Blogger's Digest: a Novel
I'd always been a night owl, and I was so routinely late for work that my colleagues accepted it as perfectly normal and acceptable behaviour for me, but the past few days had been different.
Almost every morning since the start of my career, I had been in the habit of pressing the snooze button on my alarm clock repeatedly, sometimes for well over an hour. I had set the time on my alarm clock, wristwatch, clocks around the house and in my car to be several minutes fast, in the hope of tricking myself into becoming a more punctual morning person, but this had not proven to be successful. I tried setting a second alarm clock, some distance from my bed, with its alarm set to be the absolute "drop dead" final time at which I could get up, and not arrive at work so late that it would upset my bosses, but I still got out of bed, pressed the snooze button on that second alarm clock and returned to the snug comfort of my bed.
It would be no exaggeration to say that for five days a week, for a period of five years, I had been subjected to routine torture. To use the word "torture" lightly might sound flippant, but the considerable psychological anguish which I suffered, routinely, for prolonged periods each day of the working week, very much fit the definition of torture even if I wasn't having my fingernails pulled out by a sadist, or some other kind of physical torture perpetrated against me.
Of course, I had an extremely well paid job which had allowed me to purchase a nice house, a summer house at the bottom of my large garden, a yacht, a sportscar and enjoy numerous luxurious holidays and ski trips every year. My life was extremely enviable. My late arrival at the office was completely tolerated, because my bosses knew that I worked hard and was highly productive, and I would stay late at the office, so I worked at least as many hours as anybody else. However, there was something about the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday office job routine which was unbearable.
In investment banking, there were times which were extremely exciting, where we worked very long hours. I didn't mind when there was an important deal we were working on, which meant I was working 12 hour days, and dealing with emails at the weekends. When I was working 80 to 100 hours a week, I generally found it much easier to get out of bed and get to work at a semi-respectable time - although never before 9:30am - and my working week was far less torturous, but the workload ebbed and flowed. We were either swamped with work, or else things were quiet and I struggled to find the motivation to get up and go to work.
We had recently delivered the bank's biggest ever deal - ten times bigger than the biggest deal that our firm had ever done. I had played a pivotal role in getting that deal over the line, because I had routinely stayed at the office until 10pm, which was essential given that we were dealing with a US client. Most of my colleagues worked until 7pm, which was fairly normal for investment banking, but there were very few who were prepared to eat dinner at their desk and go home in a taxi - especially those with young children. While our bosses were sympathetic towards the demands placed upon us in our private lives - our family responsibilities - I was the 'golden boy' because I worked more hours than anybody else on the deal; unquestionably, I was the key player responsible for ensuring we all got a very big bonus that year; the bosses were thrilled.
After the deal was completed, the team all received a 'tombstone' - a kind of trophy, made out of plexiglass, which was engraved with the details of the deal. These tombstones were a badge of honour; a feather in the cap. Investment bankers like myself collected them, and proudly displayed them in our offices, as a physical representation of how many deals we had completed. Each tombstone represented a bonus which would be sufficient to buy a small house, luxury sportscar or a yacht, but to talk about your net worth was considered vulgar, and to discuss your remuneration was expressly forbidden - telling a colleague what your salary and bonus was, would be one of the worst sackable offences which you could commit, in an investment bank. So, we had our tombstones, which boasted of how many deals we had done, implying how much money we had made for ourselves and the bank.
Why couldn't I get out of bed?
There was a certain time, after which I felt as though it was too late to saunter into the office. If I hadn't managed to extract myself from my bed and begin my preparations to go to work, I felt duty-bound to phone my boss and tell him that I was sick. For the past 3 days I had phoned in sick, and now I had a problem: I would need some kind of doctor's note to explain my extended absence from work. But, what was wrong with me?
It was now 11:30am on Thursday, and I had been absent on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, without providing any more specific detail other than that I wasn't feeling very well. Today had been by far the worst day, because there was more pressure than ever, to force myself to get up and go to the office. Officially, I should have phoned my boss at 8:30am - the start of our contractual office hours - in order to notify him that I wasn't well enough to come to work, but I had procrastinated each day until 10:30am. On this day, Thursday, I had left it until 11am, as I had desperately hoped that I would be able to motivate myself to go to work. My conversation with my boss had gone worse than expected, because he had explicitly reminded me that I would need a doctor's note to explain my absence. I had hoped that the formality would be waived, but he had been quite particular. Now I was procrastinating about phoning the doctor - what would I tell them?
When I spoke with the doctor's surgery receptionist, she informed me that I could have an appointment in 2 weeks, or else I could phone again in the morning in the hope of getting a same-day appointment, unless I needed an emergency appointment. "Do you need an emergency appointment?" she asked. I said I would phone in the morning for a same-day appointment. She urged me to be prompt, because there were a very limited number of slots available.
I awoke at 7:58am the following day - Friday - and began dialling the number for the doctor's surgery. At first I received a recorded message saying that the opening hours were from 8am, but after repeatedly redialing I was eventually greeted by hold music and told that I was in 3rd place in the queue, and that my call would be answered shortly. The recorded message also told me to hang up and dial 999 if I was having difficulty breathing or had any chest pains, which made me feel quite fraudulent: what was wrong with me? I still had not yet decided what to say to the doctor. I had no idea why I was struggling.
"Hello Pantheon Practice. Are you looking to make a same day appointment to see a doctor?" asked the receptionist.
"Yes, please" I replied.
"So we can pass this on to the doctor, what's the reason for the appointment, please?"
"I, err, I'm tired all the time. I haven't felt well enough to go to work. I haven't left my bed since Sunday, except to get food and use the bathroom" I said, putting into words the nondescript nature of my malaise, for the very first time.
"Ok, I've booked you in at 11:30am with Dr. Weber. Please try to be on time and let us know as soon as possible if you need to cancel or re-book the appointment."PI had been dreading being unable to get a doctor's appointment, having to phone in sick, and anxious that I would not be able to retrospectively obtain a doctor's note if I was feeling better again on Monday. I was hugely relieved that I was now able to phone my boss at 8:40am, and say that I had a doctor's appointment later that day. I struggled to control a slightly triumphant note in my voice: I had felt fraudulent earlier in the week, saying that I was too unwell to go to work, when I was merely tired and demotivated, but now this doctor's appointment gave my torturous situation some slight medically-endorsed legitimacy, although I did not yet possess the sick note that I required. I hadn't been to the doctor since I was a 13 year old boy, when I had an ear infection - 14 consecutive years had elapsed since then, without any contact with a doctor, with the exception of some travel inoculations administered by a nurse.
My appointment with Dr. Weber - a rather stern looking German lady in her fifties - consisted of a curt consultation lasting perhaps no longer than a few minutes.
"What seems to be the problem, Mr. Phillips?" she asked.
"I feel tired all the time. I haven't been able to get up and go to work all week" I replied, feeling rather ashamed that my complaint was so pathetic.
"Have you been under a lot of pressure at work recently? Working very hard?"
"Yes. We just completed an important project."
"Working long hours?" she asked.
"Yes. Very. I suppose an average of at least 80 per week". Her eyes widened in amazement. "It's quite normal in investment banking to work those kind of hours" I said, somewhat defensively.
"You are suffering from burnout, no? I'm signing you off for two weeks. What do you want me to write on doctor's note? Work stress or mental health problems?"
This was an extremely important question: a considerable number of thoughts raced through my head while I attempted to reach a decision. To say that it was work stress which had caused my absence from work was probably the most accurate, but it would suggest that I was weak and unable to handle the demands placed upon me. To be branded with the label of "mentally unwell" was also undesirable, and liable to be career limiting, if my colleagues thought I had an illness which would make me unreliable.
"I never had any health problems before. Could it be something else? I feel so tired all the time" I said, hoping for another more palatable option.
"OK I write awaiting blood test results. We do thyroid test and HIV test" Dr. Weber said, affixing a sticky label onto the sick note I needed, and scribbling in some other details. "Tell reception you need blood sample" she said, selecting a form where she ticked a number of boxes, before handing it to me, turning to face her computer, and starting to type.
I sat, a little shocked at how quickly and abruptly things had gone, and uncertain as to whether the consultation was over.
With a barely disguised sigh of frustration, Dr. Weber turned to me and asked "was there anything else I can help you with today Mr. Phillips?"
As I stepped outside the doctor's surgery onto the street, I noticed that it was a pleasant late-Spring day; unseasonably warm. I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. The relentless pressure which had been inescapable since the day I started school, and especially the period where I had important exams, had carried through to university and then my full-time career. For the first time in 16 or maybe 17 years, I held in my hand a medically sanctioned piece of paper which excused me from the enormous pressures I had faced both academically, and in the world of work.
It felt terrific, knowing that I could spend the next two weeks free from the tyranny and torture of the alarm clock and its snooze button.