Early this year, on my first day of my new job, while learning how to use my new company’s database, my brother Cody called me. I hit the “ignore” button. He called me again. I hit the ignore button again.
He called again, and I hit the ignore button, and texted to tell him it was my first day at a new job, and I would call him that night.
Normally, when my brother “war dials” me, it’s to tell me about the latest roster moves of the Seattle Seahawks. He loves the Seahawks, but my feelings on the Seattle Seahawks range from total indifference to outright hostility depending on how much I have to hear about them from my brother.
After I texted him, my wife texted me to tell me that I needed to talk to Cody right away. I was reading that text when I get a text from Cody, telling me that the police had found our mother in her home near Salt Lake City, and that she had likely passed away, at 56, two days before.
A Career as a Talisman
After speaking with my brother I called the police department and arranged for her body to be taken to a nearby funeral home. I made these arrangements in a hallway outside of my new office, and then walked in and told my new boss what had happened, and that I would be headed to Utah at the end of that week.
Then I went right back to work, learning about databases and who our new clients were.
It’s important to note here that my new boss didn’t expect me to do that, and strongly encouraged me to leave and take time off. But, the headquarters of my new company are 250 miles away from where I live, and I had come to town to spend my first three days at the office before I began to work remotely. If I left it would be hard to coordinate everyone in the same spot again, and it would make my learning curve even steeper.
I used that argument to justify why I didn’t go home immediately.
The reality is that in many ways my career is more than just a career—it’s the talisman I’ve created to help ward off the things that have happened to my parents. In my adult life both of them struggled with employment, substance abuse, and a lot of self-inflicted pain.
To go home and not work because my mom died was just not an option, psychologically. That might be hard for some people to understand, but that’s the thing about families–no one but the people who come from them understand what being in that specific family means, and how growing up in that family shapes you.
Three days later my wife and I flew back to Utah to take care of the logistical issues. We did our best to clean up my mom’s place, had her cremated, dealt with inevitable family drama that comes with death, and then returned home.
When Being a Workaholic Becomes Unavoidable
After we got home I spent the next three months working almost around the clock. It was a way to drown out the noise in my head, and that noise was caused by the fact that I didn’t know how to “feel” about what had happened to my mom, and the last years of her life. I would start to think about her and our family, and why things have ended up the way they did for her, and for both of my parents.
That line of thinking goes to a lot of dark, confusing places—places I try to avoid in part by having a successful career. If you use work as a distraction and a shield being a workaholic becomes unavoidable.
You Can’t Work Your Way Out of It
Working as a way to drown out noise only worked until my wife and I were in a casino in the middle of nowhere in northern Wisconsin. We were there because an organization I manage was having a board meeting, which had concluded the day before. We were getting a soda before we left to drive home when I heard the cover band they had play a song by a country singer named Dan Seals.
My mom loved Dan Seals when I was a kid, and hearing his songs always reminds me of being a kid and riding in a car with her while she delivered newspapers.
It felt a little like a ghost passing through me when I heard that song.
Since then, I haven’t been so good at being distracted from thinking about her life, and her death, and the sad things about my family.
But that’s okay, because at least I know that.
This isn’t one of those LinkedIn articles that has a beginning, an end, a neat resolution, and 5 lessons I took from it. I’m still working through all of this, but it is getting better—without being ignored.
What I can say though is that for my fellow workaholics and people that define themselves by their career (we know we shouldn’t, but…), know that when something knocks you down, whether it is a death, a divorce, or some other thing you didn’t see coming, you probably can’t “work” your way out of it.