By Sara Church
I spent much of my childhood living below the poverty level. My mother was a crystal meth addict. We lived in a drug-infested house; I have memories of waking up on Christmas morning to find my mother crumpled on the floor, smoking rock with her boyfriend, a vacant look in her eyes. One summer I lived in a tent. All of this caused me anxiety and distress.
Filled with shame, I became hooked on receiving external validation as I grew older, first through my studies and ultimately, through my career. I put myself through college by working two jobs: one with campus catering, the other in the business school office. I managed my time meticulously, never sleeping past 8 a.m., never watching TV and always staying focused in class to reduce study time. After college, I got my graduate degree at night.
Today, I’m a successful biotech executive. You could say that the need to overcome the shame of poverty and parental addiction played a role in driving me to work hard and succeed. My work is more than a career to me: It is a calling deep in my core. I feel humbled and privileged to be part of the overall healthcare ecosystem and care deeply about serving patients.
But hard work wasn’t all it took for me to get where I am today: I also needed to overcome the trauma that the childhood poverty and parental addiction I experienced led to. It was a long and arduous journey. For years, I battled a perplexing, self-destructive impulse that drove me to sabotage relationships—including my marriage. Throwing myself into my work in an unhealthy way was a way of escaping pain and avoiding confronting the past.
William Oates, a psychologist, has been credited with coining the term “workaholism” and defined it as “the compulsion or uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the definition has three components: “1) Feeling compelled to work because of internal pressures. 2) Having persistent thoughts about work when not working. 3) Working beyond what is reasonably expected of the worker (as established by the requirements of the job or basic economic needs) despite the potential for negative consequences (e.g., marital issues).”
I missed the signs that my marriage was crumbling as I buried myself in my work, including checking emails during dinner, dialing into work meetings on vacation, and putting in extra hours on nights and weekends. My supervisors at the time did not expect me to work this hard and tried to encourage me to have better work life balance. When I tried to put my phone away after work hours, I would start to feel eager to work and either pick up my phone or pick up a nonfiction book about something in the field I was working such as cell biology textbooks (I am not a scientist). I didn’t understand that overworking was a means of distracting myself from turmoil around me and within me.
My marriage ultimately failed and it sent me on a quest to understand what was happening with my inner life. For so long, I ignored a quiet nudge inside of me that whispered that something was off. Ultimately, I was referred to a trauma specialist and diagnosed with complex PTSD. It was caused by a series of traumatic child experiences over time. It turns out, this is not uncommon. According to the CDC, 61% of us have had at least one “adverse childhood experience” which can leave lasting traumatic imprints that may impact us decades later including relationships and our physical health.
Unresolved trauma manifests in different ways for different people including substance abuse, anxiety, perfectionism, overeating, sleep problems, and physical pain. For me, it showed up as workaholism and nightmares during times of high stress. The good news is there are treatments. I religiously attended my weekly therapy appointments and was treated with EMDR.
I’m still dedicated and passionate about the work I do and feel a calling to serve patients. The difference now is that when I sit down to eat dinner with my family, I am present at the dining room table and don’t have the urge to look at my phone between bites. When I take my son to soccer on Saturdays, I am fully engaged in the moment with him. This strengthens my relationships with others. I am able, at last, to say I worked my way not only to a successful career, but also, to a successful, satisfying life.