“But how long do you think I’ll have to take off?” I asked him. “I know you said I would need a week to recover, but I work from home so surely I’ll be back at my desk within a couple of days?”
Spoiler alert: I was not back at my desk within a couple of days. Additionally, I found the whole concept of ‘doing nothing’ except sleeping and allowing my body to heal almost impossible to bear. In the four months since, I have taken exactly one-and-a-half days off. I was facing deadlines and in my efforts to meet them, I felt constantly exhausted and yet still unable to sleep, lying awake at night buzzing like an exposed wire. When I submitted the book for copy-editing, I decided to spoil myself and go on a mini-break instead of turning around to start working on my other novel immediately. This is how I found myself in Castlemartyr Resort, being told that a scheduling mistake had been made and my massage appointment wasn’t ‘in the system’.
To my intense shame, I started to cry as the receptionist looked alarmed and told me not to worry, that they would sort it out. (They did and I would like to thank the staff for being endlessly patient as I wavered on the edge of an emotional breakdown. I am still mortified.)
It was a strange moment, finding myself fighting back tears because of a spa treatment. I am not that person — seriously, how entitled would you want to be? — I am usually a fairly rational, reasonable human being who is aware of how immensely lucky I am to even set foot inside the door of such a gorgeous hotel. But it seemed overwhelming all of a sudden; the exhaustion, the pressure I was putting on myself, the levels of stress I was maintaining on a daily basis. And the first thought that went through my mind when faced with this insignificant hurdle?
‘This is what you get for taking time off work, Louise.’ This obsession with work certainly wasn’t present at university, where I rarely attended lectures. “Oh,” a classmate said when I bothered to show up for a tutorial. “Do you still go here? We thought you had dropped out.” (Call me, Trinity. An honorary doctorate would be just swell.)
Perhaps it was my time at Elle where the habit took hold. I was only there for a year, but the culture of long hours and the importance of being seen at your desk until late was pervasive, as was the manner of looking at those who took holidays with something bordering on suspicion.
When I came home and found myself unemployed and living with my parents, the ruthless work ethic that had been beaten into me proved difficult to shift. I made myself get up at 5am even though I had nowhere to go (Varadkar would be so proud), I implemented a self-imposed ban on watching television lest I find myself wasting time that way, and I started writing a novel. Anything to avoid being branded as idle.
In the subsequent years, it is unsettling to acknowledge that I derive so much of my sense of worth from my work. Instead of seeing it as something that is separate from me, I have begun to view it as a way in which I can prove how ‘good’ I am. ‘I work seven days a week,’ I proclaim proudly. ‘I haven’t taken a proper holiday in over two-and-a-half years.’
Admittedly, some of this is in response to the way in which people view writing, or any other creative job, as something that is easy; as if enjoying your job means there is no real skill or labour involved. Sure, all I do is call upon The Muse and let them do the writing while I sit back and file my nails. It is infuriating; and becomes even more exasperating when I am asked to speak at an event or give a lecture or write an article and then told ‘but there is no money’, because apparently artists should give away their time and expertise free gratis.
Real artists, that is, not mercenary witches who would like to pay their bills. Maybe I should have told my surgeon to operate on me for free because he’s doing what he loves. (And think of the exposure, Mr Surgeon! I’ll give you a shout out on Twitter if you want?) I have a sometimes unappeasable work ethic. I find it difficult to properly switch off, constantly thinking about the characters and the world that I am trying to create.
These are assertions that I have decided over the last number of years are true and have become an integral part of my identity. But what happens when I am unable to write, as was the case after my surgery? What happens if I need time off? Who am I if I am not a ‘hard worker’?
And why do I feel guilty when I am not working? Why do I see the need for rest, for relaxation, as a weakness that I cannot afford? Why do I not believe that I am entitled to a break, the way that other people are? And really, when it comes down to it, what am I afraid of? What do I think will happen if I catch my breath and allow my thoughts settle?
What do I think is hidden in the dark, waiting for me?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, not yet. But as I sat on my bed in Castlemartyr, staring out the window and letting my mind tilt into silence, I felt at peace. No phone, no laptop, no deadlines. Nothing to distract me from the flash of oil slick on a crow’s wings as it reached for the sky or autumn promising to shake the leaves from their branches. I wasn’t working or striving or achieving.
Maybe, I told myself, maybe it’s enough for me to simply be. Just for today. Just for this one moment.