I spent almost two years out of work which was good, but a bit too long. It felt like oversleeping, a self-induced fog. And because I’m a project manager and have to organize things, I think my time out of work falls into three distinct phases. I won’t make a chart or compare it to the stages of loss or grief (or alcohol recovery), but there’s probably some overlap.
Phase 1 (“The Day I Turned Purple”)
Right after leaving work I still woke every day with a start, but it was like those times you think you have to get up and then remember it’s the weekend. That happened every day for several weeks.
But my impulse was to snap back into work because I had a friend who offered me some, and I felt foolish/guilty turning it down, even though I knew it was a bad idea. I felt like I owed him something.
I started taking my dog into the hills as a form of escape, but felt I should take my phone, in case I heard back about the new job. For two weeks I waited on the status of my contract and worried, feared, I’d be going back to work. I feared this and also feared what it would mean not to work. I filled my time making intricate salads and rereading Infinite Jest, which seemed fitting (a thousand-page book about the seeming pointlessness of it all).
We hired lawyers to help us understand the visa system in Germany and then I started project managing them. I bought a white board to scope the tasks needed for us to move to Germany and Dawn and I had stand-up meetings Sunday mornings. But come mid-February I resigned to not work before leaving the States and instead focus my time on cleaning out the garage, which took about six weeks, probably for all the breaks I took, most involving beer.
Phase 2 (“MDM,” or Mondays Don’t Matter)
This is a period of recklessness that spanned about all of July into, well, the end of August (2015 into 2016). During this timeframe there was no thought of work whatsoever. My focus was getting us moved out of our house and the logistics sorted for our move to Europe, then once we were out of our place and into my mother-in-law Beth’s, I finished the book Cloud Atlas, took long, country walks in her neighborhood, grilled every night. I taxied the dog and cats to Germany to get them out of our hair, and with no house, no plants, no pets, I felt free the month of July. I posted 23 times. It seemed every moment was precious, and it was.
The thought (the pragmatic part of me) was that I’d start looking for work in January, that time of year we all start off goal oriented. Instead, I tried doing a dry month to see what it would do for my writing and as a kind of purge from our month in Scotland, a month in Ireland.
But I didn’t do anything work-wise. Anytime I went on LinkedIn I shriveled up, all those thumbnails like playing cards, everyone looked the same. I wanted to be different, to not use LinkedIn, to not have to sully myself with traditional work pursuits like that. There had to be a better way.
Dawn and I went to Berlin for Valentine’s Day and talked it over, felt like we had a plan, agreed it made sense for me to look after the kids through summer after we got back, get a job come September. I wanted to redefine myself, rebrand myself in the next job as The Writer.
Phase 3 (“Reentry Burns”)
This is the awkward reentry phase. In July, I learned about a potential need at a nonprofit and gave them a proposal. But they took a while to respond and it was hard for me to find the gumption to look elsewhere. It was also a project management gig, which was putting me right back where I was, more or less.
I went down the path of starting my own copy-writing business. I considered taking classes (a delay tactic). I still fantasized about working in a grocery store or chopping wood, mindless, menial work I could romanticize Bukowski-style, writing about work at the post office or as an exterminator.
Come September I started to panic. The nonprofit scheduled me to come in at the end of the month but I had a bad feeling it wouldn’t pan out and was frustrated they’d taken so long to respond to my proposal (July). I started cold calling recruiters. I fell into a kind of funk where I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to work again, or could. The more I thought about it, the more I dreamt about my last job, with strange, flickery scenes from my final days there. No one wants to hear about dreams like that; they’re weird things you have to keep to yourself like ingrown nose hairs, you suffer in silence.
But as I got on the phone with more recruiters and talked about what I did and wanted to do, I kind of rebuilt myself. Dawn had a friend and former colleague who approached her with a need in her group at Microsoft, and Dawn recommended me for the job instead: they said they were looking for a writer and project manager, and I asked if she’d repeat that, was that the exact order, and it was—and I felt elated. I got on the phone and offered to talk about my past and qualifications but it wasn’t necessary. I guess with contracting you show up and either prove you can do it or you can’t, there’s no strings attached, no immersion plans, sink or swim.
A month back into the workforce now I think about those times of uncertainty, that soul-searching that felt almost dangerous, it was a kind of unknowingness, an innocent but frightening place to be.
I wanted to see what would remain if I stripped away the work-associated parts of myself that defined me, the notion that who you are is what you do. And it’s funny, and upsetting, that not working cuts into the self-esteem in ways I don’t ever want to repeat. While I cared for the kids, the house and the chores, it never felt like enough or balanced; there was an unspoken sense of duty I needed to fulfill, for things to seem fair.
And that’s why I’m posting as much as I can now despite the fact I’m working again, to remind myself of who I really want to be by what I do, to protect that, and remember who I am before I go off to work every day.
I still get to walk the dog and take my time at the lake to write a few words, to see how much higher the water level’s come, how much of the shore it’s taken: now we sit on the rocks and I dangle my feet, noting the reflection of the trees on the surface and how much it looks like a mirror, only reversed. Maybe that’s what’s so tantalizing about our reflections, it looks like a copy we can edit, and how could we resist?