The Inverse of Work Addiction

by Only Black Kid in the Kindergarten Class

Dear “Only Black Guy in the Office,” I suffer from the disease of workaholism. However, this isn’t the kind that is usually praised, and is held like a badge of honor. I would say the disease arose in me, in part due to the perceived need to over-excel as a Black American.

But, I am speaking of being clinically work addicted. When I tell people that I am one of the founding members of the New England chapter of Workaholics Anonymous (WA), I’m usually greeted with laughter, as if I’m being facetious. I’m not. WA is a popular international association firmly rooted in the 12 & 12 traditions originated by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Workaholism, in the tradition of the disease concept of addiction, IS NOT defined at its heart by working too much. It is defined by the endemic behavior pattern of defining oneself by one’s work, by one’s output, by one’s doing. Indeed, a nickname for work addiction is doing addiction. And, the behavior pattern is a symptom of the disease of addiction. In other words, the disease comes first, the symptom — drug abuse, morbid obesity, sex and/or romance addiction, compulsive gambling— are the ways in which the disease of addiction manifests in individuals.

Workaholism resolves itself into the belief and acting on the belief that no amount of “great work” or “successful work” is good enough.

I am writing you, my dear “Only Black Guy in the Office,” because at age 67 I woke up about twelve years ago with an aberration to the disease that I could never have imagined when I was your age: I woke up with work anorexia. Yes, it’s not complicated, but its very real; it is the inverse and twin sister of work addiction. “Only Black Guy,” you could never have told me that I would reach a time in my life when I would be shut down regarding work. Indeed, I watched my father literally die of work addiction: He went into his ‘80’s defined by his work. When at age 85 he could no longer work, he died immediately at age 87.

Work anorexia isn’t about old age, and it’s not about being physically tired or mentally exhausted. It’s about being shut down. It is ultimately an emotional and spiritual disorder. It is the flip side of defining oneself by ones produce or by ones productivity. It is the same thing, but it renders me unable to work altogether. I don’t over work. I don’t try harder. I stop working altogether.

I’m writing you to warn you. If you do not address your disease clinically, it may turn into something even more horrible. Yes, it is hard to survive financially (right?) with no income. But, this is just one of the issues associated with work anorexia. You think you feel bad about yourself for being under-productive? Imagine how your work-identified self would feel if you were totally shut down and could not work at all?

I’m writing as a part of the process of self-healing, as an exercise in self care. I want you to consider how much worse it can get. In the mean time, I’m going to take my own advise and keep doing my work on myself so that I do not succumb to the disease of addiction in any of its iterations.