It’s 7:30, the phone rings and my wife is asking when I’ll be home. “20 minutes” is what I tell her and I mean it… but not really. No, I haven’t really meant to get home at a reasonable hour for quite some time. Instead, I’ve found a more important, valuable endeavor – helping the young people of my hometown.
In 2000, my brother and I opened a non-profit arts driven youth center. We offered concerts, open mic nights, poetry slams, and graphic design classes. In addition, we ran the coffeehouse that fronted this effort to subsidize the organizations finances. It had taken us two years to get this place open, I had personally put in an extraordinary amount of hours, and even took out a loan on my car to pay for the espresso machine. I was highly committed to a “good thing”.
60, 70, 80 hour work weeks were not unusual. They were normal to me.
Surely my new wife, married only a few months, would understand my hectic life. After all, we met while she volunteered for the organization. That’s what made it so special about our relationship – “we’d both be fully invested to the success of reaching young adults”, I rationalized. My thinking couldn’t have been more miscalculated.
Time and time again, I went to work early in the morning and continued late into the evening. There were grants to write, ads to create, food & coffee items to order, inventory to count, events to promote, press releases to write, and when there were concerts – bands to entertain, feed, sound check, set lighting, assemble merchandise tables, and fraternize. Our entire staff was volunteer… including me. I only got paid the contents of the tip jar at the end of the night. This was certainly the path to wealth and riches, huh?
I was convinced that the sacrifice, the vital importance of the mission alone, would have a pay off.
All I have to do is work harder!
My poor wife began to feel taken for granted. I felt hoodwinked. Before we got married, she was “so involved” in this work as a volunteer, now she despised what I was doing. Falsely, I believed that if I could get the non-profit to ‘work’ my wife would, once again, embrace my passion. So I worked harder. I labored to prove myself.
On a deeper level, I sought more than my wife to impress. I needed to validate all the time and effort I’d put into this. I needed to prove to myself, my parents, the city government, and the other non-profits… even more so all those that doubted, criticized, or hated on us. I required a pay off to all of this.
Trapped, I defined my identity in what I was doing.I came to believe that if this thing failed, I was a failure.
Then in the spring of 2002, a note was slid under the door. The city claimed our property with eminent domain to build a new parking ramp. I sought to find a new building, negotiate with the city to help us recreate what we had… I wanted to fix this. Yet, a decision was made and I had no ability to correct it. Powerless, I watched as the city “tore down paradise and put up a parking lot”. I received neither the help from the city nor had the energy necessary to continue the non-profit.
I was burned out.
With a loss of purpose, a loss of identity, I acquired horrible coping mechanisms for my sense of failure. Late nights at the pub, karaoke and beer to drown my self hate. In addition, my wife wanted even less to do with me. Our romantic life was vastly suffering. I turned to porn.
Ever notice how we never intend the dreadful places we arrive at? Whether physically, emotionally, or mentally, we combat shame with more shame – a self-sabotage of immense proportions. We attempt to distract or soothe our pain with drinking, drugs, porn, making money… even over working. Yet, each coping mechanism only creates more pain. Then, we scratch our heads wondering “how the hell did I get here?”
I blamed… everyone but myself.
It was the fault of so many that placed me in this horrendous swirl of hurt, I was sure of it. I took it out on my wife. She returned the favor. Then I cheated, she cheated and then I had the audacity to look surprised when she finally walked out the door after two years of delightfully blissful marriage. Again, someone else made a decision for me without my ability to correct the situation. And again… I wanted to only work harder.
I once heard a South African friend of mine say, “life is like golf, the harder you try, the worse you do.” I needed to learn a different approach. And in hindsight, all of this looks so preposterous. I think, today, my teen daughter would use the words “cray cray” to describe this time in my life. Yet, for me, at that time, it all seemed so “normal”.
Do you know, anything seems normal in isolation? CLICK HERE to tweet this.
It’s very easy for any of us to turn inward.
We’d rather not talk about our shame, guilt, or dear god please don’t even touch the inner workings of my self-worth. I isolated myself from everything that could have helped me. I never talked to anyone about my “stuff”. I never confronted my false beliefs about myself. I never prioritized peace in my life, much less my marriage. And I certainly never considered any professional counseling… until my wife left me.
I had always thought, “only really jacked-up people get counseling”. I’m now of the opinion that really good counseling is what helps you avoid being jacked-up.
(NOTE: Counseling helped me not only get through this pain, but equipped me with tools to avoid the many pitfalls I’d found myself in at the time. I discovered the root causes to my overly developed work habits. In addition, I realized how selfish I’d become.)
My biggest lesson learned through this unbelievably painful season was that keeping my head down and simply working harder only depleted me. It NEVER accomplished more in my life, no matter how I tried to rationalize it.
Putting too much time into work simply for work’s sake alters your priorities, your perception, and more importantly, your relationships. I’m sure Alcoholics Anonymous coined the phrase, “the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one.” Well…
I am a workaholic.
Or at least, I used to be.
My name is Angus Nelson and I Am A Prodigal
[photo credit: Alex Trevor Devine]
Angus Nelson is the author of Love’s Compass and proficient speaker in the areas of relationships and manhood. Angus is a die-hard Packers fan, a recreational cigar enthusiast, and lover of craft beer. One day, he hopes to find a career in the tech world, drink fine wine, live near a beach, golf often, and write large checks to effective, life-changing non-profit organizations. Married to his Hawaiian honey, they have three children: 2, 3, and 17 living in Huntsville, Alabama. Find more of his writing at: www.daddyapproves.com & www.angusnelson.com