Living, or Just Surviving?
Lana Lopesi thought she was serving the Pacific art community by being busy as f*ck, but ended up on the couch. A personal essay on busyness and burnout.
2018 was my year.
I wrote my first book, False Divides, in two weeks. I mean it’s less than 25,000 words, so all good, eh. It’s not that I wanted to write it in that timeframe, but because either side of writing it I was either writing my master’s thesis, or working as the Editor-in-Chief of the Pantograph Punch, or I was curating an international exhibition, or I was being a research assistant for the Vā Moana / Pacific Spaces research cluster.
So, all the time I could practically muster was two weeks. I took those weeks off uni and off work and locked myself in my home office, which was covered in post-its and A3 pages of trying to figure out things in such a short period of time. I woke up at 5am and went to bed once the goals for that day were achieved. Once the manuscript was sent in, I went back to uni and back to editing the Pantograph Punch. I then had another two weeks down the track to respond to the five reviewers’ comments and work through the edits.
The day after the book was launched, I left for Brisbane, where I opened an exhibition I had co-curated at The Institute of Modern Art. After returning home for just a couple of days, I left again, this time to London. I was flown over to do a talk alongside Oceania. In London, I slept.
Fuck, my life looked mean.
A lump builds in my chest. My heart now in my throat, suffocating me. Throbbing like my womb in labour. The world is both completely still yet inconceivably fast. I can’t tell either way, my vision is now blurred.
Flushed and uneasy. Sitting at my computer, I try to keep going as if nothing is happening. I try to keep my breathing quiet so as to not worry anyone. Our partitioned PhD studios offer some sense of privacy, but I am incredibly aware of the people on either side of me. I close my eyes and rest my face in the palm of my hand. Fuck, what was that meditation my therapist guided me through? My PhD is not the cause, but where I come to escape. Why is it happening here, in my happy place?
The pits of fear have overwhelmed me within minutes.
“Are you living, or you just surviving?” Asks Dr Chill in the outro to Jhené Aiko’s 2017 song ‘Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)’. But, how do you know the difference?
For the past five years my modus operandi was set by perceived external pressures I felt being a young brown woman with kids, and that m.o. was to ‘run it straight’. Becoming pregnant in the final year of my undergraduate degree, I felt many things. I felt shame, I felt worry, I felt judgement, and a lot of the time I felt sick. In retrospect, nobody judged me harder than I judged myself. I didn’t have ten years of working under my belt, I had no parental leave to go to and I knew the success rate out of art school was slim. A master’s programme or a romantic jump to Berlin, London or New York was not an option.
No one knew what I was going through, I told myself. My friends who were around me didn’t know what it was to be a mum. No one else my age had kids, and the majority of friends I had fell away. The mum friends I did have were 10, 20 years older than me, and I was convinced that our experiences were completely different. My run it straight m.o. meant that I was going to defy stereotypes, and summoning the kind of confidence a mediocre white man doesn’t have to work for – that was my mission.
In 2015 I sat at a dinner party with friends, all of whom I love, none of whom have kids. The negotiations of conflicting schedules that meant I could even go to the dinner were a whole other thing. At the dinner party, though, the saying “being busy is ordinary” was thrown around. The idea, as I understood it, was that everyone is busy and the sooner we acknowledge that the quicker we will be able to stop glorifying busyness as a defining characteristic of ourselves.
The only question I ever asked people was, “You busy at the moment?” as if being busy was some of elevated status, a goal not a symptom
I don’t think I really understood that at the time. Instead I took it on as a personal mantra. To me, “being busy is ordinary” meant that everyone is busy, busy is the norm, so get busier. I would recite it to others and to myself to justify the amount of work I was taking on, and the stress I felt at certain times. I glamorised the idea of being busy. As if being busy was the goal, not the symptom of working toward something. My sense of self-worth was tied up with productivity – to be worthy, I felt, required a constant state of production. If what was on my plate ever started to feel achievable, I’d quickly fix that by filling it up again. It’s normal, though, right? Being busy is ordinary! It’s necessary too! Right? With job precarity in the arts we shouldn’t be saying no.
I worked hard to make sure that I was busier that anyone else. Even though my workload was technically no bigger than that of the people I was around, my trump card was that unlike them, I had kids. A whole other full-time job. The only question I ever asked people was, “You busy at the moment?” as if being busy was some of elevated status, a goal not a symptom. Every now and again, people replied saying that they were spending time with their families, going on holidays or actually taking a weekend as a weekend. Spending time with loved ones? Disgusting.
When did being busy become a badge of honour, asks New Zealand clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo in her book Busy as F*ck. She writes:
Busy is our new normal. It sits slightly outside the Anxiety Club, even though it can affect our physical and emotional health in the same ways, because Busy people are not unwell; they’ve just got a to-do list that never ends.
She continues that everywhere around us are people who are “rushed, exhausted, jittery, distracted, frustrated and unsatisfied.” ‘Busy As F*ck Syndrome’, then, is a condition consuming us all, whether we realise it or not. Worried about the increased referrals she’s had over that past ten years, Nimmo defined ‘Busy as F*ck Syndrome’ as a condition of chaotic 21st-century lifestyles. It’s a condition characterised by a cluster of symptoms, which overtax a person’s emotional and physical capacity to the potential detriment of health, wellbeing and quality of life. It comes from a place where stress turns toxic and “swings a wrecking ball at our mental and physical health.”
The point of the book is to give people the skills to be able to spot when our “Busy as F*ckness is compromising (or drip-feed destroying) our physical and emotional health, when we’re hurting people we love and when we’re becoming that person others want to hide from.” Reading Busy as F∗ck, I was shocked that it described almost everyone I knew.
Late 2018, at a time when I should have been celebrating some major projects, I lay in the foetal position on my couch for days at a time. The days turned into weeks. I was burnt out. I always thought burnout was just an expression for being really tired from working heaps. I didn’t know that burnout was an actual condition, a result of your mental depletion. I thought coffee fixed burnout. Coz like, being busy is ordinary, right?
Was I watching shows because I liked watching them or because I was addicted to counting down how many episodes I had watched?
Even the whole self-care market becomes aimed at boosting our productivity – the idea being to look after yourself so that when you do work, you can work better and produce more. Meanwhile, that same self-care market directly profits from the stress productivity causes.
Unfortunately, face masks can’t cure panic attacks. I’ve tried.
Why are all of the coping strategies we’re given to deal with burnout equally as measurable as the work that put us in this situation in the first place? After spending two weeks on the couch recovering from burnout, I realised that even watching Netflix was measurable in some weird capitalist way. Was I watching shows because I liked watching them or because I was addicted to counting down how many episodes I had watched? And then tweeting about it, so people knew what I had been doing.
I moved to reading fiction because I thought it was a better (i.e., more productive and more intelligent) form of escapism. But then I realised you could count books like you could TV series. There’s even a whole website for it, where you lock in all the books you’ve read and how many stars you rate them. It matters because you also have a network of like-minded people who can see how many books you’ve read and whether you have achieved or come close to achieving the reading goal you set at the beginning at the year. Or the ultimate – beating your goal months before the year is out and pretending as if it was a natural occurrence to read 50 books by August on top of full-time work, full-time study and full-time parenting. And you achieved that goal because you are just that much better than everyone else around you.
Exercise is even worse.
Is this what a heart attack feels like? I scream to release the pain in my chest but it’s not moving.
This time, I’m driving on the Northwestern Motorway with my kids in the back.
A drink of water will push the pain down, right? No. I work through the heart palpitations to snatch some deep breaths, but the pain is still not moving. It’s 3.26pm, so rush hour hasn’t built up yet. If I just concentrate, we can get home. I wind down the windows. I breathe and drive, breathe and drive.
I walk the kids into the house, take a pill and lie down. By 4.30 I’m up again, making dinner.
A couple of months ago, I was having a panic attack in the car park outside my GP clinic. The panic attack was because I didn’t know whether my doctor was going to believe me when I said that I was having panic attacks. My mum called me, sounding more serious than I had heard in a while, but when I told her I was at the doctor, she changed her tone and told me everything was fine. An hour later I was told to get to the hospital now. My Papa died minutes before I arrived.
We all die. Yet here we are glorifying a sense of busyness that does not serve us when we’re alive, let alone when we’re dead. It literally makes us sick.
I used to walk through life feeling responsible to a community, only later to realise that community was, in many ways, a figment of my imagination. ‘Serving people’ was the self-imposed burden I thought I was carrying by writing art criticism. I suffer from an Aquarian god complex, which means that I thought (and admittedly, still do) that art writing and criticism play a key role in building art histories, in making better art and in creating more institutional accountability. As a lonely Pacific voice in this area, I wrote from an idea of wanting to build the critical record around Pacific art made in Auckland, under the guise that there’s a greater good that everyone is joined in working toward. Because of that righteous mission, I made myself busy as f*ck. But my mistake was giving this idea too much power.
When I found myself at my lowest of lows, panicked and spiralling, it wasn’t the people I had made myself busy for who gave me a hand up
When I found myself at my lowest of lows, panicked and spiralling, it wasn’t the people I had made myself busy for (who, by the way, never asked me to do that) who gave me a hand up. Instead it was the few friends and family who did not benefit from my productivity at all who had my back.
As well as being Aquarian (with a Leo rising and Sag moon, in case you were wondering), according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I’m an INFJ, which means I’m morally driven to the point of nausea. Panic and death taught me that life is to be lived. For most people, this ‘come to Jesus’ moment might be obvious; I had to fall a thousand flights before I got it.
What I have now is people whose lives I add value to and who reciprocally add value to mine. I have boundaries and I have balance; more than that I have resilience and happiness. How to be kind to myself was a hard lesson to learn. But I’m finally living and not just surviving.
Feature image: Marcel Friedrich / Unsplash