How to Cope with Personal Apocalypse
March 2, 2015 9:57 PM   Subscribe

My personal life is falling apart (I may be on my way to losing my wife and family), but I have to work. What can I do to cope during the work day (where I'm also under a lot of pressure right now, halfway through a high-priority development project sprint under a lot of skeptical outside scrutiny)? I can't quit because that would only hurt my wife and children more (I am my family's sole earner and we have lots of painful structural debt). What can I do to keep my concentration focused on the job at hand and minimize the long term harm to my sanity and career while stuck at work feeling everything I've ever worked for disappearing in the background?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry to hear about your situation.

I'm sure different people have different coping strategies. For me, I found peace in making good To-Do lists for all my projects, and always have that one 'Current Task' and 'Next Task' in my view and in my mind.
posted by applesurf at 10:07 PM on March 2, 2015

I'm really sorry that you're going through this.

I feel like you need to pause. The work situation might be dire, but if one of your kids got really sick and needed to be hospitalized, or if you got hit by a bus, work would continue to happen. Your debt situation creates additional pressure, but there may be ways to manage that. Long term your family has to be more important than your job, your career or your credit rating. So maybe you should talk to a couple of people at work and see what it would take for you to fall off the radar for a few days - without quitting. Your family falling apart is a good enough reason. If you have PTO, you could take some. If not, investigate some unpaid time.

(I'm saying all this aware that there aren't many details about your financial situation, and it may be really impossible financially to take unpaid leave right now. But millions of Americans don't take their PTO. If you have some, this is what it is for!).

Your boss may not understand. Your career at this company might be affected. But that might be worth it if you can save your family, or use the time to manage the crisis better. People have short memories and in a year the fact that you took some time off to deal with an urgent family situation will be a blip. Also, you avoid the risk that you will fall apart spectacularly on the job - much less likely to be forgotten and treated like a blip.

Take the career hit. Your career isn't going to snuggle with you or come visit you when you're old. If there's anything you can do and want to do to improve things with your family, you will regret it forever if you don't try.

I had a whole post full of tips about how to compartmentalize and prioritize and do all the right stuff at work. But the more I think about your question, the more I think, this is a person who needs to be focused on his/her family right now. Everything else can be worked out later.
posted by yogalemon at 10:31 PM on March 2, 2015 [11 favorites]

Dude, I feel for you. Sometimes life just piles on and does not quit.

There's a lot we don't know, and that makes it hard to be specific. But here's some general advice.

If you have friends or family, reach out to them and stay connected. Feeling alone will make everything worse. Find (or make) time to do things you enjoy. That is very important. Your life cannot just be endless misery, all day, every day. That doesn't work. (Of course, you have to be wary of swinging too hard the other way, and letting the stress make you lethargic and self-indulgent. There is a balance to strike, but it sounds like right now you are all about the stress and you aren't indulging yourself at all.)

Have fun with your kids, if that's remotely possible. Keep those connections strong, and show them how much you love them.

Find a shrink, if you don't have one already. And consider journaling. Having a place to put all your ranty, desperate thoughts can be a lifesaver, and it's good to have a record of this time. Some day you may look back at the thing and get a very different take on what's going on right now. It's easy to miss stuff, when you're drowning in it.

Do your best, and if you're doing your best, give yourself full credit. Whatever got you into this mess, hating yourself for it won't help get you out of it. Keep fighting, and as your troubles fall away before you, holler like a viking.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:41 PM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Change your password.

Meditate in short spurts throughout the day. Eat as healthy as possible. Set a timer... Work for x amount of time and take a break, knowing the break is coming helps. Will nth the to do list. This too shall pass.
posted by jrobin276 at 11:40 PM on March 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

I came back to recommend Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes by William Bridges and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. The latter is my go-to and is far more comforting and encouraging than I'd thought from the title. The chapters are really short, so it's easy to read a chapter a day (or hour or whatever).
posted by jrobin276 at 12:25 AM on March 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

It occurs to me that my advice may sound like it has nothing to do with you doing your work, which is what you asked about. To clarify, that's all stuff I think you should do because (among other reasons) it will help keep you sane enough to do your job.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:37 AM on March 3, 2015

Dear OP, wow. Just, wow. You are facing a lot of pressure at home and at work. In my times of crisis, the most helpful things for me have been to: 1. Prioritize what needs to be done (which, by the way, I suck at, so I often turn to colleagues, friends or family to help me with that); 2. Schedule self-care (I'm out of the country now and my kid is about to have a baby. I can't help her if I'm a mess so I'm being extra careful to eat regularly, exercise, gets plenty of sleep); 3. Practice mindfulness and 4. Allowing myself a tiny bit of joy every day just because I am alive and that is a blessing. No matter how fucked up things are, I deserve a cup of tea that I can drink in peace, or the Daily Show or, better still, a 15-minute walk in nature or even browsing through a book of New Yorker cartoons or beautiful imagery.

I once heard this quote at an Al-Anon meeting, "If you have one foot in yesterday and the other in tomorrow, you piss all over today." That was the story of my life for many years. I was so burdened by regrets about the past and so fearful about the future that I was essentially paralysed and wasting the present moment--the only moment that actually matters.

So for me, mindfulness doesn't even have to involve meditation, although that is great. It can be 5 minutes of self-talk noticing how my body feels against the chair I'm sitting in and my feet on the floor and my arms wherever. Or it can be a 2 minute breathing break. Or it can be a 1 minute look around the office to notice how many different colours or shapes are visible in my field of view. All of these things are ways to bring myself out of my head and back into my body so I can feel calmer and less stressed.

John Gottman has done a lot of research about preserving marriages. It might be possible that sending an occasional text (if you're not already) to your partner and kids, just letting them know you are thinking of them while at work, would help you focus more on your job.

Another technique that sometimes helps when I'm on deadline is to keep a notebook near my laptop and just write down the distracting stuff that pops into my head so I don't worry that I will forget it. It's often stupid stuff that I can't do anything about at that time anyway and writing it down helps my monkey mind feel attended to.

Finally, I recently discovered that I'm not responsible for solving all the problems that I, my employer and my family have. I truly thought that was my job. No one can do that, it turns out. My Al-Anon sponsor has helped me understand that it's plenty good enough to say, "I have a problem. Here it is. I've thought about doing X, but I'm not sure that's the best approach. Can you help me come up with other ideas?"

I used to be a manager. I can't vouch for all managers but if you worked for me and you were having a personal crisis, I would want to know that (not inappropriate details just that you were in crisis) and I would try to work with you to come up with some support during this hard time. (Do you have an HR department that you can ask for help?) Not everyone is like that. Be strategic but do reach out as others have recommended. My heart goes out to you; we are rooting for your success.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:48 AM on March 3, 2015 [12 favorites]

Look at work as a refuge from the apocalypse. Find hacks that help you get back on task. Mine was to make a chart. I had to make a lot of charts for a project, and that was always where I started when I couldn't get my head back in the game. I read some research that (in my garbled memory) talked about how to turn on your cerebral side and get out of the more emotional side of your brain, and I really did find that doing the simplest cognitive task (putting folders back in the drawer in the correct alphabetical order) helped my feelings settle down.
posted by salvia at 1:21 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well first off, you're not in danger of doing "long-term harm" to your sanity. This was a big fear I had when i had a recent bout with anxiety, that I was going to "go crazy" and never be the same person again. It's a natural reaction to stress, but thankfully it's not true. You will be okay, even though things suck right now.

You need to make sure to schedule leisure time with friends where you dont talk about what's going on, you just do something you like, even if you feel you have to fake your way through it.

There's a lot of all-or-nothing thinking in your post ("personal apocalypse", etc.). If you've never done cognitive therapy pick up the ol' classic 'Feeling Good', terrible title but great book based on a scientific approach. Do the paper exercises, they work. Trust me, I resisted it at first but it works.

It seems like you feel as if your job is "trapping" you and making the situation worse. Oh boy I've been there. But I bet there are aspects of your job that you love, things that you're great at, and things you take pride in. Remember that.

The last thing I'll say, and this is comforting for me but might not be for you... It seems from your post like you might be going through a separation or divorce. Well, literally hundreds of millions of people have been in your shoes, so in that way, you are not particularly special. Others have faced this problem and worked through it, and you will too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it.
posted by hamsterdam at 1:30 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm going to share something with you that a spiritual teacher once said to me that I never forgot. I'm not sure if it will be helpful as I'm not sure what you're situation is.

They said: "When women are under a lot of emotional stress they tend to put more of their energy towards taking care others when in fact they should be taking more naps and catering to themselves. But when men are under emotional stress they tend to focus on work and themselves when they should be nurturing others. "

This teacher claims that in order for a human being to be balanced they must have a good amount of both feminine and masculine energy within them. When women are under stress they need to enhance more of their masculine energy and focus on themselves and rest. When men are under emotional stress they need to enhance the feminine principal inside of them by getting up and nurturing others. Unfortunately most people tend to enhance the wrong side when they are under stress which makes them feel even more unbalanced.

I noticed that though you mention it's your personal life that is causing all this strife you are only asking about how you can put more energy towards your work and yourself at work which according to this teacher is a common mistake among males. But perhaps if you were to focus more on nurturing others, you may find yourself balancing out which should then make your daily tasks easier on you.
posted by rancher at 2:56 AM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

As mentioned above, if you have Paid Time Off available, this may be the time to take it.

About 10 years ago, I was under extreme stress and preparing for (necessary) divorce. I was able to see a psychiatrist who wrote me a "time-off prescription." It basically said I was under doctor's orders and needed two weeks off work for "medical reasons." It was very helpful.

Obviously, none of us know the particulars of your work situation, but if it's possible to set it aside for even a little while it can be incredibly helpful.

Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 5:30 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I also came to recommend When Things Fall Apart.
posted by BibiRose at 7:42 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've always used my work as a sanctuary in times of great personal stress. It was very calming to drive to work and put aside all my personal worries and just concentrate on the job. So I would say, embrace the high pressures at work as a way to focus your energy. Work on keeping all thoughts of your personal life at bay while you are there. Use your work as an escape from other pressures. It worked for me.
posted by raisingsand at 8:05 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Didn't read the previous responses, sorry. This situation may call for short-term use of an anti-anxiety medicine, or another medical approach worked up by a psychiatrist.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:30 AM on March 3, 2015

Oh, man, I love that Change Your Password idea.

I'd also like to suggest, not just adding a book like When Things Fall Apart to your list of tasks, but make a date with yourself around it. On your way home, stop at the bookstore, buy the book and sit with a coffee reading it for an hour.
posted by BibiRose at 8:32 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lots of great advice upthread. This is a stopgap solution, but if you're really struggling to get through the day, you can go to your doctor and say "my life is falling apart and I'm having a hard time making it through the day" and likely get an anti-anxiety prescription that will help. Good self-care, mindfulness, PTO are all great, but a xanax or ativan can give you some occasional chemical relief.

I'm sorry, this kind of stress is so hard to handle. If nothing else, keep in mind that no matter how much stress you're under now, this isn't permanent and you won't always feel this way. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
posted by zibra at 10:20 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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