When strangers or acquaintances ask what I do for a living, I usually joke that I’m retired. Instead of going into the whole “I’m a writer and entrepreneur but no, please don’t assume I’m a starving artist” thing, I just make a silly remark and keep it moving. However, sometimes I do get pressed for more details on how exactly I pay the bills. And while it may be in theory nobody’s business, I get it. I am a 24-year-old woman who lives comfortably while frequently sleeping until 10:00 AM and refusing to do that whole commuting thing. It seems suspicious at worst and downright entitled at best.
In a way, my joke is half-true. I did, in fact, retire from the corporate world at the striking age of 23. The story behind why I made such a drastic choice is a lot less funny than my half-hearted jokes, and that is exactly why I masquerade the situation with humor. The truth is my health was declining at an alarmingly fast rate due to anxiety which, at the time, I was unable to manage efficiently. I had a forty-minute commute to work each way, and while that may seem short to my peers in large cities with obscene amounts of traffic and lengthy rides on public transit, it was a long freaking time in a region where the average commute is around 15 minutes. Not to mention, this commute spanned two bridges across major bodies of water, and my time in transit increased to about an hour during those brutal winters where traffic is going twelve miles an hour and it’s snowing sideways.
As if the commute to and from work wasn’t horrible enough, my job itself was awful. I had a great title for the age of 23; I was a marketing manager at a large, established corporation. But I spent every day being belittled by my superiors, mocked for my (at the time) waif figure, occasionally harassed by one of my bosses, and just generally put down. Oh, and did I mention our office had a roach and rat problem? Because yeah, that was nauseating.
Sure, I could have chalked this up to a major loss courtesy of the Bad Job Lottery, but this wasn’t my first rodeo. Having graduated from college at the age of 20, I’d been in the corporate world for three years at that point. My first job out of school was a managerial-level position, all thanks to a high-intensity internship I’d held through college at the same company. I was blessed, sure, but that didn’t mean I didn’t work for it. The “prestige” my peers envied in me came in tandem with long days in a dreary, windowless office, regularly working nights and weekends, and finding out I was being paid less for a higher level position than a male co-worker who’d been with the company significantly less time. To top it off, my best friends and former roommates were still in college, spending their weekends dancing the nights away, going on wine tours, and generally enjoying those last weeks and months as college kids.
I missed everything about being 20. I had been an overachiever my whole life, hence graduating at 20 in the first place. But I couldn’t even have a legal drink at the end of the day. I had no friends at my job. And I was just unhappy. So I fixed things. I found a new job working for a boutique public relations firm. I thought the change of pace from corporate marketing to public relations for small businesses and nonprofits would be fun. Or at the very least, refreshing.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. I was still in a windowless office — although it was well-appointed and always stocked with Jolly Ranchers — and I had yet another boss that didn’t understand boundaries. Much like my first boss, I’d receive calls, texts, and emails at all hours of the night. And I’m not talking about once in awhile “OMG this is an emergency” calls, texts, and emails. I’m talking about 2 AM calls to gossip about clients and regularly receiving 10 PM requests to complete work my boss deliberately assigned to herself yet neglected to do.
I chalked my experiences being zero for two in the work world up to being normal growing pains. I was just doing the grunt work of a young professional and paying my dues. And pay them I did. Taking my job at the PR firm was a significant pay cut from my previous salary, so I supplemented my income with bartending. I figured I’d earn some extra money and get to socialize in the process. I chose to work at a dive bar nestled in a blue collar part of town. I wanted a change of pace and to meet new people who weren’t stuffy and preoccupied with promotions and titles.
I met a lot of new people, heard some outrageous stories, and occasionally made some killer tips. All the perks of tending bar came with downsides, though. Cleaning toilets. Making gross pizzas with cheap ingredients. Receiving pennies as tips, which in my mind is worse than no tip at all. Oh, and that time I received a “flower” that a regular at the bar crafted in front of me out of a napkin and his own spit while wearing a Canadian tuxedo.
Good times, good times. And to top it off, I was zero for three with reasonable bosses. Much like my previous two, I had to deal with a volatile dictator who didn’t understand the boundaries between professional life and personal life. Yippee!
Eventually, the grind of having two jobs wore me down, and I left both jobs to participate in a program for young entrepreneurs. This was a huge awakening in my life. This program, while only 60 short days, offered me some of the greatest memories. I learned a lot about self-employment and building businesses, learned even more about myself, and I made a handful amazing forever friends — including one who is now my fiancé.
This program gave me the tools to create viable businesses, but also to take charge of my life. I found what makes me happiest: being creative, building lifestyle businesses, and consulting. Although I had to dive back into the professional world after the program ended — after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day — I knew that at some point I would be my own boss.
So remember that job with the awful commute? Well that job was number 4, and at that point I should have known better than to keep playing the Bad Job Lottery. But I stuck it out for as long as I could: saving money to build my own business, investing through Betterment with each paycheck, and buying a lot of designer clothes with the leftovers. (Pro tip: buying nice things feels good for like, two minutes. That Louis bag won’t solve your problems…trust me)
Bad Job number 4 was the breaking point in my life. My aforementioned waif figure was further deteriorating by the day. I didn’t eat, I barely slept, and I struggled to keep my head above water. From the outside, I looked like I had it all: a great job in my chosen field, a shiny car, amazing shoes, and the ability to travel with my partner whenever I wanted. But I was so very miserable. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what was wrong. I went to doctors and had tests done to see why I wasn’t eating, why I was so thin, and why I was so weak. My body had carried me through a half-marathon just six months prior. What could have gone so wrong?
The answer was generalized anxiety disorder. And obsessive compulsive disorder. And PTSD from trauma I’d endured years ago. I found all this out after having a textbook breakdown. I’d been an anxious person since childhood, but I never thought so much could be “wrong” with me. I thought the only people who had nervous breakdowns were the violent antagonists in a gory primetime drama or big screen action movie.
Instead, I was angsty, listless, and unmotivated. I didn’t know how common my experiences were, and that the full-fledged-I-can’t-do-this-anymore defeat that engulfed my life at the time was not only typical, but treatable. So I started going to regular therapy sessions and taking a medication prescribed by my psychiatrist. I started talking about what I’d been experiencing, and I continue to, in case it’ll help anyone else feeling alone, helpless, and as if they’re a bystander in their own life. In fact, that’s why I started writing again: to share truth through art and encourage others to live their best lives.
Schlepping to a miserable job every day did nothing to help my recovery. In fact, it thwarted it. Every day I spent the forty-minute commute thinking about how much I hated my job. I spent my day thinking about how much I hated my job. And once, after that nasty boss I mentioned harassed me and screamed at me violently at my desk, I hid in a closet and cried. Even once I’d learned that my anxiety was the reason for a lot of the symptoms I’d been experiencing, I felt like I deserved to live miserably. This was punishment for having a flawed brain, I reasoned. Except that’s clearly not true and just my “flawed brain” talking in the first place.
But one day, a few months after I’d been regularly taking medicine and attending therapy, it kicked in. I didn’t deserve this. I didn’t deserve for my body to be critiqued alongside my work. I didn’t deserve to walk past mice corpses as I strolled down the hallway. (Yes, that really happened.) I deserved to be happy and fulfilled and work on things I was proud of.
So that’s what I did. One day I walked out of my job and decided not to walk back in again. I made the choice to be an active participant in my life and do what I needed to recover. I didn’t care that I walked away from the highest salary of my career thus far and one that I am aware that many other peers would love to have. And indeed, for some people, that desire is an apt goal for their life. I too thought I’d one day have a corner office and a C-level marketing title and be the #girlboss my straight As and internships dictated. But that wasn’t what I needed. Over time, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted, either.
I spent over two decades equating success to salaries. After all, I grew up in a world where it was normal to be in finance or medicine or law — not to be a twenty-something hippie who calls the shots and flips the bird to corporate America. I felt like a failure, like I couldn’t cut it in the “real world” because of my anxiety, and I worried that my parents wouldn’t support my decision to embrace my creative nature. But in time, they learned what I did just a short while earlier: I was healthier outside of the fluorescent lights of cubicle hell. I was thriving, and passionate, and happy.
In this world we need doctors as much as we need janitors; our world would not function without that balance. Likewise, we need creatives. Writers and painters and musicians and actors. We need the art that takes the doctors and janitors out of work-mode and allows them to relax and engage with the world around them. One of our biggest issues as a society is creating an environment where we glorify the Rat Race. We make working ourselves to the bone a badge of honor instead of a sign to slow down. We invalidate work that is “lesser than” our own intentions and make financial measures the largest indicators of success. We make it hard to live well without working incessantly. We don’t spend enough time encouraging happiness and health in our workforces, instead thinking that as long as the work gets done, everything is fine.
I am not exaggerating when I say that quitting my job saved my life. I could go on indefinitely about European work/life balance, the merit of considering universal basic income, and infinitely more principles that may isolate me from the “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” crowd. And indeed, there is no such thing as a free lunch. But maybe, if we can get our priorities right, we can better develop an environment where everybody eats.
Alexis Dent is a poet, essayist, and the original White Collar Dropout. Her first poetry collection, Everything I Left Behind, is forthcoming this fall. In the meantime, read her newsletter for dreamers, doers, and hustlers by joining the White Collar Dropout collective.
Image via Unsplash