My name is Amelia and I am a stress seeker. According to a recent article in Women’s Health, stress seekers are “addicted to high-anxiety lifestyles … because somewhere along the line being stretched to the limit turned into a badge of honor.” I know about when it happened for me. When I was suddenly dumped by my fiance, after nearly five years together, I threw myself into my job. Working gave me something to focus on when the question, Who am I without him?, was keeping me up at night. No longer his fiancee, I needed to be of value to someone or something else. He didn’t want to marry me anymore, so I married my job instead.
Being busy, overworked, and stressed out has become a defining aspect of my identity. My work day starts at 7:30 a.m. and typically ends at 7:30 p.m., with a 20-minute break in between to walk my dog. I usually devote one weekend day to an outside project, like the book I’ve been trying to write for the last year. When people ask me what’s new, I usually respond, “Oh nothing. Just work.” And it’s true! I mean, there are other new things — I have an awesome new boyfriend, I’m going to San Francisco at the end of the month, I am obsessed with “The Wire” — but the first thing that always comes out of my mouth when asked about my life is “work.” Always work.
Work causes me a lot of stress, but I revel in it. It gives me a purpose. My high productivity has been rewarded with career success and the admiration of those around me. I have heard “I don’t know how you do it all” more times than I can count, but each time doesn’t feel any less significant than the last. I may have failed in the relationship department, but I have succeeded at this. And bonus!
It has given me something I can control after the control I thought I had in my personal life was taken from me.
In the three-and-a-half years I’ve worked at The Frisky, I have taken two short vacations. I have a lot of vacation days saved up. And it’s not like I can’t use them; I am lucky (and grateful) to have the money to afford a trip and the staff would (and has) gotten by without me for a week before. The problem is that, for me, taking a mental break always produces a different kind of anxiety, one that is scarier to experience because it can’t be calmed simply by working harder or longer. It brings up a question that is hard for me to answer: Who am I without my job? The level of stress that comes with work is something I can exert control over — if I’m not stressed, I don’t have control and that scares the s**t out of me. A near-constant level of anxiety has come to feel very normal.
I’m so addicted to the stress that I’ve sought it in my personal life as well. I’ve found reasons to stress in every dating scenario since my breakup because, duh, it gives me something I think I can control. Not wanting to be caught off guard again, I’ve tried to envision the future with everyone I’ve been intimate with. Where is this going? How does he feel? What can I do to make him like me more? Not being able to answer those questions — hello, it’s fantasy! — has made me lose control in negative, unhealthy ways, often under the influence of alcohol. I finally decided to take a break from dating and drinking and it was during that break that I met the person I’m with now.
Which brings me to the present. For the first time in a long while, something has been out of my control and it has felt good. Taking a break from dating (and excessive drinking) has made me approach this relationship with a healthier attitude. I have a much better sense of what I want in a partner and what kind of partner I want to be. My mind isn’t filled with questions and I’m not chasing answers with my overactive imagination. I’ve relaxed and I’m enjoying it. I’m actually starting to believe the things I’ve known logically for awhile — that stress-seeking isn’t healthy and that letting go of control doesn’t necessarily lead to disaster. Now I want to feel that freedom in other areas of my life too. My career, with its highs and lows, successes and failures, is not who I am. Neither is my relationship status.
I took today off of work (this essay was written yesterday). My only plan is to enjoy the sunshine. I’ve decided to put aside the super-heavy book I’ve been grinding away on; I may start a young adult novel, just for fun. I’m applying to be a writing mentor to a teen girl through a program called Girls Write Now. Selfishly, I think it will be an amazing experience that will give me new perspective on writing through someone else’s eyes. (I hope it makes a difference in her life too.) I’m making time to go to yoga again. Being hooked on stress has often stood in the way of me making class, but when I do go, I leave feeling amazing. And I’m going to continue to take this new relationship one day at a time, letting it unfold naturally, in whatever direction, at whatever speed, for as long as it’s supposed to.
Feeling stressed can’t be a badge of honor anymore and seeking it out can’t be what sustains me. I have to loosen my white-knuckled grip on life and see what happens.