Sunday, October 7, 2018

How I Became a Neurotic Workaholic

Two years before I left Chicago, I suffered a nervous breakdown and went into therapy. There were several reasons why I sought counseling, but the catalyst was that my best friend of more than fifteen years had ghosted me a year before. The last time we hung out, Former Friend told me that "it's not very attractive" to complain about work so much, even though they had vented about their job many times. After that, every time I suggested getting together to have coffee or lunch, Former Friend had an excuse for why they were too busy. It took me months to realize that they no longer wanted me in their life, which crushed me, because they were one of the only friends I had left.

In high school, I used to hide in my bedroom and shovel handfuls of peanut M&Ms into my mouth when dealing with my parents and sibling was too much for me. I gained thirty pounds in one year and struggled to lose the weight for years after that. I eventually lost weight by working out regularly and cooking healthier meals.

But after Former Friend ghosted me, I started binge eating and gaining weight again. I knew I needed help when I opened my refrigerator one day and realized that I'd filled all the shelves with large bags of peanut M&Ms. I was still in grad school at the time, so I went to the counseling center at my university, and they gave me a list of referrals to therapists who offered low-cost counseling.

At first, I felt ashamed and sad that I felt so alone that I had to pay a stranger to listen to me. But over the course of the next two years in therapy, I learned that there is no shame in seeking help when you need it, and I learned a lot of valuable things.

My therapist said that I suffered from depression and anxiety, including social anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. My anxiety was connected to my workaholism, she said, because I always felt like I couldn't relax unless I got all my work done. But due to my graduate studies and multiple jobs, I always had a lot of work to do. My social anxiety was shown through my hyper-awareness of things most people took for granted. When I interacted with my students or with other people, afterwards I would berate myself for something I said or did wrong, and I thought that was all those other people remembered about me. I'd always known that I was neurotic and had low self-esteem, but it wasn't until I was in therapy that I realized how and why I became that way.

My therapist said something that struck a chord with me: "You are an amazing young woman. You're attractive, highly intelligent, and kind and compassionate to others. You've earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree; you're a Ph.D. candidate; you balance multiple jobs, and you're a good teacher. But you can't see anything good about yourself or recognize any of your accomplishments. All you see is what you think is bad about yourself because your family, especially your mother, has conditioned you to think that way."

When students approached me at the end of each term to tell me how much they enjoyed my class and that I was their favorite teacher, I used to think that they were just being polite. I thought the same thing when people complimented me on my writing. My therapist was right: I had internalized the verbal abuse that my parents and sibling had inflicted on me to the point that I couldn't recognize any compliments directed at me as being genuine. Although I hadn't lived with my parents and sibling for years, their voices were still in my head every day, pointing out everything I did wrong so that I was constantly obsessing about it.

I thought of the times my sibling and I fought and how they claimed that their screaming insults were justified because they were merely "responding" to my bad behavior. Sibling did not escape our parents' house unscathed, but is now in denial about the way they've treated us. Also, I always received the worst of it, like the time my father and sibling went out for ice cream, while I had to stay behind because my mother was angry at me; they knew that she would scream at me for hours while they were gone, which she did, but they left anyway. Both my father and Sibling are more willing than I am to tiptoe around my mother. Sibling says that stuff like that is my fault for "provoking" our parents because I talk back to them (my father and mother say the same thing). Sibling also says that I'm being too melodramatic about how they treat me.

I thought of my father, who is not usually as bad-tempered as my mother but who never protected me from her either. He has also made his share of cutting remarks, such as the time I was hired to teach at the college in Small Town and he said that it was good that I was "finally going to start working." I pointed out that I had been working multiple jobs for years, but he said they didn't count because none of those jobs were full-time and didn't come with health insurance or benefits.

Most of all, I thought of my mother, who has always criticized everything about me: my weight, my hair, my clothes, the way I walk, etc. Years ago, when she was visiting and I was out on an errand, she read through some of my course evaluations that my former students had filled out. Although most of the evaluations were highly positive, my mother honed in on the few that weren't. To this day, she reminds me of the bad things that my students said about me, to show that I made the wrong choice when I pursued a career in education, rather than the more lucrative career she and my father pressured me to pursue. Sibling caved in to my parents' demands and chose that career, which is partly why they favor Sibling over me.

I think that's one reason why I've spent all these years working so hard: I wanted to prove that my mother was wrong when she said that I wouldn't last five years as a teacher. But my therapist helped me realize that I shouldn't work so hard to get my parents' approval because they were toxic and nothing would ever be good enough for them.

Therapy also helped me realize how isolated I had become and that I needed something in my life outside of work. When I moved to Small Town, I accepted the invitation of Small Town Guy, who also worked at the college that hired me, to join his trivia team that met at a local bar every week. He introduced me to his other friends. They were kind to me and welcomed me into their group, and for the first time in years, I had an active social life.

I've been thinking about all of this as I've continued writing my book, Obsessions of a Workaholic. I also wondered why I let the Model push me around and why I blamed myself for everything that happened. My therapist might have said that I'd been conditioned to believe that the problem was solely within me, not in the people who treated me badly. But I don't put all the blame on my relatives for why I fell for the Model.

When he first messaged me on Tinder, I had just recently moved to College Town. I was lonely for the friends I left behind in Small Town. I wasn't attracted to the other guys I'd met on Tinder or Bumble. I'd been rejected by most of the guys I'd had crushes on in the past. The Model was exactly the kind of guy I've always been attracted to but who never even noticed me before. The fact that he not only noticed me but wanted to be with me was flattering and thrilling, like a fantasy come true. And despite the awful way he treated me, he did have a few good qualities.

For one brief, desperate moment after I found out that he had used me to cheat on his girlfriend, I actually considered pretending that I didn't know about her, because the thought of never being with him again hurt even more. But in the end, I couldn't do it. I knew in my heart that he saw her as girlfriend material, and me as a friend with benefits. There was no way that I could keep being with him, not only because it was wrong to hook up with someone else's boyfriend but also because I'd be cheating myself out of everything else I wanted with him.

Whatever I had with him was a fantasy. It wasn't real, even though I wanted it to be, especially after years of bad first dates and failed relationships. I had fallen back into the pattern of allowing myself to be treated like crap in the vain hope of one day having my efforts be validated with love. As my therapist told me, I needed to recognize the good in myself again, instead of only focusing on what was bad, and to remember that I deserved better.

Some days, it's still hard to do that, especially because my parents and sibling have no remorse for the way they've treated me and still make me feel bad about myself. I haven't completely cut them out of my life for complicated reasons that would make this post even longer, but my therapist taught me strategies for dealing with them. She said that I should severely limit the time I talk to them on the phone and spend less time with them, and I've followed her advice. She told me that I needed to put my foot down with all of them more often, and I have, much to their displeasure, though I still have a long way to go.

I had to put my foot down with the Model too. I never again want to let anyone, whether it be the Model or my relatives, make me feel like I'm someone whose feelings don't matter and who is worthless. Now, I take pride in my academic and professional accomplishments, even though my mother doesn't and my father says I still need to do more. Now, I know that I'm not a loser just because I'm still single at 37, even though my sibling tells me otherwise. I've also lost twenty-five pounds since May, and that makes me feel good too.

"You're stronger than you think," my therapist once told me. "You could have continued obeying your parents and done everything they wanted, but you stayed the course and focused on making your own dream come true instead."

I'm not sharing all of this to make you feel sorry for me. But I wanted to explain why I obsess over things that some people think are not a big deal, and why I regressed into a depressive spiral after I found out what kind of person the Model really was. If it hadn't been for what I learned from those two years in therapy, I might have spiraled even further. I thought maybe this post was TMI, which is why I almost didn't post it. But writing my book-length memoir, Obsessions of a Workaholic, has made me contemplate how and why I became a neurotic workaholic and also includes TMI about my parents and sibling (I do not refer to them as my family and never will). That's why I will have to edit some of it once I finish the rough draft.

What about you? Have you ever been ghosted by a friend? Do you ever worry about including too much information in your own blog posts or manuscripts?


  1. Wow, what an emotional read. You are very much stronger than you think you are - not following your parents' career choice, for a start, must have been huge! You've moved around, started from scratch in new cities, all by yourself - that takes courage. You are awesome :-)

    1. Hi Annalisa,
      Thank you very much for your kind words and your friendship; it really means a lot to me. Writing this post was emotional for me, especially because normally, I joke about being a neurotic workaholic. But as I've been writing my WIP, I've come to a lot of realizations about myself and my life, and this post helped reflect some of that.

  2. I worry about what I put in my blog posts all the time. All social media, in fact. The reason why I fell in love with blogging was that's informal. People tell you what they are truly going through, like you just did, and that makes it authentic, and relateable. I know there is so much you said that resonates with me. I've been in therapy for over 2 years, and will probably be for the rest of my life. I believe in it. It really helps when current things bug me, and I need someone to talk to.

    You are indeed an amazing woman. You have so much going for you, and no. You will probably never please your family. But you are the only one who counts. And your voice matters. You deserve to be heard.

    I'm always in your corner. Just saying😋😉.

    1. Thank you, Murees; I think that the support from fellow bloggers like you is one reason that the blogging community can be really fulfilling.
      I kept the fact that I was in therapy a secret from most people; I only ever told a few close friends because I was ashamed that I needed therapy in the first place. But now I know there's nothing shameful about it; like you said, therapy helps people deal with current problems.

  3. Oh my dear....Your story includes glimmers of my own story. That might be why it resonated so hard. But what's more likely is that you're such a good writer that I couldn't help but be moved.

    I'm sorry for all the pain you've had to swallow, and I hope you will be able to believe, really and always believe, that you're both strong and amazing. Anyone would be lucky to have you for a friend. Count me in as a virtual pal.

    1. Hi Donna,
      Thank you, and thank you again for your kindness to me in the past. For a long time, I kept all of this bottled up inside me because I was afraid that if I wrote about it, people would judge me for it. I was also afraid that my parents and sibling might read what I wrote and then all hell would break loose. But I really admire Dr. Ford for having the courage to come forward and talk about what happened to her all those years ago. Although sexual assault and emotional abuse are very different, I think that the people who've experienced either one (or both) often tend to keep it locked away.

  4. That is so tough when a long-time friend lets go of the connection. And what parents do imprints us for life, doesn't it?
    I agree with Annalisa. You're awesome:)

    1. Hi Sandra,
      Thank you. :) And yes, the loss of that friendship was very difficult for me. At the time, Former Friend and I lived in the same neighborhood in Chicago, so we occasionally ran into each other. Former Friend never said anything about why they no longer wanted to spend time with me, and I never asked; we would usually just talk for a few seconds or minutes and then go our separate ways. I was very angry and hurt about this for a long time, but my therapist helped me understand why the friendship had ended. There were most likely things about me that bothered Former Friend, and there were things that Former Friend had been doing that really bothered me, especially in terms of how they treated me, long before we stopped spending time with each other.

  5. Bless your heart. I am so sorry you had such awful experiences! I think you seem like an awesome, intelligent person. And you are a great storyteller! I always enjoy reading your posts. Hang in there <3

    1. Hi Catherine,
      Thank you. That's very nice of you to say. :) And BTW I really like your new blog too. I think that writing about all these things have helped me come to terms with them and understand them. I just have to figure out how much of it I'll include in the book; I might not be able to be as candid there since it'll have my real name on it.

    2. You're very welcome! :) I'm glad you like the new blog! I am working pretty hard on it. I hope I can keep updating regularly! Writing definitely helps with coming to terms with stuff for sure. And I would definitely read your book too! :D

  6. Sometimes the blog world feels like such a close knit community -- and then I remember how entirely public it is. I haven't gone so far as to change older posts, but I don't share photos of family or friends anymore. Still, I love the fact that we can be so open with each other regardless. I think it's great that you went to therapy instead of listening to the other voice saying it was silly to talk to a stranger (silly voice!). I need to learn how to ask for help more often, myself, rather than thinking I can do it all alone.

    1. Hi Deniz,
      Thanks! It took me a long time to admit that I needed therapy, but I don't regret my decision to go. My therapist helped me realize that the way my parents and sibling, especially my mother, treated me wasn't right. Therapy also helped me realize that I was more independent than I thought I was, and that made it easier to stand up to my parents.