A Ghost in the Corporate Machine

I stared at the tiny little pill of salvation in my hand.  My 70-hour-a-week job had me exceptionally stressed out to the point where it kept me up at night.  I needed something other than a stiff drink to help me get some sleep so I could at least get 6 hours of sleep in a night.  Six hours.  That’s all I wanted.  I wanted to remember what that felt like.

Prior to holding that Miracle Pill, the commercials on television taunted me.  The pretty Lunesta butterfly would float in and save people from insomnia.  I’d get jealous and resentful of snoring people on NyQuil commercials.  Everyone looked so rested and peaceful, and here I was, mentally going over checklists and tasks to delegate for hours on end.  I’d lie there thinking of not only plan Bs, but I had to come up with plan Cs and Ds.   I had to account for the frequent database timeouts and crashes we’d experience or the paperwork that didn’t get to us in time.  My team was pushed to the limit – they averaged around 60 hours a week for over a year, and there was no sign of letting up despite a handful of pipe dream promises.  I was in my first management role, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.  I wanted to show the higher-ups how committed I was to making the company successful.  I wanted my team to like me and want to work for me.  I believed that a true leader had to work harder than anyone working under them.  Getting people to put in the kind of overtime required for an extended period of time is a tall order, and I felt like I had to pull out all the stops to keep the gears in this impossible machine moving.

The commercials for prescription sleeping aids were designed for people like me, and the side effects didn’t sound so bad: habit-forming, don’t drive a vehicle within eight hours of taking it, blah blah blah – that’s standard with any drug, right?  I knew from other people that one of the sleeping aids caused them to sleep eat – in their sleep, they’d walk to their kitchen and eat an entire jar of Fluff.  I knew Chris wouldn’t let me do that, so I felt pretty good.   Plus, Chris took Ambien for a couple of nights following his eye surgery and he slept like a rock.  I hoped to achieve similar results, and requested Ambien from my doctor.

My doctor sighed at my request.  I think he heard similar requests all too often from his patients.  “I’ll give you about a week’s worth; this is not something you want to take long-term.  If you continue to have sleep problems, we’ll need to find another way to address them – lifestyle changes.  These pills don’t cure insomnia; they can provide a temporary relief at best and can mask the deeper issues keeping you up at night.”  He explained his concerns about the dangers of the new crop of sleeping pills as he filled out the prescription.  On one hand, I’ve always appreciated that my doctor wasn’t a pill-pusher; on the other hand, my grumpy, sleep-deprived mind just heard, “yadda yadda yadda here’s your prescription.”  I didn’t want to hear that being a workaholic was going to kill me, and no commercial butterfly was going to carry me away from that shit.

I read the instructions that came with the prescription and took it right before I went to bed.  I lay in bed, waiting for Ambien to take me into dreamland.  It took longer than I expected or hoped, and I still found myself clock-watching.  Right before I nodded off, I looked at the clock and the 7 puckered.  Huh.

The next evening, I didn’t want to wait as long for the Ambien to take effect, so I decided to take it a little earlier, I’d clean up around the house and go to bed when I started to feel tired.  So, after cleaning for fifteen to twenty minutes, I realized I didn’t feel sleepy at all.  I decided the best thing to do would be to just lie in bed, turn out the lights, and again wait for the Ambien to take over.

Chris and I lay in bed, and I stared intently at the ugly floral-patterned curtains in our bedroom.  Woah.  Finally, I spoke to Chris.  “You know, there’s one thing I’ll say about this Ambien; it really messes with your mind.”

Chris turned slightly to me.  “How so?”

“Well? Right now? Our curtains are a forest.”

“What??”

Our hideous, 80s-era curtains that came with the house morphed into a beautiful, mossy green forest.  So pristine and ethereal!  Pretty forest, you’re teasing me with your beauty, but I know if I go for a stroll, I’ll only wind up with glass shards in my arms. Yes, I knew I was hallucinating, but for the virgin to life who never took a hallucinogen before, this was kind of awesome.  This was a journey, and who better to share this experience with than Chris?  It was of extreme importance I tell him every last detail.  He wanted nothing more than to go to sleep.

After telling him all about the curtain forest, I paused for a few minutes.  I stared at our ceiling fan.  It resembled… a seal?  A sealHello, Mr. Seal!  I smiled at it.  I had a new friend!  And I knew his story.  Oh, he didn’t speak or anything, but I had a soul connection with the fan.  I just knew.  I had to share his supreme wisdom and kindness with Chris.  “The ceiling fan thinks it’s protecting us from the forest; it doesn’t know that the forest is good.”

“Go to sleep.”

“I like the ceiling fan.”

“Shut up.”

Pause.  I turned to my side and stared at the digital clock.  “Hee-hee…”

“Grrr….”

Pause.  “Hee-heeee!”

What are you doing?”

He turned over to see me patting the alarm clock and poking my fingers at the display.  He just didn’t get it, man.  I giggled.  “The numbers are dancing! They’re moving around.  It’s so cool!”  Every time I poked the 9, it scrunched up like the Pillsbury Doughboy. “Hee-hee!”  Poke.  “Hee-hee!”

“Close your eyes and you won’t see anything anymore.”

“But I want to see it.”

“Go to bed.”

My entire bedroom was a Wonderland.  Forget the curtain, the clock and the fan, I just knew that there were all sorts of exciting things waiting for me in every corner of the room.  I pounced on top of Chris.  “WHATS ON UR SIDE OF THE BED?”

“Gahhh, Go to sleep! Shut up!!”

He was such a killjoy.  This was an experience of a lifetime, and I had only taken up an hour or so of his time.  Forget him; I had my new friend the ceiling fan to keep me company; I didn’t need him! And I just know that if the ceiling fan got to know the forest, he would like it, and we could all be friendz.  And we’d all watch the dancing numberzandlaughandhahaPillsburyDoughboySaladUnicorns!

ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….

I opened my eyes and looked around the room.

The ceiling fan was a ceiling fan.

The ugly curtains were just ugly curtains.

The clock read 3:14 a.m.  Three hours passed.  The numbers weren’t dancing.

3:14 a.m.

I’m wide awake.

I’m wide awake, and I have to be up in two hours.

Fuck.

I gave myself another hour, and decided to continue with my daily tradition of logging into VPN to get work done prior to going into the office.  When I got into work at my normal time and while our computers gave us our morning ODBC Timeout Greeting, I shared my Ambien story with a couple of them.  “Wow,” one girl laughed.  “People pay a lot of money to get drugs that do that…” We chuckled, but I felt off.  Simple decisions suddenly seemed complicated, like a tangle of knots where you can’t find the first to undo.  My clarity was needed to go to plan Bs and Cs as databases timed out, angry clients called in, paperwork was MIA, and gossip was its usual disruptive self.  Answers usually came to me, yet this time I couldn’t untangle the knots to get to them.  It may have been the Ambien, it may have been the lack of sleep – whatever it was, my day became far more complicated than usual.

In all the tangles, I could hear my doctor’s sage words weaving through.  “Lifestyle changes…the deeper issues keeping you up at night…” I looked around at my team. I spent many 12-hour days with them.  How many waking hours did I see my husband?  Could I even say “hours,” let alone “hour?”  I looked at my computer with it’s stupid hourglass floating in the middle of the screen waiting to reach its inevitable conclusion of “ODBC Timeout Error.” God forbid I selected the wrong thing to filter.  I saw my boss, who a few months prior, threatened to cut off my VPN access if I didn’t take a weekend off.  Bless her heart for that.  It occurred to me that my pristine forest – my hallucination – was the only serene thing I experienced in months.

I looked beyond our area to the window offices and realized something I never really thought about before – no one gave a shit, and no one would ever give a shit.  We were the machine that worked – we weren’t people.  I was part of it – I became nothing more than a gear that turned and turned with its teeth slowly being stripped of definition and function with each revolution.  In that tangled moment, it occurred to me I was a lousy supervisor.  I wasn’t leading – I was operating a perpetual motion machine. I wanted to be everything to everyone, yet I was a nobody helping no one.  In a moment where my little answers were tangled, the largest one finally revealed itself to me.

I went home that night – late, as usual.  I put the Ambien away in the medicine cabinet.  Even though I enjoyed good times with the forest and the ceiling fan, I knew my doctor was right – this was no solution.  I needed a clear mind to untangle the knots.  I needed to find the most responsible way to exit the machine and become human again.

Admitting failure is one of the toughest things we must undergo in life, even when protected by the calming fog of a legalized hallucinogen.  I’d lie if I said I didn’t continue trying to please everyone at that job – I did it every single day until my exit strategy was complete.  I wanted to fix my failure yet I didn’t have the perspective needed to get it right.  With perspective, I learned a huge lesson from that job:  I had to set boundaries for myself.  The stress I felt was the stress I put on myself.  The boundaries I set as a result are the boundaries I have to this day, and I’m happier for it.  I’m a better manager because of it.  I have clarity, and I actually come up with solutions – real solutions, not Band-Aids and Silly Putty.  If something doesn’t get done despite our best efforts, I’m not putting in a bunch of 60-hour workweeks to make it happen.  Sometimes you need to let things fail to expose the weakness of the structure they are built on.  It’s better to show a few fissures early on, than to try and hide them until the entire foundation collapses in on itself.

I learned success isn’t found in our paycheck amounts or promotions received.  Success is found in honoring those boundaries we set for ourselves – when we are true to our morals and ethics, honor our happiness, and put the needs of ourselves and those we love first, we are successful.  At the end of the day, when we have nothing more than a pay stub and a business card to define who we are, we really are nothing more than a gear in a machine.  The sleeping pills we take, the bottles of wine we drink only allow us a moment to forget how much more we can be.

Maybe that’s what my doctor was trying to tell me when he handed me that week-long prescription.