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New York I love you, but you’re wearing me down

I realised quickly this city has only two modes: working and sleeping (or trying to)

‘I have everything on my doorstep and not one drop of time to do any of it because for me, and the almost nine million other inhabitants of New York, this is Work Town.’ Photograph: Maribel de la Torre

Until recently, my workplace was a desk in a modern co-working space with fancy chairs, free coffee and popcorn Wednesdays. I am a playwright, which isn’t technically a job, it’s more of an affliction (or infliction, depending on the day). Once upon a time, I had a home office in the shape of a second bedroom that I reluctantly gave up once my child learned to speak and say, “I have no room for my toys”.

Playwriting is not a high stakes game. The money is generally terrible, the productivity is usually low, and the impact on the world economy is minimal. You write plays because you have to. And also maybe because you are qualified for absolutely nothing else but mostly because it is, sadly, a sort of sadistic calling.

This, in itself, is stressful. What I wouldn’t give to have been born a banker, or a doctor, or anything other than a woman who wants to write things and get paid for it.

I live in New York, one of the greatest cities in the world. And it is great. It’s an amazing place full of adventure, wonder, and excitement. It’s got museums, theatres, galleries, parks, clubs, bars, restaurants, shops, and all the other cool things a cosmopolitan metropolis ought to have. I have everything on my doorstep and not one drop of time to do any of it because for me, and the almost nine million other inhabitants of New York, this is Work Town.

I emigrated here in 2010 with a proud sense of my own work ethic. I realised pretty quickly that a whole chunk of New York has only two modes: working and (trying to) sleep. Workdays bleed into nights and erode any sense of on/off. In this city, you’re constantly on. Laptops and phones are often on in my home at 11pm because careers don’t build themselves and it’s still office hours somewhere on the planet.

People in New York go to enormous lengths to cope with the stress of living in New York, myself included. There’s a group or class for almost any type of stress-reduction and I’d bet that at least half the city is medicated. Every night in New York is a battle for rest in the city that never sleeps. Literally. Some nights it’s a construction site at full throttle at 3am, others it’s a car alarm, a casual street fight, an impatient taxi-driver, or sometimes it’s street karaoke night. This city’s endless capacity to exhaust its citizens is astounding.

In my 20s, work-life balance was something you had in your 30s. On the cusp of not being in my 30s anymore, I stare at those two words as though they are two unicorns standing on a rainbow. From where I’m sitting (slouched at my kitchen table), there is no work-life balance in New York. But this city never promised that. It never said, “come to New York where everything will be harmonious and you’ll feel super chill”. You know why you come to this city: for the madness of it all, for the undiluted craziness of millions of people trying to get coffee or a box of pre-washed kale at the same time.

In October 2015, I jumped into the deep end of activism with #WakingTheFeminists. The time difference between Dublin and New York gave me extra hours in the day to throw everything I had at this thing that I cared so passionately about. At the same time, I wrote a TV pilot, rewrote a play, helped my daughter start school, became a basketball coach, spoke at events and generally got into trouble. The non-stop environment I was living in gave me the energy to overextend myself, say yes to everything, organize and galvanize until seven months later I couldn’t get out of bed. I had pushed myself so hard I was completely depleted, physically and mentally.

I was diagnosed with depression. I was in chronic back pain. I started a yoga class. I pretended to meditate. Occasionally, I would walk in the park. But I still believed that I was being lazy if I wasn’t actively working all, the, time.

I’ve come to realise that as long as I live in New York, my back will hurt. My skin will break out. I’ll always be tired. Days will melt into nights and weeks will speed into months and time will evaporate. Horns will honk and the sirens will never stop. Here I can do things I could never do at home, like, meet Gloria Steinem and Meryl Streep, or know where Pizza Rat lives. But it all comes at a price. It’s the New York tax: you can have it all, but to get it, it might take it all.

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