Workaholics Anonymous: Inside a Meeting

Greg Foyster attended a Workaholics Anonymous meeting as part of the research for his book, Changing Gears, which explores various ways of living a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. There, the former adman turned freelance writer discovered more home truths than he expected.

I was almost late because, again, I was researching questions. But not to worry. Arriving late to a Workaholics Anonymous meeting due to work commitments was, I discovered, a common practice among the relaxation-challenged.

The meeting was held in a drug and alcohol recovery centre in Anonymous City’s trendy inner suburbs. I walked into a room with bland grey carpet and half a dozen chairs. There was a banner on the back wall:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

I took a seat. There were only two people in the room – an older woman and a younger woman. The younger woman sat with her eyes closed, even when she spoke. The older woman read a preamble about curing oneself of ‘compulsive working’. She had a smartphone on her lap so a fellow sufferer could listen in, possibly with the very same conference-call software he used to feed his filthy habit. After the preamble, we introduced ourselves in the clichéd AA way:

‘Hi, I’m Suchandsuch, and I’m a workaholic,’ said the young woman with the closed eyes. ‘And today I feel grateful for arriving on time.’ The reason for this statement became clear 15 minutes later, when a couple of other workaholics straggled in and took a seat.

Next was ‘the sharing’, and this was where the meeting became more than just a bit of anonymous fun. The workaholics spoke one by one, and common themes emerged. They were all intensely focused on their work and had trouble disengaging or relaxing. They scheduled every part of their day – even on holidays – and suffered from paralysing perfectionism. They’d grown up with absent fathers who’d worked long hours.

Got me again.

Looking back at my childhood, I saw my dad sitting alone at the kitchen table punching numbers into a calculator, a big binder of documents beside him. The wart in the middle of his forehead is squeezed between his eyebrows. My dad was the overseas manager of a clothing company, and when he wasn’t touring garment factories in China or India, he was at home catching up on paperwork. He had a heart attack at 42.

He recovered, and switched to a different role at the same company, cutting back his work hours. But he was still always busy.

Another moment struck me. I’m in Year 12 studying for exams, but to Dad I don’t appear to be trying very hard. One afternoon he barges into my room to catch me lying on the bed reading a novel. ‘Why aren’t you working, Greg?’ he yells. ‘This is a time of stress!’

So for him work and stress were inseparable, and over time they became linked in my life as well. I used to think if my heart wasn’t pounding and my hands weren’t shaking, I wasn’t doing my job properly. This made me a compulsive worker: in advertising I wrote the same headline fifty different ways then picked the best one, and in journalism I drafted feature articles twenty times. I’d print out my emails for proofreading before pressing send.

The result was that I stayed at the office long after most sane people had gone home. Here’s a selection of phone messages to my partner Sophie in the 12 months prior to our bike trip up Australia’s east coast:

Will be home late-ish.

Hey, honey. I’m going to be home late – after 10. Hope that’s cool…

Be home about 11.

Might stay back late – okay, honey?

When we went out she’d organise to meet half an hour early, knowing I’d be half an hour late. I was reliably unreliable.

The underlying reason for my tardiness was that I valued work over everything else. I judged my life like I was appraising a résumé. Did I have enough experience and achievements?

How did I compare with other people my age? If I went on holiday for six months, would I look like an unfocused drifter?

Partly I was worried about staying employed in a competitive industry, but beneath that was the assumption that what you do defines who you are.

In the quest for career status, I put everything else on the back burner. From a 2009 journal entry:

A lot of the time I’ve felt as if I’m not really present, just working my way through this conversation or dinner so I can move on to the next task.

I thought I only had the right to enjoy myself once I’d done 10 hours of work. Hanging out with Sophie represented ‘leisure time’, a reward for a job well done. I said this to her once and she nearly dumped me on the spot.

For a period we were the picture of domestic dysfunction: the male partner crawling into bed late at night then leaving for work early in the morning. Sophie felt isolated, as if I was deliberately choosing work over her. I was.

I still see the time we spend together as leisure time I could be using to read, write and study. I don’t want to change my philosophy on working hard, nor do I want to see her any more than I currently am. I need all my spare time to achieve my goals … What a self-centred egotistical dickwad I am.

I used to make five-year career plans – and Sophie didn’t figure in them. One day on the trip she told me how this made her feel.

‘When we were first going out you didn’t want to be with me because it wasn’t part of your plan, because you weren’t supposed to fall in love until later,’ she said. ‘I was feeling so down a lot of the time. I thought the best present I could give you was a broken heart – to shock you out of your own little world.’

We’d had a brief break to think things over. In the end I realised there was more to life than career milestones. Instead of viewing our relationship as mere leisure time, I saw it as a source of growth and meaning – a living thing that needed to be nurtured. I learnt to let go of rigid work hours and tap into Sophie’s emotional rhythms, so I was there for her when she needed support. We negotiated a delicate balance between work and play, time alone and time together. We stuck it through.

But I still worked in a flighty, panicked state of mind, and I was still putting in 10-hour days, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Was I following my father’s path to an early heart attack?

All of this tumbled out of me when it was my turn to share. The older woman and younger woman nodded. I felt pretty silly being there because the whole concept of workaholism seemed absurd: how could you become addicted to something generally regarded as unpleasant?

But there was no denying the similarities between other workaholics’ stories and my own.

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