Saturday, October 06, 2012

Good Grief--What a Long Post on Work!

I've been waiting most of the week to write this post, but I have not had the time because I've been living my beliefs:

Each person comes into this world with a specific destiny--he has something to fulfill, some message has to be delivered, some work has to be completed. You are not here accidentally--you are here meaningfully. There is a purpose behind you. The whole intends to do something through you.
-Osho

While I am not a follower of Osho (actually never heard of him until today), and probably would have rejected most of his tenets, this idea of purpose, grounded in spiritual and philosophical exploration, introspection and processing, has led me to where I am today, a place where I continue to grow.  But I can't leave out one of the most important components that has influenced my chosen journey: the strong work ethic that was instilled in me by my parents.

Earlier this week, a therapist (not mine, but an insightful, wonderful one) reviewed a passage from a book geared towards those who live with anxiety (which is something I do live with).  The book asks how we interpret our worth as human beings.  Do we base it on our possessions?  Our wealth?  Our social status?  Our reputation?

I commented that basing our worth on material possessions and such is a really American thing. But thinking about this most of the week, I have concluded those criteria are habitually universal, that they are mutations of our survival instincts and that they have marked the undoing of our species.  If we changed the way we evaluate ourselves, we would treat one another differently, which would really change our shared world. 

This is the ideal, of course.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe all human beings, including me, have inherent worth and are entitled to be treated with dignity.  Even so, I often beat myself up with my own failings and high expectations, which can be interpreted as perfectionism, a condition related to anxiety and control, according to the psychiatrists.  I left the therapist with the question, "Then what's the difference between a perfectionist and someone with a type A personality?"  Why does one  label connote the negative, one the positive or at least acceptable?  Contradictions like these lead to serious problems when we try to assess our own worth.

As a child growing up in Massachusetts in the shadow of Calvinism, I watched my parents labor.  My mother constantly did laundry, ironed, darned socks, cooked and cared for my brothers and I.  My father, a Coast Guard vet, first worked nights, clearly a stress to a family with small children.  He later earned a day shift, worked in boiler rooms, then heating and air conditioning maintenance, made his way up to facilities supervisor, was about to be laid off and returned to maintenance.  He would come home exhausted and irritable, complaining about the annoying people he worked with and his dissatisfaction with his work. 

In the meantime, my brothers and I were expected to complete daily and weekly chores for which we earned $2 a week.  When we got a raise to $3, we thought we were rich.

Starting at about age 11, I paid $2 an hour to babysit some of the local kids.  Around age 12, my brother and I took house cleaning jobs, yielding anywhere from $8-12, depending on the amount of work required.  At age 13, my best friend got us a job cleaning motel rooms, but we were underage, got paid under the table, had transportation problems and hated it, so that didn't last long.  The requirements were so detailed, we couldn't keep up, and we tired easily.  We tried opening our own house cleaning business, but transportation was again a problem, and my friend decided wiping up urine from a man who couldn't seem to hit the bowl wasn't worth the $6 apiece we earned.   

When I turned 14, I got working papers and my first real job at an ice cream shop where I moved from scooper to shift supervisor.  The shop was close enough to walk to, and if I was exhausted after a shift or it was a night, I got a ride from older friends or even the owners who lived locally.  Though I earned minimum wage, the job had serious perks like this and free ice cream.  Eventually, I saved up enough money to buy my first car--a 1979 Ford LTD, mint green with a dark green, vinyl top.  I loved this car, and I soon became the preferred driver for my "colleagues" who needed rides home.  It was a status symbol, particularly because I could fit the whole crew in, sans enough seat belts.  But I had grown up in an era when seat belts were optional, so I didn't worry too much about it.  We all managed to survive my questionable driving skills.

I worked as much as I could throughout my teens, scoring as many hours as I could. When the ice cream shop could no longer meet my needs (especially in the winter, when hours were cut), I tried other jobs, sorting hangers and cleaning up clothing dropped by messy customers in a department store, serving coffee in a mall, doing administrative work for a human resources consultant (a real pervert), cleaning offices, etc. 

When I graduated from high school, though I earned an academic scholarship to the local community college, I didn't want to attend because I hadn't enjoyed high school, and I was afraid that socially, college would be the same thing because most of my schoolmates planned to attend community college first.  I was accepted at three of four other universities but couldn't afford the tuition based on the meager financial grants the state provided to those living below the median.  Thus began my search for full-time work, which I easily attained because I had great references.  With my work ethic, I believed I could make it in the real world.

For two years, I tried out entry level positions in food services supervision, clerical work and administrative assistance.  I made sandwiches, wrapped gift boxes of chocolate, typed certificates for people who had earned permits to remove asbestos, shipped boxes, assembled binders, organized and filed emergency room records, answered telephones and soothed irate customs.  At the end of those two years, I figured out that having no college degree had yielded me the thing I most wanted to avoid: full-time, low-paying jobs I hated, plus debt accrued from having to live off credit cards.  My self esteem was dropping each time I took a new job.  The existential crisis forced me to consider what I really wanted to do for a living, which was to write.

For good reasons, my parents discouraged this career path.  The myth of the starving artist was no myth.  They could not afford to put me through college.  By this time, I was considered an independent living under the poverty line, so I qualified for state and federal grants.  I subsidized by working full-time as a late-shift receptionist/switchboard operator at a company that made educational videos, which allowed me to take a full schedule of morning classes.  I attended the very community college I had once rejected, got back the scholarship I had once rejected (very gracious of the administration, when you think about it) and graduated with a 4.0 in Liberal Studies which would allow me to choose any major I wanted if I attended a university, which I did. 

The university was far more expensive, so somewhere around 1989, I took a full-time job as a health insurance utilization review processor, a horrid customer service position that required sitting in a call center, discerning which insurance companies would allow which procedures and breaking the good or bad news.  The most hysterical callers were actual patients who had been denied hysterectomies.  Those cases had to be referred to nurses and doctors, but we customer service reps took the brunt of the justifiable fury. 

While working there, I was given a schedule change so I could enroll in three courses at the university. I loved it so much that I decided against a career in cosmetology (which I'd seriously been considering) and chose English, hoping I could get a job in writing or at least in teaching writing.  I worked mostly full-time throughout my college career, used grants to get me by, lived beneath the poverty line, fell into really hard times but continued to work as much as I could.  I finally got enough work on campus to keep me afloat.  I earned awards for my work in a literary club and participation in the Spanish club. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA.  But by this time, my parents and younger brother had relocated to Florida and my older brother had married and started a family of his own.  My classmates, friends and university staff had essentially become my family.

I was lost when I graduated from the university.  What would I do now, especially because I no longer qualified for campus jobs?  I applied to a few grad programs, but there were no grants available.  Fortunately, I obtained some adjunct teaching positions at the community college and university but ended up having to take out (reasonable) loans.  In the midst of this, I married. I completed my masters' degree, bouncing a colicky baby on my lap as I typed my final thesis.

Trying financial and family times required I move to Colorado.  I still needed to work for financial and emotional reasons.  I got a full-time job in education, which I enjoyed.  But family responsibilities came first.  Then more financial catastrophes hit. I had to give up my job in Colorado.  I moved to Virginia where I managed to work in education (at schools I later discovered were highly unethical) and on my doctorate, which, unfortunately, ended up being another legal and financial catastrophe. (Ironically, one of the main reasons I had chosen Virginia was to be close to the university's D.C. site.)  In the end, family responsibilities, trauma and disabilities got in the way of my working full-time.

What happens to someone like me who defines herself by her work, productivity and the difference she can make in the world?  What happens when a Type A overachiever (or a perfectionist, depending on how you look at it) has lost her confidence and income and feels defeated?  What happens when she feels like a failure for not having lived up to her work ethics?

For someone with a history of depression, anxiety ADHD and PTSD, the situation could easily become devastating, and it was indeed on the verge of being so.  Outside of my family whom I love passionately, I felt isolated. I didn't fit in with this crazy D.C. Metro, wealthy suburban culture even though my financial situation had improved.

And then, after my trauma in 2005, miracles were starting to happen.  And they are still happening. 

My mother-in-law encouraged me to find a church.  I told her that if anything, I was Unitarian, and I doubted there would be a Unitarian church here.  And yet, a simple Internet search brought me to Bull Run Unitarian.  Here was a church with people who were different, unique, diverse in beliefs in what felt like a homogenized culture.  I found good mental health providers--or they found me, depending on how you look at the positive energy the universe holds.  I found fulfilling volunteer opportunities.  I was given the opportunity to work in my field with people I love in a place where I can really make a difference.  I got published.  I was invited to help develop a networking group for writers.  Suddenly, it seems, I am no longer an outsider, a loser, which is what I considered myself because I was unable to live up to my own work ethic, a value I learned long ago and one I still consider very important.

I am so grateful for what has been given to me and my family, and I don't even know all the people I should thank because some of them are out there working quietly on their own missions, which happen to benefit people like me.

What I am working on now, in addition to continuing my spiritual exploration, is balance. My work ethic has often taken over my life.  I am having to learn to say no to more volunteer work.  I am having to learn about my body, my mind and how much is too much.  I am having to remind myself that there are other ways I can have fun that won't tax my mind quite so much, leaving  me exhausted and therefore less productive.  This is a real challenge for someone who likes to write, because writing is indeed work.  It's mind boggling.  But it's also fun.  I need to learn how to shut off the noise in my head without feeling like running away from home to the beach, yearning to be somewhere I can't afford, or creating fantasies to replace reality.

I've got a long way to go,which is in itself, work.  Ironically, I've ordered the workbook the therapist showed me.  You might be hearing about the results, but I hope you won't hear about them every day--because that would mean I am working WAY too hard.
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