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The Recovering Workaholic Retires

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

How do you step from a 100-foot pole?

Over and over again.

The unending inward journey of Zen. Who am I? Really? Who are all these aspects of myself, and in particular, who are these aspects of myself from which I would prefer to turn away?

It occurs to me that retirement might be a different experience for a recovering workaholic than it is for normal people.

In the late 1980’s, in my mid-life crisis, I realized that I had been “throwing” myself into work in order to avoid looking at an unhappy marriage. Oh, I enjoyed a lot of things that went with that marriage: I enjoyed going out to dinner with our group of friends. I enjoyed the opera and the ballet. I especially enjoyed my stepsons, but I wasn’t happy. Except I didn’t notice that. I just worked.

Crazy. I took pride in how much I worked, that I always came home with an attaché case full of papers. Very important manager. Very, very important.

Yes, my workaholism did lead to a lot of hard-driving successes, but I was a nightmare of a boss. Some very ambitious people thrived with a lunatic boss. Some people loved working for me. Well, maybe not “loved me” but were eager to be part of our team, to thrive, to succeed. I took great pride in the number of people who had worked “under” me who went on to become chiefs in their own right.

Nothing too wrong with any of that. Except that I was hiding from my own unhappiness.

I was addicted to work.

In order to pull myself out of my mid-life crisis, it was helpful to understand my workaholism as an addiction. No cure. Only recovery. For the next 25 years, through a second career, I continued to work, with even greater success but without taking work home. I still stressed a lot less about work, and yet I am marveling right now, three weeks into my second retirement about how much stress there still was. But this time, I am feeling really retired. The first retirement was not real. I was only changing horses. Now I am wondering what it is like for a recovering workaholic to retire.

My Retirement Plan

I had been warned by friends who had retired earlier, “Retirement is easier if you have a plan.” Etc. Etc. “Make a schedule so that you will always have something to do.” Great idea. I made a daily schedule in my calendar from 6:30 in the morning to 5:30. Wake up routine, zazen, morning pages with coffee or tea, walking, writing, exercise, lunch, reading, another period of writing, a second walk, a second period of zazen. The day repeats in my calendar, every day, forever.

But now I am remembering my first Street Retreat with Bernie. Just wandering alone through Lower Manhattan during the day, not yet time to look for the next meal, sitting alone on a bench in the park along the East River. Just sitting. “Aimless meandering,” Bernie called it. It was wonderful.

I am not feeling frightened. The recovering alcoholic always has the fear that he will take another first drink, but what is left for me the retired workaholic to fear?

I am remembering that my psychiatrist friend’s clinically obese inpatients at Downstate Medical Center used to brag that their addiction was worse than the alcoholic’s. The alcoholic could give up alcohol completely, could learn, could find ways to stay away. No such luck for the food addict. Their addiction, they said, was as if the alcoholic had to learn to be a social drinker in order to be sober.

Is this a gift?

Is retirement such a gift for the workaholic? For the last thirty-years, was I like the food addict, learning to work in moderation? Now, I have the relative luxury of the alcoholic. Can I just avoid work completely? I probably won’t. People will ask me to take things on and I will. But I don’t have to. It’s like I don’t have to eat.

But now, freed completely from my way of avoiding my demons, I have nothing to do but face them. Is this a gift? What a gift. This demon work is after all what Zen practice is for me. Demon work. Jung called it “shadow work.” Bernie referred to his demons as “hungry ghosts.”

Recently, I heard my friend, Pastor Demitrius Carolina, preaching about inherited trauma. I don’t think I had ever heard that term before. He was talking about the continuing impact of the slavery heritage, of Jim Crow, of segregation on African Americans and its continuing psychological impact today, even among those born in the 21st Century.

I felt that I understood immediately even though I had never thought of this before: I am still living with the trauma of the Great Depression even though I was born well after the rescue of the American economy by World War II was underway. I grew up with my parents’ stress and trauma, particularly my father’s.

My mother had a relatively well-to-do cousin. He had been able to get my father a job peddling apples on the streets of New York. My parents appreciated the irony in this story — this was what “pull” could do. It was not enough. My father hadn’t been able to support himself — they weren’t married yet. He fled the city for Northern Michigan. Somehow he knew a guy who made a living even in the throes of the depression as a hunting guide. My father could hang out with him as some sort of assistant. This guy knew his business. My father always appreciated craftsmen. If the hunters had one week or ten days or two weeks, they never got their moose until their last full day in the wilderness. Always a perfect hunting experience.

Horn & Hadart

As a child, my father would take me to the last Horn & Hardart automat in Manhattan. I loved it. He would change a couple of dollars for nickels, and then we would use the nickels to make our purchases from the rows of little stainless steel, glass fronted doors, through which I could view the small plates of food, choose my lunch, insert my nickels, take out my sandwich.

Then we would find a table and I would insist that my father tell me his depression story: When he had no money, he would get dinner at the Horn & Hardart. He would get a free cup of hot water (for tea although, of course, he didn’t have the money for a tea bag) and would then go to the condiment table where, with ketchup as the primary ingredient, he would brew himself a cup of tomato soup. Then he could sit down at a table to dine in luxury.

In my whole life, I have never felt that my needs were not being met. I grew up, of course, with wants that weren’t being satisfied. I grew up in Great Neck where I was always the poorest kid I knew, the only kid whose mother worked. In the 8th grade, I was the only one in my group who didn’t have his own boat. But I never went without anything that I needed.

And yet all that time, the next depression was always just over the horizon. Even as I was preparing to go away for college, my father, who by then had his own cabinet shop, wanted me to learn a trade. “Then you will always have something to fall back on in a depression.”

That shadow is always with me.

Although George Dougherty, our financial planner, has assured us that we can afford to retire, I can’t help paying attention to the plummeting stock prices just as my retirement begins. (I never pay attention in bull markets).

Just Get Used to It

I am sitting with my demon. A neurosis? The anti-therapy people advise, “Just get over it.” This advice always seemed unfeeling, although I was never sure why. Now, I’m thinking that better advice might be, “Just get used to it.”

When I was a kid, I hated my curly hair which I had inherited from my father. My father had often asked me, “Where do you think we got our hair from?

And he would answer, “The Queen of Sheba,” the African queen who brought gifts to Solomon and bore a child by him.

Descended from a queen. Wow. But still I wanted the straight, blond hair valued by Hollywood.

The Black Power Movement taught me to embrace it.

Just get used to it.

Easier said than done. Encouraged by the Black Panthers, I let my hair grow. I was proud to own an Afro comb. A friend from Brownsville gave me an “I’m Black and I’m Proud” button.” Friendly playfulness. I kept it in my car, a Karmann Ghia convertible which looked spiffy but was really a VW beetle with a cool Italian body. When the roof was slashed, nothing was taken. My “I’m Black and I’m Proud” button was left, taken from the glove compartment, prominently on the passenger seat.

“Now, that’s cool,” I thought.

Now I am getting to know much better this demon of the depression. The shadow. It is part of me, as much a part of who I am as my curly hair or any other aspect of my DNA. So retiring, voluntarily giving up a good income: crazy behavior? Getting used to it.

What a wonderful gift of retirement.

So that is what I am doing. And journaling about this “work” with my demons and blogging about it and maybe eventually writing books about it, bearing witness to my demon work, hoping that by sharing my work, I encourage others to get on with it too, to embrace their demons and to learn to live with them. That is my Zen teaching. Telling my stories.

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