Musings on Exhaustion

Finally, this tax season is at an end.

Not quite, though, on account that the extended returns need to get done before September/October. But the big push has passed, and I am honestly not even sure how I managed it. But I got through it.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I’m fairly good at it; not the best but I’m good at it. For someone who didn’t come out of college with an accounting degree or a CPA accreditation, I am good at what I do. I earned my preparer’s credentials with hard work and experience, and it’ll be the same way I’ll earn my EA accreditation.

But dear gods I am tired. Not just in the usual post-season tired, but this is an exhaustion that’s creeping into my very bones and is making itself at home.

I’ve acquired a lot more knowledge this season, which made work a LOT better, but came to two major realizations:

  1. I absolutely need another pair of eyes working with me.
  2. Being left alone is a job requirement, because I can’t focus worth a damn if I’m pulled in 5 directions at once.

It’s contradictory, but because the nature of my brain is to try and work through as much as I can for everyone, I keep too many things in my head at once, and if someone asks me for help, I shift gears right away to help them. Client needs computer help? Sure, let me pop in via remote access. Sudden notice from a taxing agency? I’ll sort out the nastygram and we’ll fix it. Partner at firm having printing issues? Send it to me.

But that’s how shit slips. That’s how things don’t get completed, with me being pulled 10 ways from Sunday, and I will be the first to say I’m guilty of doing too much. I did get better at catching myself on that, but what I need is a partner, rather than a supervisor. When there’s something I’m stuck on, the first thing I do is try to talk it out loud and make sense of it, but talking to myself is no good way to work in an open office. Thus? I need a partner to work and talk through with.

And being left alone – well, it’s about the interruptions. I don’t mind helping people – I relish it, in fact. I’ve been a go-to person for a while, and as I’m taking on more and more client relations, this translates to my phone/intercom ringing. Which means interruptions. Which means I have to switch gears on a dime. And unfortunately, because prolonged stress and sleep deprivation eats short-term memory first, what does this translate to?

Yeah.

I am sure I won’t get my own office, it’s nice to dream, but no. But I would like to, at least, limit the interruptions, or master a way of controlling them.

But again… dear gods, I’m tired.

This year, I’ve worked three straight weeks through up to deadline. Not even Sundays for a break. We work Saturdays in tax season as a standard, and we expect those – hey, for me, it’s an excuse to have sushi afterwards (not that I need much of a reason; I love sushi). But Sundays are something I consider next to sacrosanct when it comes to the stretch between February and April. That’s the only time I get to sleep, do basic chores like my laundry, clean up, and all-around relax. Not this time, though. This time, it was an absolutely frenzied, frenetic stretch and sleep was, to say the least, at a premium. My short-term memory is shot-to-hell, I’ve taken to writing and emailing about the most basic things just to keep a trail of things for myself. Almost passed out on the subway a couple times from the sheer exhaustion. And let’s be clear on this: in sleep deprivation, the next thing that happens is that I lose chunks of time from my memory. I blank out on hours during the day. I do, do, do, help, help, help… and lose track of time. Or forget cleanly what I’ve done right up until I stop. I’d do something, give it to review, but ask me the same day how I came up with X journal entry… it’ll take me a good 15 minutes before I could answer.

For me, this is not normal. I may be tired as all get-out, but before, no matter how badly I was exhausted, I could always keep track of everything. Maybe it’s the getting-older bit… I was 22 when I worked my first tax season, and that wasn’t much of a preparer capacity, and I had no problem keeping my head straight then. But losing chunks of time? Yeah. That is not normal. Granted, I’m only 31, but even at 31, I would imagine I’m still sharp enough to keep track of things. And it is not pleasant for me to realize that keeping track of things is not something that comes easily to me anymore.

I’m no spring chicken anymore, for sure. Certainly, I don’t have the energy or verve I had when I was in my twenties – if anyone were to ask me to turn around to another city for a gig, the 25-year-old me would’ve said “Sure!”. The 31-year-old me would raise an eyebrow and say, “You’re out of your damn mind.” But I’m noticing changes in my overall energy levels for other things. The long, long walks I’d take through the city every summer – I’d love to do them, but not sure how long I’d be able to keep going, when before, I’d spend hours just walking around and taking in the sights. Getting on the subway is a reflex now, but I’m actually starting to notice how draining it is.

My mom, who spent her entire life working as hard as I am working now, who is now happily enjoying being retired, knows the symptoms and recognizes them. Indeed, and I do too, for I’ve seen them in herself. “Fatigue,” she told me. “And a chronic lack of sleep. You need rest – actual, real rest.”

I wish I could allow myself that, truly.

It makes me think, actually, of Maria Fernandes. She was a girl in Jersey, who made the news when she died in her car. She had three jobs. She took a nap in her car between the jobs – but she forgot to turn it off. And died of the fumes as a result. She worked herself to a state of fatigue that made it hard to remember the most easy things. And that’s what killed her. Whatever the other circumstances in her life were, it boils down to one thing: she was bone-tired. And the effect was the same: lack of sleep. Memory lapse. And… forgetting to do something basic.

It makes me think of the general work culture in this country.

One hundred years ago, the working class had taken to the streets to demand fair wages, basic safety precautions, and the chant of, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will!” is the reason that the modern workday is the eight hours that it is today. History, my readers, is the greatest of teachers.

But right now, we’re finding ourselves back to that battle. The reality is, a workday does not last eight hours. Commuting time adds on. Overtime. Projects. Deadlines. It’s never this clear-cut or simple. But right now, with equal pay once again a topic of debate, with things like paid family leave being discussed and curtailed… what, then, does this create as far as a culture at work? People are being cut down to just the cogs that they are in the company wheel, and sometimes it feels that nearly everyone in charge in any capacity forgets the very basic, very simple part: these are human beings, with human lives.

It’s a sad state of affairs when people need to remind their own employers that we are more than our jobs.

Don’t get me wrong: I know exactly what I signed up for. My accounting world is what it is; from January to April, I expect every last bit of what I got. Not the whole memory-blank thing, but the working long hours and basically ceasing to exist in any medium outside tax work . If you’ve seen my FB posts, then you know I do a House Rules type of deal right before season gets started: do not call me, do not ask me to do anything non-tax-related, do not at all interfere with me surviving tax season unless you’re bringing wine. I’m sure every single accountant does something similar.

But – I also have a mom, who honestly would like to see me more than once a week, even though we live together, and is Gently Concerned (read: extremely worried) about the whole working-to-the-ground thing. I also have friends, who have, at some point, seen me collapse into a seat somewhere, shaking with exhaustion. Back when things were still good with a friend of mine, he was yea-close to feeding me someone else’s food because apparently, I looked like death warmed over in April of… 2011? And I won’t lie: what about me? I know my coworkers need me, but I need me too. I need me a lot and I feel like I’ve poured from an empty cup for at least the past two years.

And what about my other friends in the industry? Who have children, families whom they don’t see because of crazy hours?

We do it. I’ll tell you this: no matter how hard the season will get, no matter how tempers flare: we grit our teeth and do what we must do. We have to. Because this is what happens when people depend on us. We set aside all of that and we. do. what. we. need. to.

I’m not asking for a vacation – I have vacation days that I can take, that’s hardly the point. I’m asking for the very basic things like not passing out on the subway, and/or to regain my short-term memory. Hidden-object puzzles help with the latter, though. But this is my career – I know exactly what I signed up for. Still, some things aren’t exactly par for the course.

Not that I’m going anywhere. Stressful or not, I enjoy my work. Both the numeric and the creative.

K.G.

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2 thoughts on “Musings on Exhaustion

  1. Excellent commentary; especially the part about taking vacation. I find that the stress of work waiting on you when you return makes me need another vacation before the first one is over.

    1. Same here. What I found is that the kind of exhaustion that seeps into your bones is rarely remedied with time off. I watch my mom; she used to come home just as bedraggled as I am now, and she retired at Xmas. She now had 3 and a half months and she still hasn’t fully slept off the exhaustion. But as her friend told her: don’t expect twenty plus years to be washed away in a day.

      I think it’ll be me in 30 years. I’ll work myself to that end too. At what cost though?

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