Will Work for Love
Every week, my therapist gives me homework.
The assignments vary depending on what we talk about and what I’m focusing on at any given moment, though they’re all getting at the same basic goal of helping me feel safe in a world where my days often feel dictated by a free-floating sense of existential dread. Sounds fun, right? One week, my homework was to notice physical boundaries—to pay attention when people felt too close, too far away, or at a comfortable distance. Another time, my therapist instructed me to show up empty-handed to events, meetings, and friends’ houses whenever possible, an assignment designed to teach me, on some fundamental level, that I am enough on my own. A frequently repeated task is to eat green leafy vegetables and drink a lot of water, since I often leave therapy physically exhausted from the activities of the session. (My therapist practices somatic therapy, which focuses on the mind-body relationship. It’s effective, but imagine spending an hour in intense physical discomfort. I frequently leave sessions sweaty and vaguely lightheaded. Bonus: no need to warm up for a post-therapy gym session.)
There’s a certain comfort in these assignments; they are a stabilizing force in what sometimes feels like a chaotic healing process. Digging my trauma up and examining it on a weekly basis has a number of side effects, and it’s easier to cope with vivid nightmares or an almost drug-like sharpening of light and colors when my therapist tasks me with noticing those effects of treatment.
Homework makes me feel like I have some semblance of control in the maelstrom of my symptoms; if I complete a task, then I must be making progress. That’s not necessarily true, of course, though I do think I’m growing. At the very least, my therapist tells me that my shrinking away from streetlights like a mentally ill Gollum is indicative that my brain is rewiring neural pathways. Anyways, the act of checking a box helps me, aside from the obvious fact that the assignments themselves are meant to improve my mental health.
The other reason that I like having homework as an adult is that I’m really, really good at it. Growing up, I attended to my homework as lovingly as one might a small child or squee-inducing baby animal. When an acquaintance I’ve made in my adult life asks what I was like as a teenager, I say I was strait-laced. I tell them I didn’t party in high school because my dad, whose job revolves around treating addiction, was strict about substances. That’s partly true: I have no doubt that I would have been forced to pee in a cup if my parents suspected I’d been drinking and drugging on the regular. But the real explanation for why I didn’t go out in my teenage years is because I had a rather dismal social life outside of campus, and the culprit was—you guessed it—homework.
I did every assignment. I read every chapter, highlighted, took meticulous notes. I was every teacher’s favorite and, inevitably, many classmates’ least favorite. Even on creative assignments that theoretically should have been fun and flexible, I overachieved. Don’t get me wrong: I had fun. It was the kind of fun you get out of mundanely masochistic activities, like painful deep-tissue massages or the electric throb of a tattoo needle.
Homework wasn’t limited to book reports and problem sets, either. Homework was everywhere; it was a fucking lifestyle. I took advanced placement classes, got more homework. I signed up for an evening Spanish course at the local community college because I had too many other classes at my high school to fit a foreign language into my schedule. I played soccer and ran track; practices and drills were part of my daily tasks. When I got injured and couldn’t run for months because I literally broke my own leg training too hard, I couldn’t bear the loss of physical work. I joined the swim team instead, subjecting myself to 5am morning practices in exchange for the soothing effects of overexerting my body.
When I later quit organized sports to focus on classical music, which was an entirely distinct sphere of work, I started giving myself exercise homework assignments. Five miles after school. An hour on the stationary bike in the garage. A hundred crunches, and then a hundred more. I stopped eating red meat and starting reading nutritional labels, soon becoming obsessed with macronutrients and “purifying” my diet. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and everyone knows it takes work to be clean. Disordered eating became one more homework assignment, exercise listed next to calc and physics problem sets in my planner.
Playing violin, genuine as my love for the instrument was, became yet another more way to get my work fix. The world of classical music is a workaholic’s dream; very few and only extremely talented people will ever achieve true excellence, and the rest of us are encouraged to kill ourselves in its pursuit. When I was ten, I took six months of guitar lessons with a barefoot ex-hippie named Jani; she wore leopard-print bell bottoms and sweetly told me that it didn’t matter when I made a mistake. Like hell, I thought. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at her gentleness. The day she took twenty minutes out of our lesson to shepherd an aphid out of her patchouli-scented studio was the day I quit.
When my violin teacher smacked my left wrist back into place in our first lesson the following year, I knew I was home. She was an extraordinary teacher and mentor, and I do not doubt that she harbored real affection for me as her student. But she worked me as hard as I worked myself, which no one had ever done before. Like all good classical music teachers, she demanded not just excellence, but perfection. And if I could not achieve perfection, I worked to get as close as possible. I would spend hours playing the same measure over and over, easily burning through entire afternoons on the same four notes. I was thrilled to learn that the high that I got from playing classical music was similar to the one I got from running my body into the ground.
It wasn’t until I was 19 and dizzyingly close to hospitalization that I realized how much damage my unchecked addiction to work could cause in my life. I sought treatment for my eating disorder and began the very different kind of effort required in recovery. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done: learning how to be kind to myself. Weight restoration was no walk in the park, either, but for me the Herculean challenge was figuring out how to move through the world in a way that didn’t require me to hustle to earn my place in it. Probably because I had so much to sort through at the time, I failed. I healed from my eating disorder and started addressing my previously undiagnosed anxiety and depression. I developed a healthy social life. I gave my body a break. These were not small feats. Despite all that progress, though, I never unlearned work.
That is how I ended up in my third therapist’s office years later, staring at her incredulously as she shifted forward in her low orange chair and told me that this week’s homework is to only do work while I am at work. Everywhere outside my place of employment is a no-work zone. A maniacal laugh escaped my throat, the kind that makes you wonder what dark origins might be hidden in your body. I laughed because I didn’t think I could do it but also because I was elated. No one—I repeat, no one—had ever told me not to work before. Many well-meaning family members and friends told me repeatedly to take it easy, boyfriends worried about my intensity, coaches and doctors and bosses and even strangers who witnessed too much asked me to slow down. My therapist in LA, bless her, gave me permission to not work. She said it, just like that: “I am giving you permission to stop working.”
All of these people had good intentions, but they were totally ineffective. I pulled a fast one on them, you see. They could tell me not work, but my secret was that work was everywhere. I could easily seem like I wasn’t working even when I was. Work was a lifestyle. No staying at the office past 5:30? Fine, I’ll go on a punishing run. No tough workouts? Easy, I’ll clean the entire house top to bottom. More socializing, more fun? You got it, but you can bet I’m going to make sure the majority of the emotional labor in my relationships falls to me. It wasn’t until I got this homework assignment that the lightbulb went off: I am never not working. This therapist was on to me, and when she told me not to work, she really understood what that meant for me.
If you’re worried that I lead an utterly depressing existence, don’t be. Until this little experiment, I wasn’t even conscious of how much I was working. Much of it didn’t feel like work, and even brought me a great deal of joy and fulfillment. Really, though, I’d pulled one over on myself: I was so used to always working that to not do so felt akin to trying not to breathe. When I did take on this homework assignment, however, I found that I could breathe. I couldn’t complete it one hundred percent; multiple times a day I found myself awestruck by an epiphany that yet another habit I had was really just work in disguise. I was successful sometimes. I was able to find small pockets of freedom that I had never known before. I took the easy way out; I stopped when I was tired; I showed up to dates with friends and let my presence be enough, rather than working to prove my value by providing homemade cookies/wine/too much emotional labor. I set boundaries. I asked for what I needed rather than struggling for it. I breathed.
The most painful part of this homework assignment was the realization it gave me that I work for love. All healthy relationships require reciprocal effort and thoughtfulness; that’s not what I’m talking about. I work because deep down I think that I’m not enough, and so I have to work to compensate for my unworthiness. I work in my relationships—friendly, familial, romantic and otherwise—because somehow I learned that I have to earn a place in people’s lives. My worth lies in what I do, not who I am, and so I have to work to be lovable. Now that does sound pretty damn depressing, but I’m choosing to see the beauty of this revelation: now that I know why I always work, I can learn how to stop. I can learn to just show up.
I hope I got an A.