The Retirement Guilt Monster

On behalf of a friend recently retired, I dragged out this discarded post and decided to publish it after all…

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I took early retirement, I was prepared for others’ envy. Envy – but not resentment.  That reaction surprised, even shocked me.

But there was another reaction for which I was unprepared, and it was not directed at me by other people, but all my very own: guilt.

It crept up on me slowly. For the first three weeks or so of my retirement, all I experienced was a lessening of stress – which was, in itself, surprising, since I spent the first week of my new-found freedom sick as the proverbial dog.  I’d actually become sick on the weekend prior to my last day of work, which happened to fall on a Monday.  Had I not been retiring, there was simply no way I’d have dragged myself into the office that final day.  I’d a night of abdominal pain so bad that I’d laid moaning and sleepless, so normally I would have called in sick. But the rules for State employees required that an employee be physically present in the office on one’s last day, so there I sat, finishing the very last of my work while waves of pain rippled through my abdomen.

Not an auspicious start to my retirement, but as I kept telling everyone, after that experience, I had nowhere to go but up. The illness passed and I began the half-dozen projects I’d determined on as soon as I retired, while new projects proliferated like rabbits.  I found myself constantly busy.

But after about three weeks, I began to feel that my “vacation” should be over. It was hard for me to recall that this was not a vacation; it was the second half of my life.  And that’s when the nasty little bugger began to tiptoe into my consciousness: guilt.

Why on earth was I so lucky, so privileged? What had I done to deserve this peaceful existence?  Never mind that I’d worked full-time since I was 18, sometimes (often)  for bosses so awful that they should have had a starring role in their own sitcoms; how was it that I had been fortunate enough to merit this freedom?

As the fall ended and icy, biting winter days began, and I lay in bed, snug and warm, while the people I’d once worked with struggled into the office. Guilt.  I had all the time in the world for errands; I was rarely rushed.  Guilt.  I got terribly sick again, this time with a horrible respiratory illness, and I didn’t need to call in sick or worry about the work piling up on my desk.  Guilt.   A couple of former coworkers called or e-mailed me with office problems that no one else knew how to solve.  Guilt.

The guilt feelings gnawed at me, limiting my enjoyment of my newfound freedom, until I finally grappled with them and wrestled them into submission…usually. I’ve learned that the days when time hangs heavy on my hands—when I’ve run short on projects, when there are few errands to run, when I have no “Master Plan” for the day—then the shadow of the Guilt Monster will sometimes loom over me.  Those are the days I have to recite chapter and verse of my “why it is okay for me to be retired” manual.  And when that fails to do the trick, as it sometimes does, I call upon my Inner Caretaker and find something to do for someone else—something to support a person who is still caught in the endless rush of work/home/school/children, and needs a helping hand as necessary chores pile up.  The sort of helping hand that I would once have been so delighted to be offered.

Reaching out to assist another makes the Guilt Monster slide into submission, at least for a little while. I am retired, not lethargic.  Productive, not idle.  It’s okay, dammit, okay!

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