Sun, sand and desexing stray street dogs

SOME people are truly excellent at being on holiday. They gradually unwind rather than frantically burning out in the final weeks of work and never fall hideously ill the moment they turn the key in the beach-house door.

These well-adjusted individuals ignore pressure to maximise their annual break by commencing triathlon training or translating Proust. Instead, they allow their bodies and minds to grow fat and farty on Christmas ham, languishing in great swaths of unstructured time with their loved ones and refusing to give a tinker’s cuss if they’re busted reading bodice-rippers on the beach.

They return to work rested, relaxed and rejuvenated.

Sonia Craig* is very different to these people. Her dirty little secret is that she’s hopeless at holidays. The 30-year-old Sydney vet craves them and counts the sleeps until they arrive. But, by the end of day one, she’s a mess.

“When I went to Bali my husband lounged by the pool in the villa,” she says. “Once I’d raced around, taken photos and sent about 10 postcards (all on day one), I was going nuts so I spent some time desexing mangy street dogs for a local charity. Finally I was able to relax.”

Dave Richardson* is the same. The 42-year-old stockbroker only takes breaks to keep his girlfriend happy. He says his fantasy is to live in Japan where citizens only have to suffer annual leave for an average of eight days a year.

“What kind of workaholic freak finds 12-hour days in the hellfires of the financial sector more enjoyable than kicking back on the beach?” he says.

“Yet when I’m lying round watching the telly or hanging out, I always have this nagging feeling I’m wasting time I should be enjoying. Last year, the girlfriend insisted on a no-laptops-in-Fiji rule and I lied about forgetting to pay the rent online so I had an excuse to check my e-mail in an internet cafe.”

Mental health specialists have known perfectionist Type A personalities have trouble switching off for as long as they’ve known about perfectionist Type A personalities. According to Sydney psychotherapist Marie-Pierre Cleret, many people struggle to enjoy their holidays because they automatically schedule an Everest of work-esque activities.

“The idea of using holidays to rest, recuperate, and reconnect is not one that many people apply consciously,” Cleret says. “Some commence an unrealistic regime of exercise or home renovation and spring cleaning then cave in part-way and feel bad about not being able to follow it through to the planned end. I think there’s pressure about enjoying time off, with an emphasis on a prepackaged view of what enjoying should look like.”

Craig first realised she had a problem with holidays as a child when she got frustrated, depressed, irritable and bored on weekends. Unlike all the other kids, she was desperate to return to school.

“Now, every year is the same,” she says. “I think I’ll wind down and relax, but I’m just lying to myself. The first thing I do when I go on holidays is set up a little office, make a neat pile of the books I intend to churn through while on the break and establish communications with the rest of the world. I then get up at the crack of dawn and start ticking tasks off my list, so I treat my holiday like some sort of job. To be honest, the prospect of a month on a desert island fills me with dread.”

Many people find Craig’s behaviour bizarre, so she now fibs when asked about her weekend or holiday breaks: “I say, `Oh, I chilled out and had such a good time,’ but anyone who knows me must see through it. Then if someone says, `Wouldn’t it be nice to go to Micronesia and sit around?’ I agree. It’s too much effort to explain otherwise.”

Richardson, meanwhile, says he misses the 1980s when engaging in conspicuous work during holiday breaks was a status symbol.

“Back then you looked like a big shot if your pager went off on the beach or you pulled out a spreadsheet at the pool bar,” he says. “These days people look at you like you’re Patrick Bateman [the murderous investment banker from the Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho]. Can’t a guy take a mobile phone call on a massage table without automatically being labelled a necrophiliac cannibal yuppy psychopath?”

Cleret says enjoying one’s work more than one’s holidays is fine so long as health and relationships don’t suffer. She does, however, suggest revisiting stereotypical ideas about what relaxing holidays are supposed to look like, learning to take time-out during non holiday periods and — quelle horreur — adding “banish all to-do lists” to your holiday to-do list.

* Craig is using a pseudonym because she’s worried her clients will think she’s “a total nut job”. Richardson’s name has been changed because his girlfriend doesn’t realise the reason he asked Santa for a waterproof mobile phone is so he can take it snorkelling. 

- originally published in The Australian on 30-12-2009.

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