“Spent 18 hours waiting stoned for space
I spent the same 18 hours in the same damn place
I’m on a road shaped like a figure 8
I drove around for hours, I drove around for days
I drove around for months and years and never went no place”
Modest Mouse, “Interstate 8”
It’s pavlovian, really. Wake up. Roll over. Check pain level. Take morning morphine. Did I sweat through my clothes last night? (thank you, early menopause!) Redress if needed. And then.. pick up phone. I’m less than five minutes into my day, and I am already on social media trying to to assess what I “missed” while I was sleeping.
I click the big blue button with the F on it and the first thing that pops up for me is another “on this day” reminder. We used to be able to escape the sins of our past. Now they come back to us every year on their anniversary. Ah yes. There’s the one, from six, five years ago (?) where I posted a picture of the vast parking lot at the large complex where I worked. It was completely empty except for maybe 6-7 cars. My team. Working on a federal holiday. Spun up on a false emergency. Sacrificing precious time with my family in order to make a date some higher up had promised to his superiors.
There were no other details, aside from a sparsely populated parking lot and a humble brag about working on a holiday. Meanwhile, the hundreds of other people who worked in that complex were home celebrating with their family, and enjoying sides of themselves not aligned with work. And yes, I used the word “brag.” I was working on something so important that I was at work while everyone else lazed away. Where else, but in America do we consider ourselves “better” because we work more? Perhaps Japan? Who knows.
I swipe away and off of Facebook to my email. I have a notification from my online journal. “Two years ago, you wrote…” Two years ago. That was my last summer before my surprise diagnosis on labor day. Work was… how should I describe it? Some version of hell? Believe it or not, I was STILL working on the same project at work that had required such a time crises years earlier. We had to start over due to new requirements, and in our second run had fallen into several delays, which could have been prevented, except that I had been disallowed from speaking up and being direct about the issues I was seeing. It was made clear that I was to “let them manage their own program” and not say no to anything or suggest a different way of doing things, lest I come across as too negative. At this point, I was basically trapped and unable to leave because nobody else wanted to touch the project with a ten-foot pole.
July 4th, 2018. I feel trapped. Trapped by the mind. By obligations. By limits. By people that I can’t escape. By talents that I cannot share. By a blocked sense of purpose. I feel cuffed to my job, and void of all passion for it.
July 5th, 2018. I realized today that I am not okay. I am not okay with any of it. I had to give myself a pep talk just to get out of my car this morning. I felt so heavy coming up the stairs and it was hard to breathe. I don’t feel confident at all that it is going to get any better. All that I can do now is take one breath, one step at a time. I have to trust that the right answer will eventually show itself, and that this challenge is part of a greater purpose for me. I just can’t see it yet.
Back in those days, I would often insert a pep talk to myself when I journaled about my frustrations at work. “This is all just another challenge for you to overcome that you will ultimately be better off for having experienced” came up quite often. Of course, at that time, I still had decades sprawled out before me both in my career, and in my life. A couple of years could surely be sacrificed to the larger goal of “growth.”
The pep talk wasn’t enough, because either later that day or the next, I recall that I completely lost it in private at work. Sitting at my desk, I felt like the walls were caving in on me and I just had to get out of there to a place where I could just release the sobs alongside ugly, snotty tears. A random guy I didn’t even know found my hiding spot and asked me if I was okay. I could only shake my head to get him to leave. He was brief oasis of humanity and empathy in a dessert dry of it.
I returned to my desk, red eyed and splotchy and pretended to quietly get back to work. It was pretty obvious that I had been crying, but nobody said a single word. Most likely, they probably didn’t even know what to do at that point. My functional team was just as trapped as I was, and those that weren’t on my finctional team were either burned out or just flat nasty and toxic. All of it a product of the poor leadership and the systemically toxic culture that had brought us to that point to begin with. By the following week, I had a chance to to go spend a few days in the office I was set to move to next… a brief respite amongst real humans again before being called back to the first office indefinitely and to once more put in copious amounts of overtime in in order to bring it to closure.
Yes, memories. Aren’t they grand? Memories of wasted time, wasted purpose, wasted talent, wasted investment, wasted emotions, and ultimately wasted health. My wasted health. As the song at the beginning states, I drove around for hours, days, months and years, “but I never went no place.” What I thought was on a long, treacherous hike, from which I would emerge victorious was actually just a pit of quicksand. Every time I tried to fix things or solve problems, the backlash got worse and I just got deeper and further stuck from the struggle.
Two years ago. Close enough to remember like yesterday, but far enough to seem like a whole lifetime ago. I check in often with the people that I used to work with through my career who I call friends. I hear a story of someone feeling like they NEED to go into work on a weekend because their boss threw them under the bus. And now, all of their weekend joy has been sucked dry to the extent they couldn’t even think of anything else but work. They decide that they need to go work the weekend in order to assemble evidence to try to recover their “reputation”. Meanwhile, most likely the offending boss was at home enjoying their weekend just fine and not even thinking of it.
My brain SCREAMS nonononononononono!
I want to tell them that if they feel that their “reputation” is damaged just because of something someone above them said about them, that the problem lies with the organization, it’s culture, and it’s leadership, NOT with you:
– It hasn’t taken the time to get to know you as a person, your skills or your character.
-It hasn’t taken the time to get to know your boss and his true colors or character (or, they have but just don’t care anymore because he has reached a certain level where he is no longer accountable).
In either or both scenarios, it will never be worth it to give up your peace of mind to impress a leadership chain whose vision is so shallow. It’s a sign of an organization that values braggable results over getting to know about, investing in, or caring for its people. I want to tell this person that it will never be worth it to sacrifice your time or happiness to impress people who don’t give a damn about you, get to know you, or ask your side to begin with. Spoiler alert: if they don’t care about you now they won’t give a damn about you when all of this is over, either. The only thing worth investing your time and energy into at this point is getting out, and finding a place to work that is better.
Of course it’s much easier for a person to understand that conceptually than it is to convince their heart, which feels it has been wronged, from assembling the troops and throwing them into full fix-it mode. I just hope, with love, that this person escapes before they suffer from or discover a medical consequence that they should have directed their energy toward or focusing on instead.
By the time I was able to move on to my new office on a permanent basis, I was unfortunately only there a month before I ended up in the hospital for complications associated with a giant tumor in my sigmoid colon, that I would later learn had metastasized. And when I returned? I was amongst people who cared, and who saw me as and treated me like a real person for the first time in what felt like forever.
I didn’t want to stop working. My career was such a huge part of my personal identity for nearly two decades. It takes a while for that engine to just stop. It takes a while for the words, “You are dying. You can stop doing this now” to infiltrate through. It finally took a shock/scare event with my initially cancelled HIPEC surgery for it to finally set in. The inner voice started saying, loudly, “You might not have long. Get out and enjoy this time with your family while you can. ” So I did. Even then, I was nothing short of I was blown away by the support I had at work. My supervisor went above and beyond to help keep my disability and other paperwork quickly moving. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of others, whom I had worked with over the years. And the culture differences between the first office and the second were so stark, it was like night and day.
It’s now been sixteen months since I walked into an office building to work, and my former supervisor still checks in, every few months, just to see how I am doing. Not because he will get brownie points for doing so, but because he is a good person. Sixteen months which have now become the retirement I was supposed to have twenty years from now, except of course much shorter and which have been filled with surgeries, chemo and doctors’ appointments.
I am still going “nowhere” but of course in a much different way. All directions lead to death, so I will take a stroll around that figure eight as many times as I possibly can before my engine dies. And, aside from all of the pain and chemo and procedures and existential dread, I am probably happier than I have been in my life. I am 100% myself these days, and live life without a filter or other restraints. COVID 19, as terrible as it is has brought my family back home to me, so that I have been able to spend more time with them than I ever have in my life. And I am loving it.
Time, time, time, and so little of it spent with the people that we love the most. So little of it spent doing the things that we love the most. So little time doing the things that we are drawn to, that give us purpose, that make all of the tiny changes that we are each bound to leave behind when we leave. We save it for another time. Perhaps when we are retired (assuming we’ll live that long)? Perhaps on the weekend? Perhaps on a holiday?
But then we give those things away too, don’t we? To impress the boss. To humble brag about how mich we are working. To receive accolades for giving the most of our lives away in the name of making ourselves (or maybe our bosses?) look better.
I can’t tell you to stop it. But I will say that I am designing my gravestone right now, and it isn’t going to have a single thing on it about work.
I hope that each and every one of you were able to enjoy your July 4th holiday, and that you were able to spend quality, loving time within your coquarantined families. ❤️