Chained to the Desk: Work May Be the Great Unexamined Therapy Issue of Our Time

By Robinson, Bryan | Family Therapy Networker, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview

Chained to the Desk: Work May Be the Great Unexamined Therapy Issue of Our Time


Robinson, Bryan, Family Therapy Networker


There was a time when I needed my work--and hid it from others--the way my alcoholic father needed and hid his bourbon. And just as I once tried to control my father's drinking by pouring out his booze and refilling the bottle with vinegar, the people who loved me sulked, pleaded and tore their hair out trying to keep me from working all the time. Every summertime, for instance, just before we left on vacation, my life partner, Jamey, would search my bags and confiscate any work I planned to smuggle into our rented beach house on the South Carolina shore. But however thoroughly he searched, he would always miss the tightly folded papers covered with work notes that I had stuffed into the pockets of my jeans.

Later, when Jamey and our close friends invited me to stroll on the beach, I'd say I was tired and wanted to nap. While they were off swimming and playing in the surf--which I considered a big waste of time--I secretly worked in the empty house, bent over a lap desk fashioned from a board. At the sound of their returning footsteps, I'd stuff my papers back into my jeans, hide the board and stretch out on the bed, pretending to be asleep.

I saw nothing strange about my behavior; it's only in hindsight that I say that I was a workaholic. By this, I mean something quite different from saying I worked hard. I mean that I used work to defend myself against unwelcome emotional states--to modulate anxiety, sadness and frustration, the way a pothead uses dope and an alcoholic uses booze. 

Since childhood, work had been my sanctuary--my source of stability, self-worth and meaning, and my protection against the uncertainties of human relationships. In elementary school, the subject I hated the most was recess. When a teacher forgot to assign homework over Christmas vacation, I was the one who raised his hand to remind her. In high school, I wrote, directed and produced the church Christmas play, also designing and building the sets and acting the lead role of Joseph. Doing everything for the play gave me a sense of control and mastery missing from my chaotic family home, where furniture-breaking fights between my mother and my father were a regular occurrence.

As an adult, the thought of a vacation or weekend without work was terrifying to me, and I structured my life accordingly. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, I carried a full college teaching load and volunteered for committee assignments, while also writing books, conducting research and establishing a full clinical practice. Ignoring Jamey's frequent pleas that we "just do something together," I would work in my windowless office in our basement through evenings, weekends, Thanksgivings and Christmases. I even worked through most of the day of my father's funeral: while my mother and sisters broke bread with our old neighbors, I was in my university office 25 miles away, working on a project so insignificant that I no longer remember what it was.

In a society based on overwork, my behavior had plenty of camouflage. Flextime, 24-hour Wal-Marts and laptops have vaporized the boundaries that once kept work from engulfing the sacred hours of Shabbat, Sunday and the family dinnertime. Likewise, the modem, cell phone and pager have blurred the spatial boundaries between workplace and home: anyone can fax a memo at midnight from the kitchen table, bend over a laptop on an island in paradise or call the office via cell phone from the ski lift. But work performed in exotic environments is still work, however much we tell ourselves it's play. And when any place can be a workplace and any hour is worktime, some people will work themselves to death, just as some people will drink themselves to death in a culture in which any hour is cocktail hour. 

Little in our present culture--and precious few therapists--teach workaholics when or how to say no. According to a 1998 study by the Families and Work Institute in New York, the average American worker now clocks 44 hours of work per week, an increase of 3. …

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