Ink-Stained Scribe

On Art, Earthquakes, and Quitting My Job

Image by martinluff of flickr.
I remember my first earthquake. It was Summer of 2007, about two months after I moved to Japan. It was the middle of the night and I was asleep on my futon, which was directly on the floor beneath my overhead light. I've suffered from insomnia since high school and taken various sleep medications and the feeling was not unlike the effects of Ambien--the floor beneath me rocked like a boat. I woke up, not sure quite what was going on. I had expected something a little more like a malt-mixer or a drive over rocky terrain, so my brain didn't say EARTHQUAKE.

Then I noticed the cord on my overhead light swinging. Theory of relativity and all that, I realized it wasn't me but the earth moving. Literally.

Coming to terms with the fact that I needed to quit a stable job was similar.

What happened.

February 2013. I press the "release call" button on my phone and pull off my headset, flinging it to the desk in front of my double monitors. It's childish to throw inanimate objects, but there's no room left for shame in my chest. I stare at it like physical evidence of my inability to cope with the real world and feel the fire in my chest tear up my throat and into my eyes.

I've always been the kind of person for whom the world would end in flames, but right now the heat of my frustration and resentment isn't so much lighting things on fire as it is spilling down my face.

That triggers the shame. I hate crying. I hate being the person whose frustration and anger gets dismissed as a tantrum because any emotion that's strong enough sets off the water works. I used to get teary just asking for an extension on a homework assignment. Fear of misinterpretation or dismissal has made me ashamed of my biology.

I sweep the tears off my cheek and watch the timer for my personal time tick up as I try to breathe, to calm down. The man I'd been speaking to on the phone was angry at the organization, not at me. I knew that, and I'm usually good at the "soothing, measured voice" that calms down even the most frustrated customers. It's about the only useful thing I can do here. Vocal zen. But not today.

My patience threshold is pretty high. It might take little more than mild worry or frustration to make me cry, but it takes a lot to really piss me off. A lot of little things building up and building up, until the threshold is done and my patience level is Beyond Salvation.

My patience is like a firework.
Long fuse, but once it explodes,
it's pretty much gone.
Unlike quick-fire tempers, once I lose patience, it's pretty much gone.

I've been pissed since I opened my email that morning. Just a two sentence email letting me know my productivity was below 100% yesterday because I couldn't keep myself in the proper task codes. I know the task codes are my weakness. Management knows it's my weakness.

They also know, because I have explained to them, that I am attention deficit, and while I have learned to handle the interruptions to my work caused by phone calls, expecting me to remember nine different auxiliary codes, and remember to come out of them at the appropriate times, is an exercise in futility. It's not that I can't do the work. It's not that I couldn't learn to do the work very well given proper training and the ability to ask questions (neither of which I have); I've been told I'm a good employee and rated well in my quarterly and yearly evaluations.

But these codes are killing me.

And then to have an hour-long phone call with a man who refuses to stop talking or believe anything I try to tell him, who tells me my entire organization is incompetent (fact), and that I must be a moron for not knowing what he's asking.

"I apologize, sir," I finally said. "I was an English major in university. I've never studied business or accounting. I don't know the difference between an ethics question and a peer review question. If you would be able to determine which of these areas your question is likely to fall under, I'd be happy to connect you with the appropriate area."

"Why doesn't your company hire people who can answer these questions? I just don't understand."

"There are people who can answer these questions. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. I would be happy to give you the numbers for both hotlines so you can contact them directly, or connect your with them now."

"It's just a simple question!"

"I understand that, sir-"

"Really? Do you understand anything? Do you speak English."

Obviously. What I don't understand is why I'm still doing this.

I sweep more tears from my face and pick up my coffee. I drink until the tightness in my throat loosens and glance at the clock. Lunch is in ten minutes. I'm already seven minutes into my ten minutes of personal time.

I pull up a document and stare at it, trying to remember where I was and what I was doing an hour ago, before the call. My face feels hot, and I'm trying to sniff quietly so my coworkers won't know I've been reduced to tears by someone on the phone. Again.

I can't seem to hold anything in these days. My tears seem at all times close to the surface.

It's at times like this I wonder what would happen if I just... walked out. Got in my car. Drove home. It's not like anyone would stop me. Hell, any of the people here whose opinion I care about wouldn't even blame me.

But why can't I do this? Why am I the only one who's constantly reduced to tears? Am I so spoiled that I can't work in unfavorable conditions?

God, I haven't even written anything new in two months. I've been too tired. That never used to matter. Maybe I don't want it enough. Maybe I've lost whatever it was I once had.

The thought creeps into my brain despite resistance: what if I give up writing? If I let go of my ambition, maybe I could be content with a dead end, frustrating job. Maybe I'd have time to sleep and relax and meet people. Maybe I'd have time for romance. Maybe I wouldn't feel so lonely.

But...give up writing.

Give up writing.

A surge of emotion chokes me as I imagine life without writing. In my mind's eye, my identity crumbles and the future is a big black tunnel with no light at the end. Nothing to reach for.

Maybe I'd have more time if I gave up writing, but what would I be? So much of myself has been dedicated to that dream for so long that I don't know who I'd be without it.

Having to explain to my writing club that I couldn't do it. High school reunions, telling people I wasn't published and wasn't trying to be because I couldn't hack real life. Hearing my closest friends call me "Scribe", but knowing I wasn't Scribe anymore.

If I gave up writing, I'd never be able to respect myself.

I can change my job. I can change my hair. I can change the country I live in or the name I go by or the clothes I put on. I can start waking up early and keeping my room clean and making schedules.

But the one thing I can't change is writing. If I change that, I will disappear. I will fade. There will be nothing left of my Self or my self respect.

I won't believe in anything anymore.

That's when the earth started shaking.

What happened next.

By February 2013, I had two finished two novels, one of which did much better than I expected with agent interest, and an award-finalist podcast on writing genre fiction. I'd finally begun speaking at conventions. I had made amazing friends who were successful in my chosen fields and to whom I feel connected. I was paying all my bills and beginning to make headway on my credit card debt.

I was completely, utterly depressed.

I was exhausted, trying to keep myself afloat and maintain enough energy to shove my writing career into being. As we all know, when you try to multitask you accomplish no task at the best of your ability.

Five years out of college and I wasn't in Japan anymore, I wasn't published, and I was in a 9-6 job I hated. It's like the ultimate first-world problem, right?

 "I'm in a job with benefits, but it's stifling me creatively!"

Boo-effing-hoo. I wasn't homeless, I wasn't working minimum wage, I had clean water to drink, and I had friends and family that loved me.

Am I so spoiled and lazy that I can't be satisfied with that?

Graphic by J. Finkelstein on Wikimedia
Let me introduce you to my little friend: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. I first learned about this from Adryn, who was an abnormal psych major in Uni and whipped this mother out on the podcast.

It's excellent for character and society-building, but I never thought to use it for its actual purpose this blog post. (An typical example of my prioritization skills)

Here's something fun: growing up a white middle class American[1] means you're pretty much free to pursue Esteem and Self-actualization from birth (well, at least, once you're out of middle school and no longer worrying about Safety and Love/Belonging. Am I projecting?)

Then, if you're extra lucky, you head off to university where you continue to pursue Esteem and Self-actualization through education, and probably think once or twice about how this may translate into future safety through employment. Or you're all like:

Pshh. Employment. I'm going to study English even though I don't want to teach, because I'm going to be published by the time I'm 25!

(Shut up.)

Yup. That's me. I graduated and fluttered off to an entry-level teaching job in Japan, thrusting myself into the world of paying rent and bills and gas and food and having to actually do my own laundry and figuring out how clotheslines work in rainy season (oh yeah, and learning a foreign language to do it all in, because life's not hard enough in English).

I was so used to pursuing "Esteem" and "Self-actualization" that I continued devoting my time to creative pursuits and dreams, all the while living at the barest level of "Safety". Sometimes the financial ends did not meet and I spent the last couple of days scraping the bottom of my rice bag and hoping a private student wouldn't cancel a lesson.

But hey, I was young and in a foreign country, and it was okay to live irresponsibly for a while.

Three years later, when my visa was up, I came home. I dropped back into the "Safety" area as I fought the Hunger Games of job interviews and wondered whether I'd accidentally given my house elf a sock or something.

The problem was, my "irresponsible" living continued even when I came back to the states, only then I was unemployed for six months and racking up credit card debt while living on my parents' farm in the middle of rural North Carolina (where they had moved upon my graduation from high school). I hadn't grown up there and I didn't know anyone. A month later, my parents moved to Wisconsin, leaving me with only my older brother for company.

I was isolated, jobless, depressed, and I wasn't even writing all that much. Though I told myself I was going to "go all Thoreau on this situation," I failed. I tried to achieve self-actualization while meeting only the "Physiological" needs. The rope bridge between the base and top of my personal Maslow's hierarchy grew weaker and weaker as I ignored Safety, Belonging, and Esteem.

Not long after, I got a job in Raleigh--the city where I grew up--and was able to move in with my roommate. I hopped to two different positions before settling in a company that provided a livable salary and benefits, and I thought I was safe.

Except I wasn't.

I had achieved "Safety" in a monetary sense, and I had achieved love/belonging in my group of friends
and my roommate, but I was still trying to pursue my writing, still feeling like all the time and effort I'd put into getting an education and learning my craft was being wasted in a job that gradually wore down my energy, ignored my accomplishments, and made me feel like a person deserving of little to no respect.

Through all that, I was still clinging to my creative projects. I wanted my art. I wanted my writing and my podcasting and my cosplay. I was beginning to form a strong network of amazing friends in all those venues, but I had little time or energy to deepen those friendships. I let a very promising podcast fall by the wayside. I abandoned my rewrite of HELLHOUND.

I told myself I would have more energy once I found another job, but every time I opened a browser to search for a new job, the internal temper tantrum would begin.

I'm tired. I want to sleep. I don't have time for this. I'm sad. I'm lonely. I'm worthless. I can't sleep. I want to write.

It was after several abortive attempts to get a new job that I had that awful day at work. That day where I thought about walking out. That day where I thought about giving up writing.

I realized then that what I received in terms of financial stability was not worth the toll the job was taking on my psyche, my body, and my dreams. The earth shook, and I realized that it wasn't my inherent worthlessness that made me incapable of functioning in my job. It wasn't that the world itself was the problem, either. Earthquakes, as frightening as they can be, are not unnatural.

I just hadn't seen that swinging light, that indicator that things around me were not as I was used to them being, and in order to figure out how to make myself safe, I needed first to recognize that the shaking wasn't my fault.

The day I realized the world was shaking, I spent my lunch break finding templates and composing my letter of resignation. I printed it out. I sent an email to my supervisor requesting a meeting the next day.

I hadn't put it into words yet, but the realization is clear in hindsight.

The financial compensation wasn't enough to ensure safety, because safety is more than financial stability.

Safety is more than financial stability.

To understand that is one thing. I can read those words and understand what they mean and even agree with them. To feel it, though? To know it? To look at what the method of gaining that financial security has done to your self respect and realize that, if you continue, it will eventually force you to reject your identity? That is a completely different sort of understanding.

So I'm 28. In debt. Unpublished. Moving back in with my parents. Yes, a little ashamed. Yes, still feeling like a failure.

But also feeling hopeful. Because Safety is more than financial stability, it's also happiness. And I'm working on that.

I cry every time I see this.

[1] Note: being a white middle-class American is never to be taken for granted. Ever. Please don't complain about it. Really. Don't complain about being white and middle class. 'Cause guess what? In addition to avoiding all the usually-quoted trappings of being a minority, you never have to worry about whether you've been selected for something because of merit or because someone needs better-looking statistics. I watched a non-white friend get her acceptance letter to a long-shot school and, rather than rejoice, decide it was affirmative action and not her own merit that got her in. Let me tell you what, it sucks to watch someone belittle their own skill because they're convinced they've been selected to fill a quota and you, white girl, are in no position to convince her otherwise because educational facilities will always evaluate you based on skill, not what box you check.

*5-8-13 - Thanks to everyone who has sent me such kind, thoughtful emails and comments on facebook regarding this post. I'm glad it can provide some comfort to those going through similar troubles, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate the stream of support and love I have received. I may not be able to measure my success in money or accomplishments just yet, but, as a wise man once wrote (and many sang after him), "measure your life in love". Thanks.