You Can’t Play when You’re Dead

Louisa Leontiades Illness, Vile Depths

I used to live a ‘have-to’ life. One of those lives where rewards were only available if I’d paid for them first in duty; usually painful duty. I could have dessert if I finished my main course (especially liver. Liver deserved an extra special dessert…like a creme caramel or ice cream). I could play with my friends if I’d tidied my room. I would get a present from my parents if I got all As in my exams. If I worked hard.

And that is what my life became. Long hours of work. Worthy work… for glimpses of fun. And boy did I party hard. But there was no fun to be had if the work hadn’t been done first. My report card said ‘doesn’t try hard enough’. And my parents told me that I needed to keep my nose to the grindstone. The path to happiness it seemed was to try harder and the fun became more and more elusive because I was building up a debt of work I would have to pay before I reached the ‘fun’.

‘When I grow up’, I said to myself secretly, ‘When I grow up I’m going to play all day. I will really enjoy life.’

And  then I grew up. But I had internalized the voices of my parents and society. The Benjamin Franklin work ethic had been successfully instilled in me. Even when I was not working, I was wasting time that could have been spent working and I felt enormous guilt. Luckily when I got home from work, there was still more work to do in the form of housework.  But I was always seeking; there was something wrong with me; I didn’t fit into the system. I wasn’t a happy brick in the wall. I needed to try harder.

They told me I was paying my dues. They told me I had an attitude problem, because I questioned the value of working those long hours. They told me that this is how you achieve in life. And I was resentful because there was a little voice inside my head saying

‘There must be more to life than this. When I get rich I will take time off. I will do what I want. I will really enjoy life.’

Three degrees later I was an executive travelling the world. I worked hard and partied harder. After some years in stress-filled management life I became a consultant and the voice said

‘Just imagine… you can work when you want and for who you want. You can take time off to be with your children, or to write that book you always wanted. You will really enjoy life.’

But there was still no time. Starting up a business was hard. A few more years down the line, I was still scrambling for contracts, doing my own accounting and worse taking contracts back to back because who knew when the next one would come? I wrote the book in the evenings, burned the candle at both ends and everyone praised my diligence. Maternity stopped me in my tracks, but just as soon as my baby was asleep, I rushed back to my computer to work, before snatching some anxiety ridden and disturbed sleep. I read emails whilst breastfeeding and texted whilst pushing the pram. My second child barely registered. He came conveniently on a Saturday. Then I was back at my computer on Monday.

Then a year ago the children started day care. I could get back to work, because goodness knows I had a massive debt of work to pay. But they had an inordinate amount of holiday time! How was I supposed to get any work done with all these school holidays? I couldn’t take this time off, because I hadn’t done enough work…so instead after they were in bed, I worked through the evenings, late into the night. And the voice which told me to enjoy life was finally quiet.

We don’t listen to our inner selves. We are like the dolphins, fun loving creatures. They also forage and care for one another. Just like us. But unlike the dolphins we don’t make time for the all-important play. We work some more instead. Until we are too old to work; and too ill to play.

You, sitting there reading this. I want to tell you to listen to that voice if you can still hear it. If you can’t hear it, I want you to find it. Because that voice is the real you speaking. It’s the voice which says – you really want to teach surf at that shack in Hawaii instead of being a manufacturing manager at a paper plant. Or take a holiday for more than a weekend – and without your mobile phone. That voice which says you are worthy of spending time doing nothing. You are worthy of play time. Not hedonistic, self-serving fun at the expense of others. I’m not advocating being an asshole. I’m just saying that you are worth far more than the value society puts on your work.

But what do I know? Because society’s capitalist voices are still running in my head. They say ~

‘Three degrees and you’ve achieved nothing. What a waste of money on your education! Just to become a scrounger of the system.

Because this month, I’ve been on sick leave. I’m the 38 year old ex-executive, ex-consultant who didn’t listen to that voice. I’m sick… and it’s my fault. For the last weeks, most my time has been spent going for check-ups and blood tests at the hospital.  I’m waiting for the surgeon to operate on the possible cancer in my thyroid. I’ve been diagnosed diabetic and anaemic. I’m wondering what the hell happened, because I couldn’t have tried any harder.

And my kids. My kids are just 2 and 4 years old.

I promise to change in future. I promise to stop and enjoy life. I promise it will be different if I get a second chance.

I need a little more time please, to teach them, that their inner voice is important and that they should listen to it.

I need a little more time please, to show them that they should enjoy life, before I come to the end of mine.