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