Time Anxiety as a Maker
It’s March of this year and I’m lying on my bed in Oaxaca, Mexico, sobbing into the sheets while my then-boyfriend strokes my hair.
“I can’t do this!” I utter while catching my breath.
“It takes practice,” he said, “but you can’t keep on like this. You have to learn how to relax.”
Anne Laure and Pieter Levels recently wrote about their experiences and interpretations of a concept called time anxiety.
My definition of time anxiety is: the time in your life when you realize that you are mortal and life is short, and you respond by filling your time with as much meaning as possible.
Everyone’s definition of ‘meaning’ is personal and varies from person to person. I responded to time anxiety by becoming a maker. What started as a beautiful exploration of creativity and community crossed the line into toxicity and depression. Here’s my story.
It began with a compliment from a best friend.
I'd just finished speaking at a conference (one of many passion projects for that year), and she said,
“You know what my favorite thing about you is? You eat the Earth. You want to experience everything in this world while you’re here, and it’s beautiful.”
It was the push I'd been waiting for. I’d been saving 50% of my income for some time, so I quit my job and started launching products.
Making was like a drug. At first, I would get high making really quirky joyous things (dog deodorant, anyone?) And, to my amazement, dog deodorant actually sold!
I think that when you are making things that come from a place of unbridled heart and soul, others will feel that and respond to it.
But time anxiety was not satisfied. Soon the high wore off and I wanted to eat MORE of the Earth, to not only have a business but travel the world while I was doing it. So I shuttered my physical product, and went to Asia.
At first, my making was solely about self-expression. I would work 16 hour days for a month straight to make a full-photographed street food cookbook on the streets of Bangkok. I would make street food maps and write extensively about my travels.
The highs I got from producing without end kept the creeping burnout under the surface. If I stopped and stood still for long enough, the darkness would creep up, and that nagging thought that, “I won’t be enough if I stop creating” would come racing back.
Note: this time anxiety affected not just my work, but almost everything in my life, from the need to constantly travel the world, to placing unhealthy expectations on myself and those around me.
I started gaining a community around the work I was creating. I found myself surrounded by fascinating, driven, curious individuals who were creating things that mattered. It was wondrous and terrifying all at once.
“If you take a break now,” the time anxiety would say, “then you’ll not only be a failure, but you’ll also become useless to your community. Stop making, and they stop caring.”
As I ticked ‘self-expression’ off of my life experience box, the urge to make money sprang to the surface. My community was using the things they made to make a living. I should try too!
I started focusing on money instead of creating from my soul. My community grew more as I attempted ambitious projects that looked promising. But many of these projects never launched because slowly, the magic drained out of everything I did. The maker drug had stopped getting me high so I used more than ever, staying awake working until 3 or 4 in the morning every day, dreading falling asleep because I knew that when I woke up, it would be with a pounding heart, a ceaseless feeling that I was never creating enough, worried sick that I would never live a life to my full potential.
Around this time, I met my former boyfriend, a man who knew how to take breaks and relax. He saw that I was hurting myself by constantly producing even when the joy in doing so had long disappeared, and that if I kept this up, I would not just eat a bit of the Earth but consume the whole damn planet until there was nothing solid left for me to stabilize myself on.
Thus we find ourselves in that bedroom in Oaxaca in March.
I’ve tried to relax and it feels like going on withdrawals from a drug. I shake, I cry, I get angry. I can’t do it.
So he puts me on metaphorical methadone for productivity. We start experimenting with ways I can feel productive without actually using my brain. During this time, I play so much Pokemon that it’s slightly embarrassing. I practice taking mini-breaks in between work meetings. We go for long walks around the park each day after work and lay on the grass, staring at the sky, doing nothing.
I wish I could tell you that the story ends there, that I learned how to let go of my unceasing quest for perfection and everyone lived happily ever after.
But I had a real problem and I wasn’t taking responsibility for getting help. I kept working in my spare time. I denied that anything was seriously wrong with me. Time anxiety was a key part of my identity. Letting go of it meant relearning how I define my worth, potentially losing my friendship network, and possibly letting my life pass me by.
What I didn’t see was that I’d built up an identity around experiencing the entirety of life that, in the end, cost me many of the things I cared about most.
I lost my peace of mind, the ability to create from the heart, being in the moment, experiencing wonder. Time anxiety brought me all those things, then just as quickly took them all away.
Now, as he warned me, I’ve eaten the entire Earth, and there’s nothing solid for me to stand upon any longer. There is nothing left to consume but a speck of stardust, somewhere just outside my reach; close enough to grasp at, but far enough away that I will never, ever be able to touch it.
But I still stretch out my arm as far as I can. Maybe, just maybe…
PS: I stopped traveling, got a therapist, and moved to Seattle. For months, I still felt the urge to make every single day. But slowly I stopped acting on the urge, until in October I stopped all side projects completely. In the future, I refuse to create unless I’m creating things from my heart (and this post fits that criteria).
I do feel like I lost my 'maker identity' and my community, but if irrelevancy is the price to pay for mental wellness, I'll take it any day.