My summer off - a personal leave of absence

This summer I took a 3-month personal leave from my 9-5 desk job as a graphic designer. This was an unplanned break, however it became increasingly necessary for my sanity. It was a leap I took despite no promise of a job when I return, especially during a rather turbulent atmosphere in the work place. I was nervous and thought over and over about the ramifications of taking the time off, but it hit a point for me that it was no longer an option not to. And I am so incredibly glad I did, for some expected as well as unexpected reasons. Here is an account of my personal leave of absence and how it effected me and my family. 

My choice to ask for leave came at a time that was incredibly trying at work as well as at home. Aside from spending time with my son, I felt that I was dreading pretty much every other aspect of my day. I didn’t feel I had any control over my life, I simply had one obligation after the next. And as the saying goes “when it rains, it pours”, a family member of mine got sick, one in particular who watches my son on a weekly basis and needed to take time to rest. I found myself trying to work from home while watching a 2-year old and not being able to help my family as much as I wanted. It was like I was drowning in a series of events that would continue to knock me down, each time wearing me out a little more and rendering me even less prepared to take on the next calamity. The little energy I had was replaced by caffeine and sugar, which only deepened my anxiety and depression. And I found myself spending money like crazy; clothes, food, events, anything to try and escape the pressure I was feeling. It got to a point where I had lost enthusiasm for most of the aspects of my life and that was not a place I wanted to be. 

I would often talk about wanting to leave my job, but rarely did it have much to do with the actual job. Yes, there were aspects of my job I didn’t love, but the reality was that what I was having a problem with was being stretched too thin, in too many directions. I hated that when I was working from home my son knew that I had to choose the computer over exploring with him. I loathed only having 2-days a week to cram in time with family, friends, and myself. To be honest, I resented the fact that I was sitting behind a desk 8-hours a day and not spending the majority of my time in nature, which I believe is a key to human health. And millions of people feel the exact same way. But, like me, millions of people also feel lucky to simply have a job, let alone one that has benefits and offers some level of autonomy. It’s a Catch 22 - I both appreciated and resented my job. It was getting to the point that I would fantasize about quitting, as if it was going to fix all the other problems in my life. Which I knew was not close to true, but I definitely needed some time to prioritize. So out of sheer desperation I decided to ask for a 3-month personal leave of absence. 

“And I said, I don’t care if they lay me off either, because I told, I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, then, then I’m, I’m quitting, I’m going to quit.” - Milton Waddams, Office Space

The respect I have for my job rose as soon as I was granted the time off. The fact that I was able to do this blew my mind. The opportunity was also directly related to having a manager I could talk to honestly and directly. I was able to tell her exactly what was going on for me, no excuses, no lies. My manager alone made it worth asking for time off rather than just quitting. The time off was completely unpaid, I kept my benefits but paid out of pocket and I was without job protection. In our country this opportunity is a rarity, and I realized that by the overwhelming response of applause. I felt as if I had thrown in the towel and was breaking down. But as it turned out people responded with comments like “You’re so brave. I’m so happy for you” or “Is that a benefit your job offers?”. An amazing example is that our very busy neighbor who is a full-time nurse and going to school decided to take time off as well! I’ve gotten to know her more over these past 3-months than in the past year. We finally got the opportunity to simply stand in the driveway and chat while watching our sons played basketball. It is such a simple joy to have a conversation rather than waving a rushed “hi/good-bye” while running to and from duties. 

There were many subtle benefits I’ve come to realize during my time off. In the beginning I had many lofty goals of what I was going to get done during my time off. This included a complete redecoration our home, taking Miles to every museum, park and nature preserve in our area and revise my entire daily routine to include all the things I wish I was doing… basically unrealistic goals. But I did like have ideas about what I wanted to spend my regained energy on. My #1 goal was to simply enjoy uninterrupted time with Miles, at 2.5 he’s in between clinging to me and being independent. Watching him grow-up while I can still be available to him has been an absolute gift. With Miles at my side I probably got 1 small task done per day. I did things like reorganize a messy drawer that had been driving me nuts, sorting clothes to give to Goodwill and cleaning out Miles’ old toys - little nagging things that I didn’t want taking up space in my brain anymore. At times I would think “did I take time off of work to clean out my junk drawers?” But after a few weeks of taking care of these menial tasks I noticed that I was beginning to feel clarity, the tension was diffusing. And in those free spaces I found time for expansion. Below is a breakdown of where I saw the most change and felt genuinely renewed. 

Creativity 

Journaling was something I used to hold near and dear but I let it drop over the last few years. In an effort to rebuild the habit I began writing my thoughts on various topics related to health and lifestyle. After a while this blog was born. I committed to writing 1 post per week and to create the habit of writing when I was inspired. This really was my first leap toward getting my head totally out of an office and into what I truly value. Artistic projects were another big goal for my summer. After having our son, free-time for art became quite hard to find for both my husband and myself. I strongly believe in working with your hands is an important aspect of health, when I don’t “get my hands dirty” I feel a lack. My husband Carey and I began to talk about collaboration projects. We recently both read Just Kids by Patti Smith (if you haven’t read it i highly recommend it) and the desire to make art became even more intense. I love to collage and Carey is a photographer, so we ended up working together on an awesome collage that is now hanging on our wall. It ended up being a lot fun since we only worked on it at night after Miles had gone to bed. It was a little bit of a reminder how art was such a main driver in our lives when we were young. Another one of my favorite ways to make art is through jewelry design. But there are a lot of things that need to fall into place for me to have the time/energy to dedicate to jewelry design. As it turns out my sister-in-law got engaged and I found the perfect opportunity to get involved by offering to make her a special piece for her wedding day. Sometimes when I really really want to do something, the motivation I need is someone to do it for. 

Health 

All we need to do to get healthy is to stop working. HA! If only it were that easy. But in all seriousness, I saw some amazing health benefits by taking time off work. Starting the morning with a clear head I was able to organize my day in a way that prioritized my families heath. First and foremost we always try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Whether we are bike riding, walking to the park or having a picnic - fresh air is a priority. I spent much of my day in yoga pants and you know what… I actually did yoga. I was able to jump into a full on routine any moment I felt the inspiration and if I didn’t really have a large block of time I would do 10-20 min sessions throughout the day. This was also great when taking Miles to the park, I played on the jungle gym just as much as he did - I even tried a few favorite monkey bar moves from my childhood and I didn’t break anything! Dinner prep often began around lunchtime so I was also spreading this task over long periods of time, which allowed me to move around as needed. Home cooking is one of the best ways to guarantee the quality of your food. The irony is that I didn’t really cook anything all that fancy, but I was able to clearly think about what we had and start the process before everyone was already hangry. When cooking fresh food there can be a considerable amount of prep work and it was glorious to not rush through chopping food and nearly cutting a finger off along with it. And this way I could also get Miles involved. He loves to cook with me and when I’m calm, it’s a fun endeavor. And as if all of this wasn’t enough - the increased intake of fresh air, exercise and home cooking improved my sleeplessness. I no longer woke at 3 am stressed and unable to go back to sleep. All of these behaviors worked together resulting in me feeling much better in general and resulted in having the ability to deal with daily challengers easier. When you have the time to take care of yourself properly, the annoyances of life are just that, they can be brushed off with little thought. 

Money 

Weird that not working would result in a better money situation, right? But wow, I was spending a lot of money just because I was going to work. One of the big drivers for me being ok going to and office was the prospect of breakfast, lunch and coffee. I was fine with spending over $25 a day just to have the food I wanted to eat, and it was marginal at best. I won’t name names, but the burritos, sandwiches and quiches that would drive my day do not feel anywhere near worth the money in hindsight. Plus, I know that if i cook, my food tastes way better. Convenience was king. That’s what it all was, for convenience. I would spend money on things b/c I didn’t feel like I had the energy to do it myself. But when you really take a moment to look at how much money you spend on a monthly basis just for convenience it is staggering. Katy Bowman addresses the issue of convenience spending and how it effects our lives as well as the planet in her book Movement Matters. And last but not least, shoppertainment. Bored at lunchtime? New outfit! Need to order 1 thing on amazon? Oh I forgot those 50 other things I needed. Unsure how to deal with dissatisfaction at work? Buying something will help, right? Nope! I have spent 10% of what I normally would in 3 months and this wasn’t with much effort, it was an unintended consequence. 

Relationships 

As mentioned earlier, I was able to get to know my neighbor b/c for once we found ourselves with some time to just chat and get to know each other. This held true for a lot of other relationships in my life. I was able to attend my brother’s graduation ceremony from the University of Chicago. This event was held at 10 am on a friday, and I live about 2 hours from the location with a child in tow. Normally this would be out of the question, but I felt so good to be able to be there to see my brother graduate, and that his nephew got to be there to applaud him. Just being present and calm is something I have really learned to appreciate. For once I was able to confidently bring dishes or offer a helping hand at the parties we were invited to. I didn’t need to scramble last minute to bring something to the table. I have an abundance of fresh food and I love sharing it. In fact having an overflowing CSA box means that I am going to be bringing something fresh and delicious to any event and that makes me feel like a rockstar! And this means I actually had the capacity to attend events such as housewarmings and birthdays. I could also meet up with friends or family for a casual get together, and our family showed up early and stayed the full duration of events. I’ve even been inspired to create some community events such as Saturday Yard Yoga in our backyard and I have plans to create monthly community potluck dinners as well… more to come on that in the future. 

I went back to work this Monday and I can’t say that I was excited in the least bit. But believe it or not I’ve grown a lot over these past 3-months. I’ve refocused and gained a clearer picture of my future and what I want it to look like. I know that surely not all, but many of these habits I’ve formed can and will continue to stay with me as I return to work. The positive habits that help support me in my home-life will also help me in my 9-5 atmosphere as well. I can continue to cook well at home, bring fresh food to work, save $ by not buying food and caffeine, stay rested and I can also be a better desk neighbor and coworker by caring for myself with these beneficial behaviors. Because in the end, caring for myself makes me much more pleasant to be around. As I evolve back into my working life I plan to continue this path and put my growth into action. Wish me luck! 

Please add your thoughts and comments below. Have you taken some time off of work or school to simply reset yourself?