con­cept, is great. But in re­al­ity, when ev­ery­thing’s on fire and you’re ur­gently needed at the coal­face, it’s a hard thing to do.

So maybe this is it for the time be­ing. Ill­ness and dis­com­fort are now my main leisure pur­suits. As we speak, I’ve got a sore toe­nail from dis­tance walk­ing. There’s a chance that it’s go­ing to fall off. Part of me can’t wait, just in case it hurts so much that I have to spend a cou­ple of days house­bound. Ob­vi­ously, that won’t stop me from work­ing. But per­haps the weird red heat rash I also de­vel­oped dur­ing my last walk will kick in, spread­ing to my fin­gers and pre­vent­ing me from typ­ing. We can but dream.

Of course, the sen­si­ble thing would be to track back a lit­tle and at­tack things anew. Maybe my time and mo­tion is all snarled up, and a se­ries of ef­fi­cient new work­flows would stop me from try­ing to do ev­ery­thing at once. Per­haps I could even try talk­ing about my stress is­sues with some­one, so that ev­ery new re­quest of my time didn’t feel like a ham­mer at­tack.

But that in it­self would be a new re­quest of my time. Fig­ur­ing this stuff out is a long-term goal, and the early years of par­ent­hood are a mess of short­term fire­fight­ing. When the time comes, when ba­sic au­ton­omy kicks in and I don’t feel like I have to carry the whole world around on my shoul­ders, maybe then I’ll get this looked at. That’s be­come my mantra of late: dig in, see it through, this is just a phase, it isn’t for ever.

For now, though, I’ve just signed up for some­thing, a cos­metic pro­ce­dure I’m writ­ing about that will re­quire me to sub­ject my­self to sev­eral pro­longed bouts of dis­com­fort. How­ever, it’ll also let me lie in a room in si­lence for half an hour a cou­ple of times a week for a month. That’s worth it, right? That’s a good hol­i­day, isn’t it?

‘The prob­lem is that time off doesn’t solve any­thing’

Nike swim­suit A big­ger splash. £35, asos.com T Terry beach towel Sun­bathe in style. £110, to­ry­burch.co.uk Ear phones Sounds su­perb. £269, beo­play.com

Hand weights When you need a lift. £8, john­lewis.com

Ve­gan choco­late Dairy-free de­light. £3.95, ho­tel choco­lat.com Scented can­dle And… re­lax. £55, the chapel.co.uk k

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