Take the Vacation

by Megan Reynolds

I have been lucky enough to work in jobs where I am given paid time off, but I usually don’t take it. The big chunk of free time hanging over my head makes me nervous, as if I’ll spend it incorrectly, or I won’t have the maximum amount of fun and relaxation that I should for something as exciting and generous as free time off. I always mean to take the vacation time I’m given: I make half-baked plans to visit friends in other states, or spend my lunch break browsing all-inclusive deals in the Dominican Republic, but usually, I wait too long to buy the ticket or take the time off. Plane fare goes up, the deals disappear, and because I’m extremely bad at remembering to do personal administrative tasks, I forget to ask for the days off. This year, I am going to try to go on vacation.

When I was younger, my sister would stress herself out so much about homework that my father would assign her mandatory “mental health” days, so she could stay home and not freak out about the stressful impending due dates of social studies, or whatever it is middle-school kids worry about. Now, as adults, we are all my sister, puttering away at our desks, in front of our computers, striving under deadlines and writing reports and doing all the mindless drudgery that makes up work in 2015. We sigh and say that we need a vacation, but, even when presented with the generous and bountiful gift of unlimited time off, we freeze. We are too busy to take a break. The world will stop spinning and your email will pile up if you turn your phone off and go somewhere out of cell phone service for a week.

There’s a weird sense of guilt attached to taking time off, like I should be working and making money instead of spending the money I kind of have. We didn’t go on a lot of vacations growing up because there wasn’t much money. I have embodied this in my professional life. It’s cool when an employer supports you enough to understand that you need to put down the laptop, push away from your desk and go away for a week, while still getting paid. But, I rarely take this opportunity when presented. The last job that I left, I got all my vacation time paid out in one big, solid paycheck that felt like a tax return in the middle of the year — an unexpected bonus. This is what you worked for, I told myself as I quietly moved the money to my savings account. I was dependable, I worked, I earned it. My paid time off, cashed out in one tidy sum, is like a savings account I didn’t need to think about.

Planning a vacation still feels like something that’s a little bit out of reach, like a level in this game that I probably won’t be able to unlock anytime soon. I am an excellent planner: I plan meals. I plan blocks of time to read or get my hair cut. I love planning. But, when that planning involves stacks of money thrown at a goal that flickers faintly in the distance, I get cold feet.

Spending large amounts of money on just one thing that isn’t a tangible object I can slip in my bag and take home makes me distinctly uncomfortable. This is why vacations are so prickly. They feel frivolous, like taking vast handfuls of my hard earned cash, crumpling it up into little balls and lighting it on fire. Sitting on a beach in February while everyone else I know is working, sipping something nice out of a coconut and listening to the waves lap against the shore feels unnecessary, luxurious, like something that I haven’t quite fully earned yet. Why do I deserve this vacation? Shouldn’t I be working like everyone else?

But burnout is very real. Maintaining a real work-life balance is another thing to remember to keep track of, like cleaning out the weird stuff from your humidifier every week. We need to take vacations — actual, real vacations, in which emails are ignored and phone calls go unanswered, because the mind needs a chance to reset. I have done it a few times, grumbling all the way and then returning from wherever I was, rested, renewed and full of enthusiasm for a job that I didn’t care about. Time away from the hustle and the stress is necessary, even if all you’re doing is taking a week off to stay in your city and just not work. Sometimes, that’s better than actually leaving.

I started a new job recently, and in between gigs, I took a week off. I had grand plans of going to New Orleans to visit a friend, or flying back to California to see my mom, but something about the idea of spending lots of money during a week when I wasn’t making any seemed unsettling. I stayed at home, instead, and did things that I am loath to do on the weekends but am glad to do when everyone else is at work. I cleaned out my closet. I sold books at the Strand. I spent an entire day in the house, watching The Wire and knitting. The staycation is underrated, but also potentially dangerous. Winter is cold and the desire to leave the house is little. Take the staycation in the summer months, when you can whittle away a day laying in some grassy veldt somewhere, lazily turning the pages of a book and drinking a lot of iced tea.

I spent a lot of time at home, which was good for the first two or three days, but by day four, that undercurrent of uselessness started to seep in. I have a problem with idleness. It stirs up the latent anxiety that lies beneath. The quiet thoughts about being purposeful, staying connected, writing, reading, doing, start to raise their voices the longer I step away. I made a conscious choice not to do anything work-related while I wasn’t working, but by the end of the week, I started to feel antsy. I haven’t done enough with my time off, I kept thinking. I haven’t gone to a museum. I haven’t seen a movie. I have behaved as if it were just one long weekend, that stretched out nebulously over five days. I didn’t really need this, I told myself. I should be working now.

I had not gone anywhere or done anything for myself in a long time. I went to a job every day, did it passably well, and then got a new job. My life moved forward, and I saw a chance for a break. I took it. Listen closely. Adults earn vacation time. Take the vacation.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

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