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Alex Villa

Finding meaning in taking time off

June 01, 2021

Tempelhofer Feld at sunset, an old airport turned into park, this picture depicts the old airplane lane

This winter lasted forever. The cold leaked into the entirety of May, so much that it was hard to even walk in the streets of Berlin without a proper winter parka.

For me, it was impossible to even find a proper way to even enjoy the few rays of sunlight we had without feeling guilty for being away from my keyboard at 8pm.

I had come to accept that this never-ending stress and inability to separate work from personal free time during the week was something that comes with the trade of being a tech worker with a daily job as an international contractor for an American company.

A book, a bottle of beer, headphones and a phone at the shore of the Landwehr canal in Berlin at sunset

So in this context, taking time off wasn't a natural decision. Or easy. Or even in the realm of things that I saw as possibilities.

How could I walk from work right now? My team and I are in the middle of a proof of concept that is necessarily exploring new architectural decisions (this stuff always feels pressing), and things that need attention on the sidelines related to DEI efforts that sometimes occupy my mind for entire weekends. After all, it is often these sidelines that tell a lot of the main story.

Turns out that taking this time off with no plans was a bold form of self care that I should have explored earlier. Self-care had to go beyond taking a 10 minute walk everyday, a nap or drinking fancy tea.

It took overcoming self-consciousness, asking for what I needed and deciding to do what seemed like I could not afford to: getting a break.

The train and urban subway tracks at the industrial area of Westhafen between Wedding and Moabit in Berlin, with heavy blue clouds and the sun starting to go down in the background

Along the way, I found the friendly reminder that it is only by solving challenges that imply deriving self-confidence that I know how to move forward.

My first thought on what challenge to solve, for the sake of this eroded mental health, was to try to make it to Berlin's oldest tree, its name is "Dick Marie" (German for "Fat Marie", I know, I know).

So I grabbed my gravel bike and made my way to the northwest of the city in the search of such tree, only to realize that I was stopping every 5 minutes, just to take it all in, to explore new smells and aesthetics.

That is when I remembered that sometimes the most precious challenge is getting to be present in the journey itself. It all became about collecting these places along the way, and the emotions they evoked. I decided to not make it to the tree, not for now, but to focus on collecting the presentness in the places I was stumbling upon.

That day I realized that 5 days off work didn't have to become a challenge by themselves. All I could do for myself was being present.

Letting go of the most obvious challenges doesn't mean things are not falling into place. Things somehow did. I managed to get the vaccine appointments I had been searching for. I got to cycle more than I had in 2 years. And a nice extra? I also cleaned my closet.

My heart had extra boosts as well: I had lovely dates with my wife, dinners with friends. Had a date with myself on the open air cinema.

The view of Berlin West from Viktoriapark, a park in Kreuzberg

But as usual, it's not all wholesome days under the sun. There was a lot of rain these days, there were tears (happy and not so happy ones), there was a lot of fear. There was anxiety. Then again, I'm coming up to terms with the fact that anxiety may as well be one of those feelings that never goes away after it visits you the first time.

I did have my first panic attack in this city. It was in a techno club, years ago, after mixing substances, but above all, mixing feelings that I shouldn't have mixed. This all eventually lead to pain that forced me to grow from it, but I'm not gonna romanticize this pain. Substances give you fucked up trips. Just as much as working too much, just as much as not showing up to take care of yourself.

So part of this week wasn't about denying this pain or suppressing this anxiety. It was more about getting to know them and seeing them from up close, remembering that they are both ephemeral and permanent.

Tempelhofer Feld at sunset, people in skateboards, bycicles and playing frisby

This week left a lot of photographs. They're a message from my present self, to my future self, a reminder to collect these places, emotions and tiny challenges.

Photographs are a magical thing. They don't always even need to be viewed. But a picture can play a crucial role in our own self-narrative. It can help in reassuring ourselves of our existence. Taking it is not even about the act of sharing it outwardly. It can also be just about sending a message to our future selves.

So, here's to my future self.

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