The restorative power of taking a few days out

When a personal tragedy forced Sali Hughes to take some time off, it was comforting, healing and surprisingly necessary

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By Sali Hughes on

Last week, I had a duvet day. Or, more precisely – and in the interest of full disclosure – I had four duvet days. It was completely necessary. A close friend had died while I was visiting and I’d got straight off the train from Glasgow, into a Brighton taxi, through my front door, out of my tear- and snot-stained clothes and into my dressing gown, almost in one silent, fluid movement, and there I remained, wholly inactive and wallowing in grief and my own filth, for the remainder of the week.

It occurred to me as I briefly emerged from my stupor in order to type an out-of-office email bounceback, politely telling anyone who wanted me that they’d no chance of getting me, that I hadn’t done this in literally years. When I had my second child, I made practically no allowances for myself, to the extent that I have vivid memories of standing in the janitor’s closet in the Grazia loos for my entire lunch hour, sorrowfully pumping breastmilk with one hand and eating a chicken-stuffing sandwich with the other (I was under no obligation to accept the work, I might add). When my father died, I just carried on, hoping that normality would heal me and that some kindly person would notice I wasn’t actually in the least bit OK. 

Last year, the busiest of my career, I took a grand total of two days off (aside from a one-week holiday in Cornwall – I can switch off if physically away from home) and worked like a lunatic to free up those. It’s not like I’m some oil tycoon or indispensable public servant, either. The world can carry on perfectly well without me. For whatever self-sabotaging reason, I just don’t really stop, unless something forces my hand.

Instead of the flatness I’d felt when trying to work through trauma, my emotions felt vivid, visceral and heightened within the safety of my own home

And so it did. My friend died, and I did the unthinkable and asked for time off work. Instead of writing, I watched multiple episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, followed by a double bill of Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally. Rather than wading through news stories, looking for column inspiration, I sat under fleecy blankets and read junk-mail catalogues, engrossed in the world of equestrian wear and oversized pashminas for the first and last time in my life. Instead of getting in late from London and wearily tapping the Deliveroo app for anything hot and edible, I made chicken noodle soup and a huge chilli, and decanted them into portion-sized Tupperware. 

The day lost all of its urgency and much of its shape – only my son arriving home each afternoon at 4pm reminded me of where I was in proceedings, and I was constantly surprised by how fast that came around. Over the course of my bed-in, my brain gradually slowed to a pace at which my feelings could overwhelm my thoughts and I started to cry, to mope, wail and, weirdly, to laugh hysterically at my boyfriend’s admirable attempts to cheer me (I have honestly rarely giggled so much, and under such awful circumstances). Instead of the flatness I’d felt when trying to work through trauma, my emotions felt vivid, visceral and heightened within the safety of my own home.

Clearly, I don’t recommend that anyone loses a friend to cancer in order to make them take the day off. I am strongly not in favour of this happening to you. But I am convinced that my sloth impersonation should be part of everyone’s regular repertoire, especially my own, through good times as well as bad. Quite simply, we need to do bugger all far more often, even if only for a morning. Cancel a meeting, steal a half day from your annual leave, switch off your phone, close the curtains, reach for your Kindle or put on a DVD you’ve seen a thousand times and allow yourself to nod off for an hour. To be so physically and mentally unchallenged that you can do nothing but feel your life is more restorative than I ever imagined. I’m now so convinced of its powers that I gladly allowed my youngest son a rare day off school yesterday, despite my being wholly unconvinced by his tummy-ache claim. Maybe he just needed a day off doing and thinking. Maybe we all do.

To be so physically and mentally unchallenged that you can do nothing but feel your life, is more restorative than I ever imagined

Naturally, as with everything good, duvet days are about moderation. Late into my own life-hiatus, I found myself watching an episode of Judge Rinder in which a man was suing a cousin for gluing a pizza box to his head and posting the footage on YouTube, and decided I’d possibly reached my personal limit. My sabbatical no longer felt indulgent or illicit – it had begun to feel impotent and a little depressing. I missed the rituals of working life, the oxygen of social interaction, and was starting to go a bit crackers without them. 

As I went to switch off my out-of-office and return to the scrum, I searched for my late friend’s emails on impulse, and found 182 long, separate conversation chains. One, dated January 2011, informs me that the pain in Carey's leg she's been complaining about for a couple of months is now a weird, visible lump and is being tested for any problems. I’m horrified and scared. “It's OK,” she reassures me. “It's giving me the excuse to lie down on the sofa and watch millions of lovely tellies.”

A little over four-and-a-half years later, she's given me a desperately unwanted excuse to follow her lead. It's been deeply necessary, healing and important. I know I need to make myself do it more often, and for no particular reason. But, for now, I've languished too long. I need to get dressed, put on a lipstick and live my life while I'm lucky enough to still have one. 


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