On paper, last year was a pretty incredible year. In the first half of 2019, I completed my Master’s degree in Composition (with the gold medal for the Graduate Music program, so it went well), I taught a lot of amazing kids and made some wonderful music, and I was flown out to Arizona State University for the American premiere of “Transcendent Light.” I got some articles published in our national band journal and I presented at our provincial music conference in front of my peers. On the home front, my family was doing great, my then-one-year old was growing and changing… everything was in good shape.
When summer finally came and I had July and August away from work, I crashed incredibly hard – harder than ever before. The intensity of my graduate degree while teaching full-time and being a present and involved father while still trying to be a working composer finally caught up with me. While there have been summers that started as burnout (like watching “The Office” from my couch for a week straight), I usually came out of it within a week or two and then was back to my old self. That didn’t happen this time.
I spent a lot of the summer despondent and overspent. I felt the absence of presence, like I was floating through the days as they slipped away toward September, when I’d have to go back to work. In hindsight, I’m quite certain this is what depression felt like for me; not feeling sad, but instead, the absence of feelings, like being a shell of oneself. For the first summer in recent memory (or maybe ever), I didn’t do anything creative – I didn’t make anything.
It was like plugging in your phone after the battery dies – it doesn’t turn on, just a white plug and a lightning bolt against a black background. It’s on, but it can’t really do anything.
When I got back to work, the metaphorical phone was functional, but it was nowhere near 100%, probably less than 50%. I started some small contract work lined up since before the summer and it took me months to finish (I just finished it today, in fact), and old me would have hammered it out in six weeks.
Something needed to change. For the last few years, I’ve been feeling that the work/life balance (whatever that even means) has been climbing to an unsustainable place and, this year, it got there. I often had this diagram in my mind:
Let’s be clear: That doesn’t mean I’m going to quit my job or shut out the world or anything, but that I needed to find ways to keep my head above water.
After much discussion with my wife, I started going for counselling and it has made a really big difference. We talk a lot about protecting time in a variety of contexts. Maybe it’s going to the gym on my lunch break at work, or declining new contracts/commissions if there isn’t time/energy to do them, or bringing my toddler to day care even if I’m home on a week day. It’s also amazing how effective it is to just say something out loud to someone – that’s a big part of it too.
It really came to a head a few weeks ago, when I was talking to my wife about how I had no drive to make anything and that I missed being creative. Her eyes lowered as she spoke: “That doesn’t sound like you. You used to love being creative.”
So one of my goals for this year is try and find my way back to the person that I really enjoyed being, someone who is creative and has ideas about people, art, and the world again. It’s not a resolution, but more of a goal. Here are some steps that I’m planning on taking:
- Protect my time, either at work, home, family, or leisure time.
- Work on things that are meaningful to me (and to not work on things that aren’t).
- Develop more rituals that are nourishing, like date nights with my wife or non-negotiable times to work out during the day.
- Be more organized at work.
- Engage in energizing solitude where I can.
- Spend more time with my friends and family too.
I know that my life has changed now, but it can be as nourishing as it once while still being different, and I think that I’m off to a good start. As I’m writing this, I feel good. I’ve got some musical ideas spinning around and feel pretty good going back to work on Monday. I’ve had some excellent family time these last two weeks and built back some important bridges in my social groups (which I’ve neglected over the past year).
I know the saying goes “new year, new you,” but for me, “new year, old you” is where I’m headed.
Onwards and upwards, everyone.