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It’s time for a change (#1128)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, overcommitment

Content warning: Illness, snarkiness, stress, mediocre writing [1], etc.

Hi, my name is Sam and I’m a workaholic.

Hi Sam!

It’s been almost two hours since I last did work that I didn’t necessarily need to do. [2]

[Murmurs of amazement from the crowd.]

While there isn’t a Workaholics Anonymous [3], I’ve spent the fall trying to embrace some version of the Serenity Prayer, at least as it applies to my workplace.

G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The problem is that my mother taught me that you never know what you can change until you try. At least that’s the kind of life she seemed to live.

That’s not the right way to begin.

Trying again.

A week or two ago, a friend posted a question on Facebook that went something like this: When did you realize that your health was more important than your job? I responded something like This past fall. And it’s true, I did try to prioritize my (mental) health this fall. I even took the leap of starting regular therapy. It may not have been obvious to others, but I stepped back in the fall. I complained less. I ignored concerns. I tried to focus on positives.

That’s not right, either.

Once again.

One of the best things I’ve done during the pandemic is to start watching Danika and the Jeb on StageIt. I think I’ve even mused about them [4]. It’s hard to pick a favorite Danika and the Jeb song. However, as I was sitting down to muse today, one of their song titles popped into my head: It’s time for a change [5]. Now, I don’t think it’s time for the kind of change that’s the subject of that song, a change in a relationship between people. But it is time for a different kind of a change, a change in my relationships with work, with myself, and with life [5].

Better, but still not right.

Last try.

About two weeks ago, during my bi-weekly therapy session, I was discussing the coming week with my therapist. And I said something like I’ve been working close to capacity. I have two huge tasks being added to that. I feel completely overwhelmed. He asked me some follow-up questions. Do these tasks have to be done? Yes. Can you pass them off to someone else? No. Can you do them more efficiently? Not really. I suppose I don’t have to read over four-year plans for declaring students and tell the students that the plans will not be possible, but then I would not be meeting the (reasonable) standards I set for myself.

So we decided that I had two primary options. I could accept that my job naturally includes some points at which I will feel totally overwhelmed. I wouldn’t be alone in that. For example, there are a few times a year that the farmers in Iowa feel totally overwhelmed [7]. And if I wasn’t willing to accept that my job (or at least being Chair) includes times of being totally overwhelmed, I should resign as Chair.

Still not the best beginning, but the best I can do right now.

I thought about it. In so many ways, I am more fortunate than others. It felt somehow wrong to step down as Chair, even though chairing the department adds significant stress and work to my life, far more than the 2/3 class per year I receive in credit for serving as chair. But saying I’ve accepted the role of chair and I accept that the workload from being chair is not in my control felt good.

My body had a different opinion.

On Monday, when I lay down for bed at 10:30 or so after yet another difficult day [8], I felt strange. My muscles ached, particularly my biceps. I associate those aches with colds. It appears others don’t. I also felt nauseous. I vomited [9]. I took acetaminophen [10]. I vomited again. My upper back started to ache. I decided to do a Web search for the symptoms.

Damn. Symptoms of a possible heart attack. But it’s strange.

I called Michelle. Well, I texted Michelle to make sure that she was awake. Then I called her. She told me to wake up Eldest and have him drive me to the hospital.

At Grinnell Regional Medical Center, they did the normal things you’d expect. They ran an EKG. They gave me drugs [12]. They ran IVs. The ER doctor told me that I seemed to be having a right-sided heart attack and asked me whether I wanted to be air-flighted to Iowa City or Des Moines [14]. I asked him to call Michelle and they settled on Methodist Hospital in Des Moines.

They also asked me about pain levels. I don’t think I reported a pain level over four, even when I came in. It’s not that I necessarily have high pain tolerance; I’ve certainly felt worse than I felt. But, in my imagination, a heart attack should feel worse. And it should be in my chest. Arm ache plus nausea is I have a cold or flu. Bleh. I guess that’s one benefit of the pandemic; I was pretty damn sure I didn’t have a cold or the flu.

The coolest thing (other than getting to fly in a helicopter) was that my in-flight nurses were Chad and Jeremy. But they don’t sing. And I realized that I couldn’t recall what songs Chad and Jeremy did in any case [15].

At Methodist, they sent me to the Cardiac Cath lab. They tell me that I was out during the work, but I feel like I recall all of it. In any case, one of my coronary arteries was 95% occluded, so they put in a stent. It seems that I have (had) thick blood, so they used a lot of heparin. The other coronary arteries seem to be doing pretty well.

I came home from Methodist on Thursday. I was hoping to come home on Wednesday, since I seemed well enough by Wednesday morning. But they want you there for [16] at least 48 hours after surgery.

It seems like I’m doing pretty well. Michelle says that I’m looking better than I’ve looked in a while. The output fraction from my heart is in the normal range. I feel okay, although a bit tired.

So now comes the hard part. It’s time for a change. Well, it’s time for multiple changes. I need to change my diet. I need to change my exercise habits. I need to change my blood pressure. And on that last note, I need to cut down on stress. I need to cut way down on stress.

But as I said at the beginning, I’m a workaholic. For example, even though I’m trying to cut down on stress, I did decide to run through the list of students who indicated that they were declaring a CS major to see if there were some who had not declared so that we could nudge them. And I did start to make the list of tasks I have as Chair that someone else will probably need to take over while I’m recovering. It’s beyond three pages. I’m also making a mental list of the other things that I can’t pass on to other people, such as discussing class observations with faculty or the five recommendation letters that I’m supposed to write this weekend.

As I also said at the beginning, I’m my mother’s son. While there are many things I can’t change directly, there’s a subset of those things that I can change by raising related issues [17]. Will I be able to stop pointing out things to improve? I don’t know. Should I stop? If they cause stress, I should. Maybe I can find a way to raise these issues without stressing about them.

What about the rest of spring? I’m scheduled to teach two half-courses in the spring, one new and one old. I’m enthusiastic about both topics. Teaching brings me joy. I think I can keep teaching those courses a relatively low-stress activity. Students won’t mind less work for me to grade, will they?

I should be deciding soon; Grinnell’s legendary two-week spring break has morphed into a one-week (Thursday to Wednesday) interim period Whether or not I teach spring two courses may depend most on when my cardiac rehab gets scheduled. It will also depend on how easy I find it to put together a syllabus and schedule for each.

Department administrative business, on the other hand, generally causes a lot of stress, probably more than it should. Why? Too many years of things stacking up on each other, which makes it too easy to see the negatives and too hard to see the positives. The sheer number of things [18] adds to the stress. I definitely can’t lead the department for the rest of this academic year. I’m debating whether or not I should even participate in department, division, or faculty meetings [19].

I must say that my colleagues have been wonderful. Some volunteered to take over my grading. Some volunteered to take on other administrative responsibilities. The Dean let me know that she would find replacements for any of my tasks. Our Consulting Associate Dean [20] has taken on a huge amount. My beyond-Grinnell colleagues have offered to provide more human resources for the tasks I’m working on. A wide variety of folks have sent well wishes and offered help. Just so folks know, I appreciate the well wishes, and the primary help I want right now is making sure that my family feels supported. (Nope, we don’t need meals.) I think the right people are providing that help.

It’s interesting how information about my heart attack has traveled. For example, one friend heard about it from their high-school-aged child, who said that it’s a subject of gossip at the high-school. It appears that students still remember Youngest and also know me by first name. But it’s strange that high-school students know and people who are much closer do not. I apologize if I have not contacted you directly to share the news.

Well, this has gone off the rails a bit, so let’s wrap up with a TL;DR. I had a heart attack. I got a stent. The prognosis is good. I’m working on changing diet, increasing exercise, and cutting stress from my life, which is mostly work-related stress. At the moment, I’m focusing on the near future. I have incredibly awesome friends and Grinnell colleagues and external colleagues and students and alumni who are supporting me. And I have an even more incredibly awesome family. I’m thankful, and I anticipate being okay.

Postscript: Somewhere, not so deep in the back of my mind, a little voice is asking me whether I’m able to think and analyze and write as well as normal. I’m not sure. I do recall that it took somewhere between six months and a year to recover my mental capacity from one medical incident.

Postscript: RS, as I said at the beginning (or immediately after this, if you look textually), I apologize. You did teach me to write better than this. But I really wanted to get something out about the heart attack, not least because some people now and some don’t. Consider the musing grist for the mill for the lyric essay that may come in the future. It could make a good sequel to the last one.

[1] Sorry RS. You taught me to do better than this.

[2] At the point I wrote that, it was true. Although I’m supposed to be taking a break from work, I’d done some work-related stuff on my computer for more than an hour. Read on in the musing to discover what.

[3] Or at least not a Workaholics Anonymous group that I belong to.

[4] I have a second musing to finish (or restart).

[5] Come to think of it, that’s a strange ordering.

[6] I think at the time Time for a Change came out, they were Danika Holmes featuring Jeb Hart, but I’m comfortable calling that a Danika and the Jeb song.

[7] Preferably, those are only the major planned times: planting and harvest. Unfortunately, there are others.

[8] Difficult meeting in the a.m. Difficult follow-up conversations. Argument during ITS meeting. Dealt with annoying/dismissive letter from an administrator. Spent a lot of time catching up on grading. Discovered that grading software was broken at 10:00pm after I had sent out current grades to students. There were other things, too, but I can’t remember what they were.

[9] My nut allergy made me vomit enough as a child and young adult that I don’t think much of it.

[10] I think that’s paracetamol [11] for you Brits and perhaps others.

[11] Every time I see the word paracetamol I think of the Distraction’s Paracetamol Paralysis, which is an amazing song. It makes me sad that it is likely that the only person who is reading this musing who knows the song is my longest friend.

[12] Not the fun kind.

[14] Given that there isn’t an ambulance in Grinnell, it is much faster to air flight someone.

[15] Ah: A Summer Song and Yesterday’s Gone. Probably a few others.

[16] Grammarly corrected there for to therefore and I didn’t pay enough attention. It’s fixed now.

[17] I’m being good, I’m not even coming up with examples.

[18] See the note above. At present, the list includes four major spring tasks, thirty-two or so smaller tasks, sixteen or so complex department discussions to lead [21], eight summer tasks, eight major fall tasks, and at least four other fall tasks.

[19] I find it amusing that some of the messages I’ve received from colleagues say We need you back to make your important comments at division and faculty meetings.

[20] No, not CAD.

[21] I have fourteen listed, but some can/should split and I like using powers of two.

Version 1.0 released 2021-03-27 .

Version 1.0.1 of 2021-03-27.