An unexpected calendar invite from my boss popped up.
I joked to my group chat: “Today might be the day!”
Plot twist, it was.
That morning I went into the office to take the call. I slid into a “phonebooth” – the only option for privacy in our open floor plan. If you’ve never had the pleasure – it’s a small vertical glass coffin, expertly designed to remove all human dignity. It’s equipped with a chair that you have to stand to sit in (you read that correctly), a ledge big enough ONLY for a laptop (god help you if you DARE bring a water bottle in there), and miserable air circulation. It’s sound proof-ish, however the glass walls make you feel like some surreal zoo exhibit. “Ladies and gentleman, come one! Come all! See the woman trying to keep her shit together!”
My boss joined the TEAMS call from her office in Denmark, then HR joined the call. Oh lord, I’ve heard lore of this, this is how it happens. When HR JOINS THE CALL – UNEXPECTEDLY – pack it up boys! That means you’ve hit an iceberg, you’re done.
My mind ran a loop of: “holy shit, you’re being laid off, holy shit, you’re being laid off.” Over and over again, each iteration a different internal inflection, like my brain was trying on the information.
“Holyshit, you’re being laid off.,” she thought with dread.
“HOLY SHIT, you’re being laid off!” she considered with excitement.
“Holy shit, your being laid off,” she thought with poor grammar.
My very own Old Yeller moment, and I was the titular character.
As these things go, it was gentle. I mean, we were on TEAMS so they couldn’t actually push my head directly into the toilet and flush. But I felt like I was watching my entire career, nay, my entire identity go down the tubes.
For an instant, I was relieved. The role hadn’t been the right fit for some time. I had ignored so many red flags of my own mental health, the overlapping symptoms of depression and burn out were impossible to tease apart. My emotional reserves were depleted, nothing I did felt like an accomplishment, I doubted myself endlessly. I had become detached from the work. But now I didn’t have the work. I had lost the work that had meant so much.
So, now what? My ego was hurt. I felt stupid. I didn’t know what to do. But I had to get the heck out of that “phonebooth.” Did I mention it has no climate control? It just gets hotter and hotter and stuffier and stuffier until you realize you ARE NOT larping a delayed flight on LAX tarmac in August, and burst out the door like a maniac.
As the news settled, my muscle memory pulled up the agonizing 5 months between my graduation from MBA school and landing my first brand manager role. The ticking clock of $125,000 in student loan coming due. I had no savings. I woke up each morning scratching at stress hives that ran up and down my legs and neck. I had to prove I was smart enough to do something with this expensive degree. But that wasn’t now. I packed that anxiety attack away for another day.
Today, that $125,000 student loan is paid off. I have a supportive spouse who is gainfully employed, the financial stakes were manageable – we wouldn’t have to move, for example, or cancel our planned vacation. My kids are in school, and therefore my layoff won’t impact anyone else’s livelihood (eg I don’t have to layoff the nanny we could no longer afford.) I’m in a place of unquestionable privilege.
But I no longer had my job. My identity-giving, ego-validating job with the fancy boss lady title. It felt like my whole 20-year career had dissolved in my hands. I had worked so hard to get here. My career which made me feel cool, always gave me a little street cred at cocktail parties. If my career had been my worth, was I worthless now? If my job was my identity anchor, who was I? I questioned myself up and down. Was I ever good at my job? Would another company ever hire me?
I canceled my remaining meetings and I left the office. I called Matt. He’s very good in these moments. He was surprised, but happy for me because he knew the stress had been grinding.
I went to Five Guys and had a cheeseburger and fries. I had a Dr. Pepper too. Then I drove to a nearby by park, sat in my car, and lived in that in between space of major life news.
If only I know, is it still real? What if I just worked in the office basement with my red Swingline stapler…FOREVER?
Then I broke the seal, texted the group chat, and called my people. I cried to my friends, and they listened to me. And from then on I got text messages nearly every morning, just to check on me. They sat with me during the tough days, they brought me cupcakes. Without asking, they circled around me and heaped on metaphorical warm blankets.
My favorite hobby was answering cold calls, just to let the eager young SDR know that their call sheet needed to be updated. One, still lost in the sauce of his script asked me if I still wanted a demo of whatever martech he was selling. No. No, I do not want a demo, Ryan.
In part, it was like attending your own wake. I was overwhelmed by the kind things colleagues said to me, the tears we shared together. I had made an impact on people; I had been decent to work with.
It was the end of an era. My grief was overwhelming at times. I made mental lists of all the things I no longer had, the things I no longer ‘was.’ All I felt was the loss, the emptiness. I was unmoored.
The holidays wrapped up, the kids went back to school, Matt went back to work. Their routines commenced, and I began to feel out whatever this was. My community kept me close, I had lunch with friends, coffee with friends, dinner with friends, margaritas with friends. They still loved me, even if I was unemployed.
And finally, I crunched the household numbers: and something amazing happened – a red carpet of time unfurled at my feet. Financially, we could last a year. A YEAR. That seemed impossible, but our overhead was low enough. The kids were in school so no daycare or nanny expenses, Matt’s 2015 Honda was long paid off, our mortgage is $2400 a month (thank you 2014 real estate prices), we had only one car payment.
For how I wanted to spend that time – I couldn’t really make a plan even if I wanted to. Even though the work was gone, I was still burned out. 100% toast. My brain was a knot. I had managed my depression and anxiety well over the last few years with talk therapy and doctor prescribed off-label horse tranquilizers, so I wasn’t at risk for a mental health crisis, however my creativity had dried up sometime in 2020, my sense of humor was on life support. I didn’t smile any more. I wasn’t myself, or at least the self I wanted to be. I had been so focused on succeeding at work, I hadn’t succeeded at much else. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. But I knew I had to reconstitute myself.
I’m finding some bursts of creativity now. I’m laughing again. Heck, I’m writing again. And the thought of a few more months of this sounds amazing, but I’m avoiding the truth.
I have no professional confidence at the moment. I am not actively looking for a job, but I want to be. I want to be ready, but I’m not. I want to throw my shoulder into a job search, but I just…can’t.
When I doom-scroll LinkedIn the job descriptions feel like a foreign language. I feel unqualified for anything but entry level. Occasionally I’ll see the posting for my old role pop into my feed. It’s like seeing the ex that ghosted you. It all feels bad. Feels super, super bad. I’m fearful, not of being unemployed, but of hating my next role, I’m fearful of burning out again. My career – this thing that had given me so much, was now something I feared.
So my plan is simple, wait and see.
But here are two things I’ve learned in January 2023 that I’m holding on to:
- Your job is not the same as your community.
But thank god, I have a kick-ass community. Friends carried me on their shoulders. Many of these friends I met at my former company. American work culture wants you to believe that work is your community. It’s not, and never will be. You make your community.
- My goals are small right now and that’s good enough.
One trick I did on maternity leave or anytime when I’m going through a transition time – was to give myself one goal a day: take a shower in the case of maternity leave. For this transition time – I have three small goals a day:
- Do something for my body – usually a walk. My energy levels are low, like, very very low. We are taking our first family trip to Disney in April, and I’m worried about keeping up. I’m up 30 pounds since 2019. It’s a lot to move. We took a ‘test trip’ to LEGOLand this summer and I was exhausted. Oh, and I couldn’t fit in one of the rides. I was fucking mortified.
- Do something for the house – I love my house, but it’s overwhelmed by stuff at the moment. Not only do I have doom corners, I have doom closets, a doom storage space. There’s a million undone little projects. My fireplace door is still broken from Christmas 2021. Remember that? So, I do small things when I have small energy and big things when I have big energy.
- Do something creative and share it – could be just posting a story on IG, or writing. Just something to get my brain out of this loop of “you’re not good enough.” PS please share @bluebirdface with anyone who would get it! I don’t know how I’m getting out of this post-work burn out state but I do know sharing my creative work shuts down that little brain gremlin.
So here’s to whatever is next.
Leave a Reply