Jumping Ship; Finding Land

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“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”- Mary Oliver

The body speaks to us; it will scream for our attention by breaking down in any of innumerable ways if we ignore the signs that our lives are making us sick.  I hated my job of 9 years so much that I could barely lift my arms and legs to get out of bed in the morning, but I ignored the obvious for as long as I could. I had chronic fatigue, insomnia, a heavy depression I carried like a weight. I knew I had to make a change, but my fear of the unknown had me trapped.

The Prison of Fear

For 25 years, I’d lived by a code that precluded risk. I took the usual parental message “Finish college, find a job with benefits, and hang onto it,” and lived it to a degree that shut out excitement, possibility, and my own intuition. While my college friends were out in L.A. working on movie sets, in art school, teaching in Thailand, I was working a 9 to 5 job that offered little challenge or stimulation, and where the boredom at times was so consuming that I contemplated beating my head against my cubicle wall, thinking the pain might distract me from the boredom.

This job, working as an editor at a small association, was great for a while. For the first few years I had a kind and generous supervisor who supported me through my crises, both personal and professional. I was good at my job, and my identity became wrapped around it. Loyal to my manager, I gladly worked evenings and weekends. Single and childless, I replaced relationships with work. Living in the DC metro area, workaholism was a way of life, so I felt in tune with the culture around me.

When my manager retired, I was promoted to a managerial position. I was excited and thought this was a great honor and sign of my accomplishment. My family and friends were thrilled for me, and I rode along on a tide of ego inflation for a while. (I smile at my own naivete, as I now know that “those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make middle managers.”)

Sacrificing My Self

A professional, managerial position, in our society, is a sign of success. But to me, although I worked nonstop and succeeded by any reasonable measure, the stress and pressure of the environment took its toll.  I obsessed about imaginary mistakes, I woke up at 4 a.m., in a panic about the latest impossible project dumped on me by the head of the department.

The company in general was in turmoil, and fear about the economy was driving top management. Frantic reorganizations took place, department heads looked haggard at the directives from above to increase revenue while cutting expenses, and in general an unspoken gloom dominated the atmosphere. The language floating around became more and more dehumanizing.  In a meeting I actually heard the department head refer to “leveraging” one of my colleagues. I had an image of her being fed through a chute,  to be spat out the other end in the shape of giant coin to be deposited in the company’s piggy bank. In truth, I felt like an object; I knew the head of the department and his main sidekick saw me as an expense on an Excel spreadsheet, one they would gladly crunch into nonexistence.

There was a void at the top where management should have been. When this happens, the results can be scapegoating, bullying, undermining: the nasty survival tactics that people revert to when they are driven by fear. I saw examples of all of this: my workplace turned ugly.  I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a genuine smile. Fear and aggression permeated the place like an invisible but toxic gas.

The head of the department had his favorites, and I was not one of them. I was excluded from meetings, left out of the whispered conversations that would stop as soon as I entered the room. The head of the department spoke to me only indirectly, through my direct supervisor, even though he sat only three offices down.

Looking for Escape

Yet after nine years my identity was intertwined with my job at the company: my worth, my value, my purpose was so tightly wrapped in that position that I struggled to remember a time when I hadn’t lived and breathed that job. I was a good editor, I was known for my work, I was valued and liked by the volunteer editors I worked for. This had made my job tolerable, and I felt loyal to them for the years we’d worked together. My loyalty had finally been worn away, however. Layoffs had begun, and my intuition told me that my department could be a target. I couldn’t sit there waiting, like a lamb for the slaughter. I had to get out.

But what was the alternative? I made a few attempts to look for other, similar, jobs, but I didn’t have the energy to interview, to summon up the false enthusiasm to beg for a job that might turn out to be the same situation. I had no desire to sign over my identity once again. White-color jobs seem to demand not just time and labor, but that you live your job from the inside out, as well, almost like signing away your soul.

My mind opened to the idea of a job that wouldn’t take so much from me.

I started to look in the paper, at jobs that didn’t require a college degree, part time jobs. I was surprised at how many people didn’t work in offices, didn’t have professional jobs, weren’t tethered to the corporate routine. Dog-walkers, baristas, Whole Foods clerks… I’d done freelance editing for a previous employer, and had solid copyediting skills to fall back on. Surely I could find work, with all of the outsourcing in publishing.  I realized that I was, in fact, free. Free to explore, free to be a dog-walker, a barista, a freelance editor. There were alternatives to professional full-time jobs. I had savings that would cover my expenses for a while. The decision meant letting go of my fear that I couldn’t survive.  It meant saying goodbye to the life raft, even if it was an illusion.

The Net Breaks

After one particularly bad day and night, during which I did nothing but stare at my monitor, trying but failing to make sense of one e-mail after another, I gave my notice, trembling with fear.  This was the first big risk I had ever taken, the first leap without a safety net.  My communication with the Human Resources Director was as brief as possible. She herself was a part of the “in” group, going to lunch and socializing after work with the favorite employees. I gave her as little information as necessary, anxious to get the process over with now that I had made the decision.

What had I done? My hands shook while I held the steering wheel, as I pulled out of the company parking lot for the last time. I must be insane, I told myself. What would happen to me? How would I survive?

At first, I was in complete shock. During the first few weeks,  my moods shifted from bouts of crying, feeling hopeless, and sure that I’d made a terrible mistake, to feeling exuberant and confident that my decision had given me the key to a new life. The decompression process was slow, but after a few months I saw my face change and relax, felt the buildup of stress leaving my body. As I adjusted to this new life without the familiar structure of the past 9  years,  gradually the feelings of relief that I never had to enter that building again grew stronger, and my heart grew lighter as I let go of the toxic energy I’d carried.  I started freelance copyediting, and within a year I had built up a steady clientele, who appreciated my work and kept me busy. It was gratifying to realize that others appreciated my work; at my job I felt that my efforts were only second-rate.

Slowly, other interests and talents emerged. The world popped into color. I was excited to engage, to explore.  I experimented with painting, something I’d never tried before. I found that the dream of writing, which I’d convinced myself I had no talent for, was still there, waiting for me. I started to write regularly, and began work on a novel. Now I look back and realize how fully the job had stifled me, had worn away my self-confidence.  It took courage to jump, or maybe desperation. I was very lucky—I had a soft landing that gave me the space to nurture my one precious life.  How many people are trapped in a similar way, through necessity, lack of resources, or lack of confidence?

Photo by Rachel Tanugi Ribas

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18 thoughts on “Jumping Ship; Finding Land”

  1. Wow! What a great essay, Amanda. It is really good to read about your self-preservation instinct kicking in and helping you out of that job you hated. You’re a good writer. I could really feel what you were describing. I’m so glad to read – and to see- that you’re doing more writing. I look forward to reading your future posts.

  2. I have to agree with Susan, Amanda.

    This sort of post always makes my day! Stories about … jumping ship! I would also love to hear about your future endeavors, particularly on the downsides or challenges you’re facing, now that you’re free! (I guess I was just taken away by the “challenges” part of your story above!)

    I’m happy for you, Amanda, for finally landing on a life you love. I guess those tough 9 years had a purpose after all. :)

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

  3. Wow! Amanda. Your story spoke to me in a way you wouldn’t be able to comprehend. I truly felt like you had written about my life as that is what I am currently experiencing. I too plan on jumping ship real soon. I know that my worth isn’t attached to my job and need to start acknowledging myself and not waiting for my superiors to acknowledge and recognize what I do for the Company. I know like you I will find so much joy, peace and creativity outside the confines of the 9:00-5:00 prison walls. I am capable of so much more and know that life is truly waiting on me to be bold and let go of the fears that have been holding me back. Thanks for sharing your story, you are a wonderful writer.

    1. Hi Yvonne.

      Thanks for the comment. You are right, we are so much more than our jobs! I wish you the best on your next move. Have confidence in your true worth and you will shine!

  4. Amanda,

    I love your story. I like how you gained the courage to break away from 9-5-sometimes we don’t know our full potential unless we give ourselves the chance to do it.

    Cheers,
    Ann

  5. Thank you for this essay. My story is a bit different in that before I could jump ship I got laid off. I will say though that the feeling you described of the color returning to the world is exactly how I feel now. It has been a few weeks and I am finding myself detoxing and letting go of the feelings that I have no identity because I can’t reference a tittle and an employer. I am finding myself defining who I am and what I do with my time and my life differently. I do not know what this next chapter will hold regarding how I make a living but I am feeling those glimmers of excitement just imagining what it could be.

    1. Amanda Maguire

      Hi,

      You know, I actually wished to get laid off, so I wouldn’t have to make the decision. In a way you are fortunate! Cherish the freedom now. I hope you make the most of your time, and are able to find something that is sustaining for you, both body and mind.

      Best, Amanda

  6. I love your courage, Amanda! You knew what you needed, and jumped. I was just tweaked by this: “I rode along on a tide of ego inflation for a while.” So true! I think we’ve all gotten caught up in that at one time or another.
    Thank you for this!

  7. Congratulations on making that leap Amanda. I’m delighted for you and for all those who will be inspired by your passionately written story. It’s amazing how long we can continue in the wrong life and, as you say, work on through all the signs are bodies are screaming out to us to stop. It’s only when we do manage to stop that we realize just how awful we felt. Moving into the right life, living at the right pace now that’s a recipe for a great life. Thanks for posting.

  8. What a great story, and I can completely relate. I was in a horrible job once and all I wanted to do was get out, but I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I would search other jobs but really wasn’t interested in doing the same thing somewhere else. It wasn’t the company, it was the job I disliked.

    I eventually found my way to a job that actually had meaning to me and I loved every minute while I was there. Congrats on taking the initiative!

  9. Wow, this post really struck a chord with me. I think the biggest fear I’ve myself faced in terms of quitting the 9-to-5/”promotion is success” life is the social pressure. As you write, being promoted is the definition of success in our society and it’s so hard to get out of this mindset. Your self-worth builds on what kind of a job you have, if you get promoted, your salary.. The list goes on. It’s so important to recognize that it’s all just buzz around you. What matters is what your goals and dreams are. Actually, one of the most common deathbed regrets is that people feel they were unable to walk their own path. This goes to show how incredibly important it is to start building your own dream life today.

  10. Amanda Maguire

    A friend told me yesterday that he read a study that said 70 percent of Americans don’t like their jobs. That’s a staggering number, if true. I’m happy to hear from the commenter who have found their way to more satisfying environments. It makes me sad to think that our country is so full of unhappy people. I think we have a larger problem in society, maybe.

  11. What an articulate and eloquent story. As I was reading, you struck many chords with me. On your last question, it is true that many of us are trapped by those reasons- it does not serve one to be in denial of them. People like you are a shining light, however, showing that there is a way out, and that we live in a Universe of possibility. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  12. Amanda, that is such a moving but uplifting story. I’m so glad that you’re doing great now and that life has turned for the better for you.
    I read a blog post recently where the author lost the job with which he so closely identified himself. He suggests in his post that it is the bad times which define the good times, that “If white didn’t exist – we wouldn’t really understand what Black is all about.” These experiences, while painful, are very much linked. In fact they are parts of the same whole.
    I think in your case, you’ve perhaps had the same experience but perhaps expressed it differently. http://www.positivelypositive.com/2015/07/05/how-to-be-happy-when-everything-falls-apart-harnessing-the-ancient-power-of-paradox/
    I wish you the best of luck for the future Amanda.

  13. Your story could be mine! Two years ago, I left my teaching job of 10 years, signed my house back to the bank, and moved onto a sailboat 1300 miles away. And I have never regretted it. There is power in learning that the myth of “security” is just that–a myth.

  14. You’re an amazing writer Amanda! Congrats and I’m so happy you took that leap! I was never as “successful” in the corporate world–only up to entry level jobs. I don’t think my soul let me get farther, thank god! I took the leap in 2010 and wow! I never would have imagined I’d be where I am today.

    Thank you for sharing this great story of yours! May it inspire many brilliant souls!

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