Working in the ER, I used to see people in withdrawal all the time. They were a mess. Whether it was alcohol or opioids, their substance of choice had induced a certain abnormal chemical balance. The mind and body adapted to the presence of the substance. Once that substance was withdrawn, it was like removing the leg of a chair – they became unstable, uncomfortable, and panic-stricken. That imbalance of neurotransmitters can cause so much suffering that even the strongest person will do anything to get another fix.
We all live with a certain neuro-chemical balance. Hopefully most of us don’t mess with that balance directly and harmfully with illicit substances, but our lifestyles and choices certainly have an effect. What we eat, how much we sleep, even our amount of “screen time” all influence our particular balance of chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
In trying to understand this uneasiness that I’ve been feeling in the last month or so, Linds made an interesting observation: even though I was perhaps the most enthusiastic about this trip before we left, of all the people in our family my life has probably changed more than anyone’s.
We’ve all been uprooted from Canada, but Linds’ primary role as homemaker hasn’t really changed even if the locations have. The kids’ lives still revolve around our family dynamics and learning. Me . . . no more ER work, no more CrossFit, no more home renovations . . . I’m not busy any more.
I know what you’re thinking: “Dude! Wasn’t that the point of all this??” And you are right. We wanted out of the craziness of “normal life” where we were busy busy busy all the time, running here and there, getting this done and that, all the while having little time left to pursue what we actually thought was important.
We didn’t want a vacation where we could take a break from all kinds of effort . . .
We wanted time and space to focus our efforts on our first priority: our family.
I am starting to think that part of my problem is simply that I am in withdrawal not from medicine or from Canada or from having a home, but from the crazy, frantic pace of life that I inflicted on myself for so long. I got so used to running that it feels weird to walk. Now that I literally have the time to stop and smell the flowers, I’m almost too uncomfortable to do it.
The paradox, of course, is that even a healthy change can feel wrong for a while. The smoker who decides to quit will feel worse before she feels better. It’s still the right choice. Unfortunately, humans are not wired to appreciate the big picture when the little one is causing discomfort.
In the ER when we were counselling people with substance abuse problems in addition to other mental health issues (which was usually the case) we would always advise them to address the substance abuse first. In other words, until the physiology has had a chance to reach some kind of homeostasis, there is little point investing time and effort in a treatment plan. Biology aside, don’t put the horse before the cart.
I am not unique. I imagine most retirees go through something similar. They struggle to fill the void left by the workplace. Some fill it with soap operas and game shows, but many are contributing enormously in meaningful ways. They are passionate, generous, and focused on what they value. And they love to instil their knowledge and enthusiasm on anyone who shares that interest. I know several like this – you know who you are – and I am so thankful to them for their example and inspiration.
I’m not looking for happiness. I don’t believe it is something you can chase, catch and hold on to. I won’t find it on this trip or by accomplishing some goal I’ve set for myself. Happiness is more like a side effect of accumulated decisions: How do you care for your relationships? How do you care for your health? Do you spend your time and energy on things that you think really matter?
These are hard questions to answer because we’re all works in progress. So the answers will often involve fundamentally changing how we live and think. That’s a big, tough job.
For now I’m going to take the advice I would give my patients: don’t bite off too much right now. Know that you’re doing the right thing, surround yourself with people who care, and give yourself time.
Click HERE to read more about what it’s like to leave professional life and travel the world.