Stress, the ugly beast
Im slowly coming to grips with something I've really always known. I apparently am a stress case. I guess everyone else already knew this but i'm just realizing it now (again). Don't get me wrong, i knew i used to be one. I had started young. I had ulcers in middle school for crying out loud. Had thinning hair in my twenties despite the fact neither of my grandfathers did in their 70s. School, college, postgrad, a job- those things just cultivated the problem. I thought momentarily that the whole "retire at 35" thing had solved the problem. I like to talk a good game (and I am actually remarkably more calm and centered than any point in my life) but over the last few days i felt the ugly beast creeping back in. That tenseness and jittery feeling deep inside me. Like i've had 8 espressos too many. I can feel it squeezing my heart and stomach and feel every part of me working harder. I didn't miss that feeling while it was away.
It all started innocently enough. Start a business because i think i found something i love to do that could also possibly make money (ignore for the moment that old adage about doing anything for money being the best way to kill your love for that thing...). I had been doing a great job of balancing things...working on the website and marketing as we were in town, then not thinking about it at all while we snuck away to play in the wilderness or explore. I really thought i had changed. Defeated the beast.
Then an opportunity came along for us to get some "free" marketing and put the zenbox name out there. A design event with lots of exposure, a chance for us to show off some of our designs/creations, and also to benefit a good cause- perfect. I jumped on it and agreed to take part; and then started designing and planning our booth for the Serving up Style fundraiser event for Molly's Fund fighting lupus.
It basically meant we could work with another cool design team in town, use several of the pieces we've already built, and have an excuse to build out/finish a few more. We designed the booth as an indoor/outdoor theme and the teardrop may even get to make an appearance. The plan would is to reuse everything built and/or add them to our home when finished. Awesome!
Then, as the weeks passed i realized what began as a fun design project was quickly turning into a (rapidly) approaching deadline. We've spent two and a half years barely knowing what day of the week it was, and i suddenly found myself creating a daily work schedule for us over the next month and a half. Calculating the number of days/hours left and whether everything could possibly be finished in time, and fretting about the cost of materials to get things done. Yet it still didn't yet hit me. I started using words like "anxious" and "time-sensitive" but refused to admit that i was truly stressed. Stress was the old me. I've spent two and half years without working, how could i be stressed?
I started spending long days working in the shop again. Milling wood, welding, checking to-do items off the list. Then out of the blue a second opportunity arrived. A design/build competition right here in portland and for a project i support. The portland street seats program was looking for designs for a 6x20 public seating area (to fit in parking strips) and the winners would have to build their design. I spent a few nights (after shop days) pulling renderings together for an entry and sent it off. It was fun. A few sleepless nights of designing, playing with renderings...more of the stuff i seem to do for fun anyway.
Another stool order came through from a cool restaurant on the east coast, which i should have been happy about- but cringed instead. We had airBnB guests move in, but instead of taking the backpacking trip we had planned I convinced Jen we should stick around town and check things off the list. I wasn't stressed, but i had too much to do. Right... On the upside we got to spend time with friends, see a few concerts/shows, even got out to the adult soapbox derby where i was inches from being run down by nemo on wheels. (Apparently stress is willing disguise itself as any mythical or seemingly harmless creature when trying to kill you you).
(crash photo by eric prado)
On the downside...the schedule was defeating me. This is not the carefree way we promised each other to live. We didn't work hard and make all these changes to miss opportunities and watch months at a time go by in a blur of work and deadlines.
The weekend before the street seat winners were announced jen and i sat down to discuss our schedules and find a time where we could take a week to go pick up her mom in montana- and my brain basically melted. Take a week off in the middle of two already impossible deadlines? Impossible. I still wasn't using the S-word to describe my mindset, but the removal of a week from my timeline sent me there. Obviously i was going with her to get her mom. I'd be there to support her and be there for her. Not going was never an option... but the very premise of reduced timeline kind of pushed me over the edge.
I spent the weekend considering backing out of my commitments. Going against my word and my name simply because of timing; and that idea stressed me out even more. Suddenly everything i was doing felt like work again. It had completely snuck up on me and grabbed me without my even knowing it. It accosted me in the middle of broad daylight, threw a dark sack over my head and struck me with sharp jabs to the gut. I had... a job.
It wasn't the same as the corporate career certainly, but it was work and schedules and to-do lists and deadlines. I wasn't having fun, and it wasn't zen. As much as i had avoided using the word...i was stressed. How could this have possibly happened? Then, as i spoke with people in the shop about my revelation, about how just today i got stressed- they all informed me that it's no great secret to them. That they've seen me stressed several times over the past year and that i often work from that mindset. They clearly never knew me when i was wearing a tie! But... their words sunk in and hit me on a deep level.
I slowly came to terms with the fact that they were right. It may not be as completely overpowering as it was a few years ago when someone else was creating my deadlines, or when i had no control over my own life- but stress still finds it way back in and takes over. It's like a disease. At least for me. I cant simply run away from it, say i'm fine and pretend it doesn't exist. I have to learn to admit that Im prone to it. That it's a reoccurring habit for me and i have to somehow make myself choose another path. Find a way to slaughter the beast.
Luckily, i did not win the competition. A blessing in every sense of the word. I still had anxiety about the next month's timeline but i could at least see a path out. I spent the weekend trying to right the ship as best i could. I started cutting down the scope as much as possible and reducing some of my commitments. I communicated with my collaborator about our trip, and made sure i wasn't taking on more than i could handle (or finish to a level of quality I'd be happy with).
Things got almost immediately better. I could already feel myself breathing deeper and the weight was easing. It seems ridiculous looking back just a few days. I have so little worth worrying about. Life is good, we're healthy, we are living an amazing life...and yet i still find a way to turn in a direction of stress and anxiety. Only me. The other night with friends Jen was telling the story of our week and mentioned how at the height of my "ordeal" i was stressed about setting up the web meeting for the fantasy football draft we were hosting that night. She laughed as she explained that "the guy who used to be able to juggle dozens of clients and 6digit deals simultaneously"...was suddenly stressed out about planning a conference call about fantasy football. Hilarious.
Now that i've got my insane hard-wired stress brain in check things are back to normal. I'm energized each morning to head into the shop. The projects are becoming fun again. We are pushing out stools and tables and and its rewarding instead of exhausting. The giant pile of raw, dirty wood is being refined into functional art.
It's amazing to me, the fine line between polar opposite ends of our mental spectrum, and how delicate the difference from one end to the other really is. Stress and by the same logic happiness, it seems is truly a matter of perspective...
I know this is one of those lessons i've already learned, and i'm certain ill have a relapse. I just hope in the future when i look back through these posts, that the relapses are few and far between. Life is too short to worry about the little things and in the perfect irony, worrying about them only makes it shorter.