I took a seat. There were only two people in the room – an older woman and a younger woman. The younger woman sat with her eyes closed, even when she spoke. The older woman read a preamble about curing yourself of ‘compulsive working’.
She had a smartphone on her lap so a fellow sufferer could listen in, possibly with the very same conference-call software he used to feed his filthy habit. After the preamble, we introduced ourselves in the clichéd AA way:
‘Hi, I’m Suchandsuch, and I’m a workaholic,’ said the young woman with the closed eyes. ‘And today I feel grateful for arriving on time.’ The reason for this statement became clear 15 minutes later, when a couple of other workaholics straggled in and took a seat.
Next was ‘the sharing’, and this was where the meeting became more than just a bit of anonymous fun. The workaholics spoke one by one, and common themes emerged. They were all intensely focused on their work and had trouble disengaging or relaxing.
They scheduled every part of their day – even on holidays – and suffered from paralysing perfectionism. They’d grown up with absent fathers who’d worked long hours.
Got me again.
Looking back at my childhood, I saw my dad sitting alone at the kitchen table punching numbers into a calculator, a big binder of documents beside him. The wart in the middle of his forehead is squeezed between his eyebrows.
My dad was the overseas manager of a clothing company, and when he wasn’t touring garment factories in China or India, he was at home catching up on paperwork. He had a heart attack at 42.
He recovered, and switched to a different role at the same company, cutting back his work hours. But he was still always busy.
Another moment struck me. I’m in Year 12 studying for exams, but to Dad I don’t appear to be trying very hard. One afternoon he barges into my room to catch me lying on the bed reading a novel. “Why aren’t you working, Greg?” he yells. “This is a time of stress!”
So for him, work and stress were inseparable, and over time they became linked in my life as well. I used to think if my heart wasn’t pounding and my hands weren’t shaking, I wasn’t doing my job properly.
This made me a compulsive worker: in advertising I wrote the same headline 50 different ways then picked the best one, and in journalism I drafted feature articles 20 times. I’d print out my emails for proofreading before pressing send.
The result was that I stayed at the office long after most sane people had gone home. Here’s a selection of phone messages to my partner Sophie in the 12 months prior to our bike trip up Australia’s east coast:
Will be home late-ish.
Hey, honey. I’m going to be home late – after 10. Hope that’s cool…
Be home about 11.