I quit my job. Yep. You read that correctly. Quit. My. Job. It was terrifying. And liberating. After twelve years with the same non-profit agency, I handed in my resignation. After months of drinking too much, eating too much, smoking too much and crying too much over my job I burned out. I almost went down in flames screaming at people, laughing maniacally and throwing stuff but instead, I pulled it together, had a heart to heart with my wife of 16 years and finally meant it when I said I would work digging ditches to provide for my family if I could just get the f#*k out of this job.
The truth of the matter is that some would say I stayed about 11 years too long. Another truth is that I learned a hell of a lot about myself, politics, HIV, and people in the rural south. Some of what I learned enlightened me. Some of it pissed me off royally and some just wore me down. Just when I thought I had a handle on what I was doing, the grant changed, the laws changed, or the statistics changed. I learned how to think on my feet and how to actually be a self starter rather than just call myself one.
Every six months for the first 5 years in that job, I tried to hand in my resignation while crying like a blubbering idiot. My boss gently refused my resignations, handed me a tissue and sent me back out. I finally quit trying to quit and just threatened to quit about once a year. Knowing my M.O., my boss just listened, nodded and changed the subject to something I was passionate about instead of the thing that had angered me or frustrated me. In this job I have been an HIV educator, an HIV and housing advocate on both state and federal levels, a housing specialist, a property manager, a housing case manager, a gofer, a house cleaner, a trash hauler, a transporter, a party planner, a fund raiser and a conference presenter. Every day held different job responsibilities and I learned that I am not “above” doing any of those things. I was simultaneously humbled and empowered by this job on a regular basis. Also, angered. Did I mention angered?
This job affected me more than I could even describe in a short essay. I saw things in the job that were jaw dropping hilarious, heartrendingly sad, and culturally mortifying. Sometimes I experienced all three emotions in the same day. I met amazing people. I met terrible people. I witnessed goats eating abandoned houses. I wrangled cows back into pastures and hocked HIV education at flea markets next to a guy selling used socks. I cleaned out maggot filled refrigerators more than once and I shudder every time I see a pest control advertisement because of run-ins with German cockroaches and bedbugs. I joined coalitions, commissions, boards, fellowships and teams. I took notes for all of them so no one would ask me to actually lead the damn things. I once picked up a young homeless gay male prostitute by a bridge after he earned some “spending money” for the drug rehabilitation program to which I was taking him. I got chased by a drug dealer/pimp after giving some women condoms. I helped house a murderer who had very recently been released from prison. I taught junior high kids about STDs. These stories go on and on. There are too many to remember but depending on my mood, I can either traumatize a dinner party or make them laugh until they cry with these stories.
The one life lesson I learned the most about was judgment. I learned to trust my own judgment, admit when I had judged incorrectly, and how to work through my own preconceived judgments about behavior, poverty, disease transmission and love. I learned that it is easier to judge others than judge your own motivations and behaviors. I learned that being judgmental of others is a very common escape mechanism for actually facing issues and helping to find solutions. I learned and learned and learned.
And then I quit. I had learned enough in that job. I felt that I was losing my ability to be me. I felt that I was losing my passion for helping other people. I was getting lost in the politics, the policies and the ineffectual ways in which our society tries to “fix” things. It seemed that no matter how much I learned, the same patterns continued and the same mistakes were made over and over again. I was mad, hung over and jittery from nicotine use. My pants were tight and I had taken to hiding in my office. Instead of baking bread for colleagues on their birthdays, I found myself wanting to spank some of them after a stern talking to. I found myself getting less able to control my disdain for stupid policies, and if I heard some bullshit about teamwork making the dream work one more time, I might take someone out of the game. I had been putting out resumes and job applications for a while but had nothing lined up. Finally, I just handed in my resignation and hoped for the best. Starbucks, here I came. If I was lucky.
I did this because I was also losing my parenting skills, my ability to be a friend, my capacity to love my partner. I was beyond angry at what began to feel like being stuck in a job for the benefits. Stupid health insurance. Stupid retirement. Stupid mortgage. Stupid car payments. I was finding myself hating my inner peacemaker and ridiculing her for her refusal to brawl when others started to throw down. I questioned myself constantly. I felt more and more like I was pretending my way through my life instead of actually living it authentically. Like my life had become a terrible O Network example of how NOT to live your life. So…I quit.
People in my field were a bit stunned. We had been in the trenches for so long together that we were considered the veterans to some extent. We had all bitched to each other over martinis about work, public policy, healthcare reform, and housing deficits until we were all drunk and in need of Gatorade. We just kept going back for more. When one of my favorite colleagues and friends was fired for ridiculous reasons, it resonated strongly with me. I began to fear that the same fate was lined up for me. As she and I talked about her grief, her loss of financial security, and her continued passion for her calling to help house those in need, I began to covertly think about my options. I just did not see that I had any. My angst started to become even more self destructive. I spent inordinate amounts of time mad at people and mad at a broken system. I also grieved. Eventually this all culminated in a twelve hour sob fest on a close friend’s bed surrounded by people who loved me, followed by a month of frantic job searching, followed by a letter of resignation and senses of both relief and terrible fear.
This experience has been powerful. I’m still processing it. Just the other day, I hit speed dial for my previous boss to tell her I would be working late since my meeting had gone over time and I was driving home through a monsoon. I had just hit SEND when I realized that she would not really give a shit since I was no longer attending that particular meeting as a representative for her agency. I frantically hit END on my cell phone and laughed like crazy as I peered through my flooded windshield. Every day it gets a little easier to believe that someone else is willing to pay me for my services. My identity has been so enmeshed with HIV care in the South and homelessness for so long that I have to relearn who I am outside of those parameters. While this is taking self reflection and time, finding me is turning out to be a lot easier than losing myself.