“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” -Mary Oliver
It is the spring of 2009. I have been a home based social worker at one of the largest social service agencies in Maine for nine years. I work with children with autism, developmental delays and/or mental health diagnoses and their families.
This is a job that I put my heart and soul into....I am a helper. I develop long term relationships with families and support them in navigating systems that are supposed to be helping their children. There are parts of this job that I love and there are parts that are relentless & overwhelming. I am salaried at thirty-two hours a week, which is the smallest amount that I am able to work while still receiving health care benefits. My husband is self-employed, so our agreement is that I will work outside the home, so that our family can have access to health care. Having healthcare is non-negotiable for our family because of our child with extensive [and lifelong] out of state medical care needs. I often joke that I need a bumper sticker that reads "Will Work For Health Insurance Coverage."
In 2009, the agency I work for develops efficiency standards which increase our weekly billable hours to a number that is impossible to reach. There are fewer and fewer resources available for families. And there are more and more budget cuts.
After working as a social worker and living and parenting through a series of major surgeries and hospitalizations with my daughter, I find myself totally depleted. I am viscerally unhappy with my life, and especially at work. I begin to make noise about my unhappiness, battle fatigue, frustration and my ever decreasing empathy towards my clients. I begin to get intuitive nudges that I need to be done with this line of work. I know that I am burned out. I am cranky always. My upper back and neck are in knots. I have pounding headaches.
And by the way, this is the time in my life that I start seeing a hawk most days, on my way to work. A friend who is also a Social Worker hears my complaints and tells me that the agency he works for is hiring. I will make more money, have access to better benefits and I will have similar billing requirements. I decide that perhaps the grass is greener on the other side.
And maybe I just need a change of venue to perk me up, re-energize me and make me love this work again.
I interview for the position and get the job.
So I move to a new agency with better pay and better benefits and I feel really positive about the move. For a month or two I am able to make it work. I am effective at this job and that lands me with some of the toughest cases I've ever had on my caseload. As my stress increases & the newness wears off, I realized that I am still unhappy.
All of the feelings that I've stuffed down and compartmentalized [in the name of more money and greener grass] start showing up again. And by the way, sometimes my unwritten job description includes doing things like entering smoke filled apartments and helping people move couches and mattresses from their space into my car, to transport them to a new living space.
And the cigarette smoke makes me sick and the smells of other people are hard for me to tolerate [because I've always been a highly sensitive person, I just didn't have the language for it yet.] After a full day of doing this really overwhelming job, I go home and parent my child who has daily medical needs.
I feel resentful about being on duty and in support mode all the time. I feel resentful about whiny clients. I feel resentful about how I ended up back in the same place again, after moving to a new employer.
I start to over-function. Meaning I am doing all the things for all the people, but not myself. Because at this point in my life, I don't know what I need to do to take care of myself. Because DOING makes me feel like I have some control. My perfectionist tendencies are over the top. My boundaries are out of whack. I am crying most days. I am so angry. Marc is concerned about my mental health because I am so out of sorts. I say to him "I think this job is killing me." I feel guilty that I can't just suck it up anymore and go to work like I used to be able to do. I turn that guilt inward and find fault with myself.
In my brain I have created a story that there is no way out. That I am trapped. These thoughts create even more anxiety and panic in me. My brain tricks me into believing that I must be the provider of the health insurance. My brain makes it feel non-negotiable. In my brain, I created stories that I had to do all the things. That I had to be depleted as part of my job. That I had to keep working for someone else. Because in this stressed out, overwhelmed place, I feel like I am falling down the rabbit hole. And I grasp at stories. I spiral into self-doubt. Because that feels tangible and concrete and like something I can control.
In the midst of my unfurling and unhappiness and seeking, I reach out for help. I start to tell my story. I show my tears to friends and family. I am stretching into vulnerability. I understand that I feel the way I do because I hold so much [and have for so many years] and because I am beyond burned out in my life and in my work.
I cross paths with a radiant art therapist and I start going to art therapy as a way to process and gain some clarity. She is a gentle, centered guide who loves creation and spirituality and also loves logistics and planning. We are an ideal fit. I receive so much of what I have been missing in the form of validation, reflection and understanding. She helps me to see that I have options. With the support of my spouse and my therapist, I get back to the point where I remember that I have a choice. I have the choice to stay on the current road or I get to choose a new path. I start to see the light again and begin to feel like I can breathe.
Finally in October of 2010, there is the glorious & gigantic leap. My pathway to the glorious leap felt messy, complicated and painful. But I'm here to tell you that I made it through to the other side. Because I was ready. Because it was time to move on. Because I needed to spread my wings. Because we are wired to do hard things.
After many months of planning, deliberation, tears, worry and excitement, I made the decision to leave my job. This decision was something I intuitively knew that I needed to do for years, but I had to get to that leaping point on my own timeline and in my own unique way.
And now, in hindsight, I know that this transition happened exactly the way that it was supposed to. Taking this huge risk and leap was one of the hardest [and best] decisions I've ever made. I haven't looked back [or returned to social work] since.