After 10 years being employed as a transport planning consultant, I quit my job. It was, in some ways, the hardest decision I have ever had to make, and in others, the easiest decision, because by the time I handed in my notice, it sort of felt like there wasn’t much of a choice. Stay and continue stretching myself out so thinly that I would almost certainly disappear, or leave and breathe. That’s how it felt – that I’d stopped breathing, or at least was only taking the barest sips of air before being submerged again. At the end, my anxiety was at a peak I’d not felt for over a decade; a high chord stringing out too long, but I need you to understand that my anxiety wasn’t why I quit my job. I mean, sure, it was a contributing factor, but I think it was actually more of a symptom. A symptom of a number of things I’d left untended that started demanding attention in the last 2 years.
My dad died just before Christmas in 2015. It was relatively sudden, and I will never stop feeling the ripples of it. Before he died (pancreatic cancer, 11 weeks after diagnosis), he also had a stroke (probably also caused by the cancer throwing out blood clots) and it meant that, in those last couple of weeks, he didn’t have enough capacity to feel more than one emotion at a time. Mostly, at the end, he was bitter. Bitter that time had slipped away from him, bitter that he’d not gotten around to doing the things he’d wanted to do, the things he’d been too scared to do. Bitter that neither he nor the doctors could fix his broken body. He died without peace, resentful and angry. My dad had worked his entire adult life doing something that he didn’t particularly enjoy, nor have vocation for. It was a job to pay the bills. He regretted that and then he ran out of time. That regret rippled through me after he’d died. It planted this tiny seed – is this what I want to be doing for the rest of my life? If I were to get sick and die, would I wish I’d been doing something else? Would I go out with regret?
This tiny seed grew, and itched like a nasty mosquito bite – the more I scratched, the worse it got. The more I realised I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that job, the harder it became to actually do it. What followed was a lot of soul searching, anxiety, a growing sense of being trapped, and some dark nights of the soul that culminated in my husband holding me while I sobbed “I don’t know how to be me anymore” and him telling me “You either have to find a way to fix this, and make peace with your work, or you need to leave, but if you leave, you need to figure out who you are and what you want underneath all this, otherwise you’re just going to cart this along with you.”
I was exhausting myself trying to be the person my job needed me to be while struggling to figure out who I was underneath it all. It wasn’t the company I worked for, or the people I worked with that were the problem (a brilliant company that had taken great care of me for a long time, and excellent people I still consider friends). It was the nature of the work itself – frenetic, unpredictable, stressful, not mentally rewarding and so far from the quiet, arty, introverted person I was inside… I decided I couldn’t stay in this job that felt like it was grinding me down to dust, but of course, the thought of leaving was terrifying. What would I do? Where would I work? Obviously, the skills I had amassed in ten years of transport planning consultancy were in no way transferable to anything else at all and, if I left, I’d be letting everyone down, I’d end up defaulting on the mortgage and driving my husband away, and anyway how the hell was I meant to look for a new job and go to interviews when I had a full time job already that left me zero brainspace for anything else?? And then I got nominated to attend a women’s development training course through work.
We worked on establishing our “authentic selves” and setting 5-year career goals. We wrote down where we wanted to be, what we wanted to achieve and we visualised achieving it – how would it feel, what would it look like? I couldn’t come up with anything much except the clanging confirmation that i didn’t want to be working there in 5 years. Around this time a very dear friend asked me what, if money were no object, I’d want to do instead. And I couldn’t answer her. My work had become so consuming that all the things I liked outside of it had fallen away. I realised that this feeling of displacement was coming from me not being true to my authentic self. I also had the revelation that most of my life, I’ve just been coasting, waiting for things to happen to me, too scared to take risks, too terrified of failure to even try. I am a self-saboteur of the highest order and if anything was going to change, I needed to get the fuck out of my own way.
During my last women’s development training day, we had to write down the thing we struggled with most. I wrote “I am afraid to take any risks”. My course leader made us re-write these as positive affirmations on a post-it note to stick somewhere we’d see it everyday, to help change our neural programming. My “I am afraid to take any risks” became “I try new things”. I made it my phone screensaver. I looked at that post-it note about a hundred times a day. Something started to shift.
If money were no object, what would I do instead? I kept coming back to that question. And when the answer came, it was so obvious, it made me laugh. I’d write. If I could do anything I wanted to do, I would write. I’ve written for years, since I was small; silly stories that evolved into poetry as I got older. I’d been so immersed in work, coming home too braindead to write, that it too had fallen away. So I started writing in earnest again, and I shit you not, bashed out about 30 god-awful poems in a couple of days, just because the words needed writing. I started reading a lot of new things. Philosophy, theology, self-help books, poetry. So much poetry. I started meditating, and drinking more water and I even tried baking (I’ve decided that however hard I try, I am not a baker. I am an eater of baked goods, but I cannot be doing with the actual baking…). I started trying to make friends with myself. I finally started to sit down and unpack all this junk that’s been living in my brain for years and get to grips with my depression and anxiety. And I wrote. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. My husband helped me build a website to keep all my poems in one place so I could start sharing them with the world; something that had also previously terrified me senseless – what if everyone hates what I write?! It’s not that the fear was gone now it just didn’t seem to matter so much and I shared my stuff anyway. And then, over the Christmas break 2 years after that first seed of “is this what I want to do for the rest of my life” took root, I came into some inheritance. Good old dad.
It’s not enough money to never have to work again, but it’s enough to give me some leeway. Enough to make sure my half of the bills are covered for a while. Enough to let me leave my job without another one lined up. Enough to set me free. Enough for me to focus on my writing for a while and see if I can take that somewhere. I’m not naive enough to think I could make a living solely from writing, but I’m hoping that when it’s time to go back to salaried work, I can take a job that’s a little less brain-consuming so I can still write on the side. I fully appreciate my position here and that there aren’t many people who can afford to just “take some time off” from work altogether, but this is the reality I find myself in. I’d rather have my dad here, but losing him was the kick up the bum that started this whole process. Dad always encouraged my writing. He would sit and listen as I read my latest creation to him. He’d offer suggestions and tweaks. He was never one to suffer fools gladly, so I like to think that his listening and his encouragement was more than a father’s indulgence of his little girl. I think…I hope… he thought I was good at this. I like to think that this was his way of setting me free.
Writing lights me up. It makes my soul sing, and if I was put on this earth to do anything, I think it was to write. Writing poems, for me, is like (I imagine) sliding towards a black hole. At first, just glimpses or perhaps more like…gaps. Then I get a sense of the thing, and it’s dragging me in, slowly, then faster, until I’m strung out like spaghetti, sliding past some event horizon or metaphor I can’t escape from … until that pearl, that singularity, that perfect phrase or ending, hits me square. It happens slowly, then all at once. John Green once said that about love. Maybe my poems are me falling in love. Maybe I can share just a tiny spark of that with someone else.
It’s been 2 weeks since my last day at work. I miss my team and the familiarity of my job, but after a morning of walking and thinking, and an afternoon of writing a poem about trees and love, and of working across my various poetry social platforms, I honestly feel freer and more “me” than I have in years. It’s a work in progress, but my soul is sighing in relief.