I can feel it there, surging up just behind my awareness in the present moment, like a monster behind my back. A black plume of anxiety. It rises up and suddenly I am back in a world of flickering machine lights and pages of unfinished code. "I'm falling behind, I know it. I should not be relaxing like this. I should be writing that code. I should be fixing the system."
It's a poisonous thing, feeling ashamed to relax.
My job didn't start that way. There was a time when I could drive home from the office and cast it fully out of my mind. My weekends were my own, and I felt confident that my rest was well earned because I had plowed through difficult logic and thorny design issues, and even though no one had milestones and deadlines hanging over my head, even though there wasn't a set itinerary, the system leapt forward, getting faster and smarter and easier to use every day under my care. I was passionate about it, more than any work I had ever done.
Even as time wore on, as my circumstances changed, as my life disassembled itself further and further so I could have fewer distractions, eventually when my support system was poisoned and my physical health began to crumble, even then, I could see the way forward for the system. I knew how to hash out the design, how to implement every idea, and if I didn't I knew who to defer to for guidance.
But being a corporate man is only something you can do when the rest of your life is working to your satisfaction, because you cannot pay full attention to it, even when you need to. The company demands the finest hours of your time and the lion's share of your brain, and unless your management is uncommonly wise, they will give you all the rope you need - and then even more - and watch in mild frustration as you hang yourself from the coathook in your office. You're not supposed to work yourself to death; it just happens.
At first, I was protected by a brilliant and well-matched manager. Then, I was protected by my own common sense and my support system. After the first three years, my memory of the outside world - which had been sustaining me in a way I didn't realize - had faded away to almost nothing. A vague dream beyond the walls of my house, my car, and my office. The outside world became something I read about online. Sure, I walked in it, but I did so with a head full of code. For me, there was only the work, and the desperate holiday excursions that I carefully designed to yank me out of my office environment with maximum force so I could plunge back into it again just as forcefully.
Then, my life went sideways, my mind went elsewhere, and the rope began to unspool.
I know I'm past all that now. Despite my stubbornness, I am outside, in the real world again. I don't have to think about the system, or the lab, or the office, any more. That office door is closed and the key that's still on my keyring no longer unlocks it. I can just throw that key away. But then ... Something triggers a memory ... And the black plume comes roiling up my spine, and for an infuriating instant, I am back inside that cold room, hanging from the coathook, choking and tearing at the rope. "You're falling behind. You're failing to cope. You're not worthy of this position. Impostor!"
I want this ridiculous anxiety out of my head; I need to drive it back out. It wasn't here before and I won't be tolerating it now. It is literally no longer my job to lead the coding charge for automated testing of an entire software ecosystem. That was not something I did to stay alive, it was something I did for money. The job ended, and I remain. I can just take all that responsibility - and all that worry - and dump it on the curb. I have my own life to tend to.
It's okay to relax; it really is. I keep telling myself.