Why I’m Opting Out Of Hustle Culture To Grieve
Red and blue lights spun behind me as my eyes darted to the rearview mirror. “Oh s***,” I muttered to my dogs in the back seat. I hadn’t noticed the police SUV tailing me, but there he was signaling to pull over. I’d never gotten a speeding ticket before, but it’s true: I was going too fast. (About ten miles per hour too fast, in case you were curious.)
As I drove away after my conversation with the officer, citation in hand, a bit stunned that this day had finally come, I chuckled to myself. Of course the universe was reminding me to slow down, once again. I’ve always gone too fast, and it’s finally catching up with me.
After my mother died when I was in 8th grade, so began my very worst and most successful habits. I compartmentalized my grief and I cruised past it. That was the way I learned how to survive the pain—by ignoring it, completely. So, I became the queen of hustle culture, making straight As, filling my calendar with extracurricular activities as student body president, a theatre kid, a varsity athlete (softball my senior year—I sat on the bench a lot), and everyone’s friend. I basked in praise from peers and teachers: “You’re so resilient! I don't know how you do it all!"
Hustling was working so well, it didn’t matter that I felt anxious all the time. I didn’t even notice, because it was the only way I knew how to be. I pushed through Duke University, Teach For America in Dallas-Fort Worth, graduate school at the University of Chicago, working for the Mayor of Chicago, and coming home to work for the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. These were all huge accomplishments and I was proud to earn them through incredibly hard work.
Meanwhile, I had to wear a monitor for a while because my heart was quite literally skipping beats. The cardiologist told me to cut down on caffeine and get more rest. I did neither of those things, of course. I also displayed symptoms of disordered eating and OCD, and I told no one. Instead, I drank out of a pink water bottle that said “Forever Busy” in block letters. I hung a canvas on my bathroom mirror that read “Put on your lipstick and hustle.” Hustle culture was the air I breathed.
And then March 14th, 2020 knocked the wind out of me.
I was asked to come in to work that Saturday by our state leaders. The Governor was announcing that afternoon that we were shutting down schools because of COVID-19. And on that very same day, while I was with my colleagues coming up with our game plan, I got a phone call that my father—my rock— had died very suddenly, and completely unexpectedly. I collapsed on the floor, and I remember people surrounding me. It felt like time stopped. Everything was moving in slow motion, and I was in freefall.
At everyone else’s urging, I took a few weeks off, even though I didn’t want to.
It was the first time in my life that I wasn’t working for an extended period of time, I wasn’t in school, and I didn’t have my father. I felt absolutely worthless. Who was I if I wasn’t doing....anything? Did I even like myself when I slowed down? Every day and night ticked by at a snail’s pace, and I hated it. I wanted to get back to the grind where I didn’t have to think about my grief, where I could muscle past my anxiety like I always did.
I fell into my old hustle habits when I came back to work on our state COVID response, but I couldn’t keep up appearances for long. Over the course of the next year, my anxiety mixed with grief overcame me. Plus, my marriage that hadn’t been working for years was on its last legs, and I couldn’t push through that anymore while I was pushing through everything else...it all felt unbearable. I had never learned to balance, to give myself grace when I was exhausted. I’d never learned to slow down and actually feel. Hustle culture was unsustainable for me in the long run, and it turned out the long run had arrived earlier than expected.
It all came to a head when I got the Shingles virus, which shouldn’t happen when you’re 31. Upon examining my forehead and eye covered in the dangerous rash, the doctor said, “Have you been under any significant stress lately that might have triggered this?” All I could muster was a mix of a laugh and a sob at the same time in response— on top of everything else, I had found out the week before that my husband had cheated on me. (I didn’t say that part out loud to the doctor.)
I was told I needed to take time off, again, this time on medical leave.
But something hit differently this time. With enough people telling me to rest, when my body signaled that I had to rest, finally I was listening. I’d reached a tipping point where I wanted to find peace and quiet for the first time in my life. I was tired. I wanted stillness. I wanted to savor my time on this earth instead of maximizing it.
So, I took steps to change the pace and quality of my life. I started doing yoga for the first time, where I learned to surrender to stillness and embrace it. I told my therapist about my compulsive symptoms because I wanted help, and she supported me to slow down in those moments when I was triggered to figure out why. I moved to a different team in my department where I could control my schedule more, and I even started blocking out a daily lunch break for myself (that was big for me). I prioritized going to bed earlier so I could get more sleep. And I finally ended my tumultuous marriage. My home was more peaceful than it had ever been.
When I leaned into rest and leaned out of the hustle culture I had been living in for so long, you know what finally came into focus? My grief. Those feelings I had boxed up when my mother died? They actually had some space to peak through the lid. My agony for my father’s death that I had shoved down? It was bubbling up. And now I had new grief rearing its head with my marriage coming to an end. All of my feelings were getting some ensemble time on stage, but they each wanted a solo. It became clear to me that I couldn’t rest and grieve and work. I couldn’t do it all. More importantly, I didn’t want to do it all.
After everything that had happened, I realized that I was the thing I needed to dedicate more time to, not my work. My wellbeing was worth more than what I produced…something I’d never realized in my three decades on this earth, and my ten years of hustling toward the career I dreamed of.
At the end of 2021, I decided to swing the pendulum the other way, completely: I quit the work I had hustled for to grieve full-time, instead. I’m taking one year on what I’m calling a “Grieve Leave” to focus in on myself, to learn what grieving for all of these losses actually looks like and feels like. I recognize that my freedom to make this choice is an immense privilege. But my hope is that this year will be an investment in myself. I don’t ever want to hustle past my feelings again: I want a more balanced future where my anxiety and my grief don’t overpower me, where I pace myself instead of hustling all the time trying to outrun my feelings. I want to be at peace with my grief because I know it’s here to stay.
On the second anniversary of my father’s death this year, I had nothing but time for the first time since he died. I leaned all the way into grieving for him that day, and it was so painful. I found myself watching the clock all morning: “He wasn’t dead yet,” I thought at 11:00AM, the last time he and I had spoken on the phone on that devastating day. “Now he was dead,” I said to myself at 1:00PM. I spent the rest of the day resting, writing, visiting his grave, listening to music that he loved…I had no deadlines to meet, no meetings to attend. I’d cleared my calendar to grieve and made space for my pain. And I believe that taking it slow was the best possible thing I could’ve done with my time that day.
But even in my slowing down this year to grieve, I sometimes catch myself reverting back to my old hustle habits. Or, moreover, the state police catch me, apparently. I don't know why I was rushing down the highway the other day. But as much as I hate the blemish on my driving record, it was an important reminder that I’m in no hurry these days. Good grieving takes time.