I have often, over the years, asked for guest authors to add some variety to my blog. Well, today, I am pleased to post a writing by my dear friend and author, Paloma Paz. Thank you, Paloma, for your contribution to Liam's Grandma!!! Comments welcome!
AN UNEXPECTED TRIP
BY PALOMA PAZ
I thought I was safe. I spent more hours at work than I should have for the past four years. The industry in which my employer operated was rapidly consolidating. As an attorney, I spent a solid amount of time in those years on acquisition teams, buying companies as small as a single plant to and as large as being worth a few billion. During this period, I averaged a twelve hour work day, nearly seven days a week, further compounded by a two hour round trip daily commute and an average of only five hours of sleep each night. I loved the work, but wished there was less of it. Perhaps slightly more than the work, I really, really loved watching my savings pile up. Money had always been my cozy chenille comfort blanket.
I thought I was safe. Yet my mind and my body began to protest at around the three year point. I treated my family to a colossal crying jag after Thanksgiving dinner one year, got into a heated one-sided shouting match with my sister (you can guess who did most of the shouting), and angry snips seemed to spurt from my lips with a frequency close to the speed of light. I put on twenty five pounds thanks to a regular high carb, higher chocolate diet in a vain attempt to create more energy to function. I rarely exercised. I wanted to quit my job. My God, did I want to quit. The job market has been particularly poor for attorneys, and I did not want to leave a job without having another one lined up. I knew I couldn’t outright quit because then I would not be eligible for unemployment. I had so few hours available to look for another position, but I searched whenever I could. I felt trapped.
I thought I was safe. After one large major acquisition, a new CEO was hired. With this change came along the various terminations and demotions of senior management as the new CEO made room for his team. In the next months many changes were made in key management positions. I figured that the law department was small enough and disconnected enough from key operations that no changes would be made. My health continued to decline as I developed hives on my torso. My doctors tested pretty much everything testable, but couldn’t find anything wrong. The only logical conclusion I could come to was that I was beginning to morph into a cheetah with red instead of brown spots. While this could have been alarming, I thought how delightful it would be to grow some serious fangs and outrun the wind. No colleague would dare race to my office at 5:30 pm on a Friday with an “emergency” if I could flash my fangs.
I thought I was safe. As I continued to morph into an overweight, crabby cheetah, my life short circuited after being informed by my boss on a warm, sunny June day that due to management changes, my job was eliminated.
I was not safe. I wish I could say that I gathered up my spotted cheetah pride, and with grace and elegance shook my boss’ hand and thanked her for the opportunity that she gave me. After all, she was one of the most talented attorneys I knew and I gained many skills by having worked with her. After a few moments of stunned silence I did indeed thank her for the opportunity…with tears streaming down my face and a nose full of snot.
I was not safe. I had been let go. I, who had given far too much in four years, was let go. I, who sacrificed health, time with family and friends, and happiness to ensure that every bit of work I touched was completed with excellence, was let go. My company provided me with a severance package and good references. For the first time in my adult life, I had no job. I learned the hard way that excellence alone is not enough to safeguard my position.
I was not safe. I grew up poor. My parents had low wage jobs, and whenever one of them would lose a job, we would lose our home or car or be hungry. In experiencing my family’s struggles through unemployment, I learned a simple mathematical equation: unemployment = very bad things will happen. I educated myself with a vengeance, believing education to be a talisman protecting me from ever being worried about the origins of my next meal or whether my car would disappear into an adept repo man’s hands in the secrecy of night. I never wanted the fears of homelessness and hunger that starred almost nightly in my childhood dreams to be my living reality as an adult. I thought I had protected myself with the fool-proof solution of education.—I got a doctorate for goodness sake. But no. A bloody, stinking, expensive doctorate cannot guarantee employment. So much for that plan. [Yes, I think I hear post docs, new PhD’s, and scads of unemployed lawyers from around the world belly laughing at my naivety between guffaws and snorts right about now…].
I was not safe. Despite the severance package , excellent saving and investing habits, and the fact that my husband remained employed, I spent the first few weeks of my unemployment waiting for the horror that I knew would come. Day in and day out I was expecting…well, I’m not sure what I was expecting other than a terror I could not foresee. I became a robot of money conservation to fortify myself against the unknown. Not a single penny could be spent that was not required by urgent necessity. I constantly unplugged everything that wasn’t being used, including the microwave, coffee pot, and the washer and dryer. No, I justified to myself, I wasn’t going off the deep end. We should be conserving energy anyway; it’s better for the environment. My poor husband was less than enthusiastic about my implementation of new economic sanctions, but thankfully he cut me some slack and let my fear run its course.
Maybe I am safe. More than two months had elapsed and nothing bad had happened. No repo man made off with my Chevy. The bank did not throw us out of our house. We did not starve. We did start buying meat only on sale and watching the weekly ads closely. The use of coupons is now so engrained a habit that it might be built into my genetic code. Instead of uncorking a wine bottle, we usually pour from a box. On the rare occasion when a bottle is uncorked, I find myself savoring it and paying more attention to the bouquet, the feel of the wine in my mouth and the flavors as they flow over my tongue. We don’t eat out. We brown bag lunches, and I am building confidence as I try cooking in earnest for the first time ever. The only thing better than the cost effectiveness of cooking is the improved nutritional value and taste of the meals we eat.
Maybe I am safe. I have caught up on much needed sleep. I am spending more time with my husband enjoying simple pleasures, like fires in the fireplace, listening to a much loved (and dust covered) CD or watching a favorite movie for the gigamillionth time. I am having lunch and coffee with friends, and I am touched to find that not a single one of them would allow me to pay. I lost my status as an aspiring cheetah when my hives disappeared. I started to exercise again. I am writing again. I must admit to myself that being unemployed has been less stressful than staying in a job that was too much for me. I never thought this would be true for me.
Maybe I am safe. It took a long mental and soulful journey for me to admit to myself that I cannot be an eighty hour a week, high charging executive, that my body and my soul have limitations on what and for how long I will be allowed to work. Since I was a girl and understood that I was my own best advocate, and ambition led me to climb the professional world higher than I thought possible. Yet I came to realize that all ambition does not have to be plowed into hitting the corporate jackpot. I can be ambitious to have a more balanced career, time for important people in my life, time to exercise, and time to write. For me, ambition is no longer the ability to get a job with a glorious title and spectacular paycheck. Now ambition is having the courage to choose my life’s course by understanding what I want, and mustering the courage to decline opportunities that are not what I want.
Maybe I am safe. As if to test my new understanding of the role of ambition in my life, I received the opportunity to take almost the same job as the one I lost, in the same industry in another city, with the ability to move into the senior vice president role. The salary was spectacular and the cost of living in the area was so low that the pay would have been a considerable raise. I wasn’t tempted to take it. I thought it would be hard to pass on the offer. I thought it would be the employment equivalent of passing on a lifetime supply of Godiva champagne truffles. It wasn’t. I kindly and calmly thanked the HR Director for considering me, but I decided to move in another direction. No fireworks hailed my bravery, no heavenly chorus applauded me for vanquishing my unhealthy yearning for the big corporate executive life. It was a simple, peaceful “no” that flowed as gently as a hidden brook. I felt good about the decision, and I was glad that I could make a decision that put the interests I identified as being important to me above the interest I merely thought or was compelled to think was important to me.
Maybe I am safe. I understand that while unemployment can be a frightening thing, it isn’t an automatic financial and emotional death sentence. For me it has become a welcome opportunity to identify the myths that have been ruling my life and leading to overwork and unhappiness. I needed the downtime to think and evaluate my satisfaction with my life and its direction; for four years I cut this side of myself out of the picture. I understand how unhealthy this was for me to do, and I earnestly apologize to myself for being neglectful. I resolve to not have this lapse in judgment again.
There is no guarantee that the outcome of my journey to find the right job for me will be a happy one. There is no guarantee that we will keep our home or that we will have good credit. There is no guarantee that our savings will last. But for today, I know what I want my life to look like, and I have a wonderful spouse and family and friends to share it. Today I have a roof over my head, lights and heat, food to eat, and two very cuddly cats who think it’s about time I stopped the work nonsense and devote much, much more time to them. I have a cup of tea in my hand, words flowing from my fingers and acceptance of the unknown. I am safe.
Copyright 2012 Paloma Paz