A colleague and friend, during a deep discussion about work-life balance, commented that he sometimes felt as though he were infected with the parasite toxoplasmosa gondii which can, in certain cases, make rats attracted to the scent of cat urine.
For a rat, this is a love affair surely fated to end in misery.
For my friend, as they looked at their own health and its relationship to work, there were uncomfortable parallels. They realised that they’d been driving themselves into the ground for a job they loved; a job only they were capable of doing. The basic sense of self-preservation that ought to exist in any animal seemed to have been completely smothered by a parasite.
I know that feeling, I said sagely. It’s why I’m going back to being a software engineer, and looking for a fellow civil servant to take my role. I recognise my own self-destructive tendencies: that if I do something I love and I’m good at, something I feel nobody else can do, I’ll work every hour that exists until it kills me. I’ve decided to stop doing that. I need to find a job I enjoy but that I can turn off. I’m committed to this course of action.
He laughed, and then said: “So if my role came up, you wouldn’t go for it?”
And my immediate instinct was to say that of course I’d go for it.
Externalising this to a parasitic bacterium like T. gondii gives me an easy out. I can say that it’s not me, it’s this pathogen that’s got inside me and is rewriting my brain. I can relinquish responsibility and just say that that’s how it is, and before very long my little rat self will stroll up to Death – sharp-toothed, sharp-eared, sharp-eyed Death – and ask to sniff its genitals.
And that will be the end of my little rat life.
However: it is not a bacterial infection that is driving me to make these decisions. It is a lot of things. Some are cultural, and unlearning them is the same difficult work as unlearning heteronormativity or patriarchal norms or white supremacy. Some of them come from inside myself, though. There are things that drive me to these self-harming behaviours, and they all seem valid when viewed out of context. Solving complex problems at a massive scale is hugely challenging, and I feel great when I achieve it. I always achieve it. Even if I’m still at work at midnight, you’d better believe I’ll solve this problem. Why? Because it makes me happy. It gives me a massive rush to know that I’ve solved something that other people couldn’t.
Afterwards, of course, I feel terrible. A combination of late nights and the massive adrenaline rush that comes with an immediate deadline leave me washed out and a bit broken. I feel terrible for a couple of days.
And then I do it again.
So the high that I’m getting from doing this work – from being the guy that solves everything; the genius; the wonderkid – outweighs even how incredibly crap I’ll feel afterwards.
This does not feel like a healthy pattern. And yet…I see it everywhere. No, worse than that: I see it venerated. I see the late nights and the overwork lauded as ‘commitment’ and rewarded.
From a certain angle, it looks like the worship of heavy drinking that we see: where we celebrate people who can sink twelve pints and still walk home. It is intoxicating to see these superhumans, and we are infected with the desire to be like them. We are infected with the desire to be liked like them, and I imagine that they too are intoxicated with the admiration of others.
I imagine they are also just intoxicated. Twelve pints is a lot.
The answer for why I caught myself leaping at the chance to do a job even more stressful, even more difficult, than the one I do now is revealing itself as I write. I would be admired (by some) for the velocity at which I was promoted; the complexity of the tasks I overcame; the sheer quality of work that I could produce.
This need to be admired, to be impressive, is my T. gondii. It is the parasite that nestles in my brain and drives me towards self-destruction.
But I am not helpless. I can observe these behaviours and arrest them. I can medicate to kill off this insidious bug.
“I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t go for it,” was what my friend and colleague said to me. In the moment I couldn’t either, which is why I’ve written this, in public, so that I can come back to it.
I am not a firework that destroys itself to impress others.