Episode 2: Back-story Continued

People change jobs all the time. Why was the thought of leaving my job, which I knew was making me miserable, causing me to cry uncontrollably in my office every day?  I think it was because the thought threw me into a real identity crisis.  All of my energies had been devoted to this one thing — being a philosophy professor – for so long. It is who I had worked so hard to become, and who I had been for so long. It’s how I saw myself, even when seeing myself as just a professor was actually causing me quite a bit of pain.  It caused me pain because I knew I was so much more than a professor – I was an artist, a friend, a mother to my dog, a family member – so many things I felt I had no time for.  Identity was something that gave me comfort, and simultaneously caused me pain. It was who I was, but never captured who I really was, and even felt like something I had to strain to pretend to be . . . something I even had to hide my true self in order to succeed at.  It was definitely something that did not allow me to listen to the messages that my emotions and body were sending me. Those had to be silenced to be productive as a professor, and yet that silencing was exactly what got me to the point where I couldn’t be productive at anything anymore. Identity fed my ego, and yet it made me feel bad about myself, like I was living a lie . .  . like it was my greatest success, and greatest failure in my commitment to myself.  Identity, it turns out, is full of paradoxes; a blessing and curse, something we make willingly, then something we become enslaved to.  The most difficult thing has been, and still is, breaking my pact with the particular identity-lens through which I had seen myself for so long.  I want to tell a little story about how that cord was finally cut, and how I still struggle to not retie it, when so many temptations ask me to do so.

Today’s story is a story of gratitude.  Gratitude, especially, to two colleagues and one therapist, who had an instrumental role in getting me on a road I really needed to go down.  It is a road, also, that I’ve been able try out because my parents and friends supported me and said: “Yes, we are proud of you for going down that road that we know you must go alone. We are here cheering you on.”

When you are having sort of a nervous breakdown, or anxiety attack, or midlife crisis or whatever the hell it is, your brain races way ahead of you.  All the time.

Everything feels like the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” You know you need a change, and a big one. But big changes are super scary.  When I sat in my office crying and saying that I think I need to give up my career, and then feeling the overwhelming fear of what that might meant, my extremely level-headed colleague and friend said: “Maybe we can ask a smaller question than “should I end my career,” like “could I maybe take a leave?” “Why  don’t I look into that for you?” Thank the universe for sending me this level-headed friend.  Questions like “should I end my career?” feel like “should I jump off a bridge?” . . .  questions that should not be contemplated in this state of mind. They are too stressful and too crazy.  I needed to wait on that, and make a smaller move that’s more manageable.  Next question: What kind of a leave should it be? This is where I offer gratitude to my second colleague, who went to lunch with me and said: “I want you to make an appointment with your doctor . . . I recognize what you are feeling, I’ve felt it, and I’m going to call you at the end of the week to check in with you that you’ve made an appointment”.  Ok, thank the universe for this colleague too. She gave me a direct assignment. I could handle that. I did it. The doctor took it from there. I accepted the doctor’s diagnosis, and the suggestion for medication and counseling. I was starting to let go of control and accept help. Those were huge, huge, necessary steps in this process.  I made an appointment with a counselor who was recommended by a friend.

Day one with the counselor:

Counselor: “So tell me, what role does your emotional life play in your daily life and daily decision making?”

Me: “Uh, I basically suppress it in order to function professionally . . .  and that’s why I’m here.”

Counselor: Ok, so what would it be like to give your emotions a say in your decisions?

Me, crying: “I probably would not be able to do this job anymore. I’d probably leave this town and go home.  I’d probably find a way to do more art.”

Counselor: “So why don’t you?”

Me: “I want to.”

Ok. So, I go home and think why don’t I? What about all the work I put into this career? What about money, how would I make a living? Where would I live? How can I leave my colleagues hanging? How can I let everybody at work down? They are depending on me, and they’ve taken a chance hiring me. How can I let my parents down? They are proud of me. How can I let my teachers down? They are proud of me for getting a tenure track job. What do I do about my home? What if I can’t sell it? How would I get my dog to my home-town, that’s like 3,000 miles away and travel would be hard on him? What if he doesn’t like it there? What if I can’t find a new job?

And what if I stay?  I can’t stay. I can’t live like this anymore. Truth time.

A leave is requested and granted.  Three months of therapy and some pharmaceuticals to manage the emotional roller-coaster and to keep strong, and keep courage.  A 4,000 mile southern drive across country in the middle of winter. Home. Comfort. Fears. Excitement. Adjustment.