In case you had any doubts, I’m here to tell you that there isn’t much good about being broke with no financial or professional prospects. It pretty much sucks just as much you might imagine. Watching what was once an impressive career draw its last, dying breath is uncomfortable under any circumstances but horrible beyond belief when that career is your own.
Of course, I can’t speak for anyone else who has crashed and burned her own shining career, but in my case, it didn’t happen overnight. But sometimes it sure does seem that way. One day I had a big office near the Potomac River and the next time I took a good, long look at my career, I was scraping by and teetering on the brink of being Terminally Unemployable. I spent many, many quiet moments of panic and self-loathing, contemplating my slow reversal of fortune, and my own complicity in it.
I think that it is objectively fair to say that my career peaked when I was 27-years-old and working DC for a national non-profit. I was flying around the country, appearing on national morning news shows, and pulling in more money than before or since. From there, my career involved a series of choices that took me further from power and money and ambition, including a six-year stint as a Stay At Home Mom with a part-time small business.
When I was fired from my last full-time job in February of 2013, I found myself involuntarily unemployed for the first time in my life, but the funny thing was, I wasn’t worried. At all. Seriously. I had never, ever had to worry about finding work. Or money, for that matter. Whenever I needed an opportunity, one had always presented itself, and, even at my youngest and poorest, I had always been able to pay my bills. I felt confident that everything would be just fine.
Days turned to weeks. Weeks gave way to months. Months somehow slid into a year, and I was not any closer to a full-time job with benefits. I tried, honestly I did. I sent out resume after resume and tried all kinds of networking groups, online and off. I wrote and rewrote my resume to tailor it for every job I was conceivably qualified to do. I considered going back to school (!) to get some kind of certification or degree that would better position me. Caving to pressure from nearly everyone around me, I seriously explored hanging out my shingle as a sole practioner of law, only to suffer a few sleepless nights that made me realize that I’d be happier as a Starbucks barista than as an attorney. I completed the online application for Target and then realized that the shifts I would be given initially would require me to hire a nanny who would be making more per hour than I would.
In almost two years, I had two interviews and no offers.
I hid my despair from nearly everyone, putting on a brave front and reassuring my friends and family that something would surely come up. But I saw my own doubts reflected back to me in their eyes, and heard the silent question echoing in the space between us: “What happened to you? You used to have so much… promise.” Some of the younger women I had mentored for years fell away, and many of my professional contacts subtly distanced themselves from me. After all, it was fine to be fired from a politically appointed position, but to be unemployed for more than a year, well, surely there must be something wrong, no?
I didn’t blame them. I had the same doubts about myself. I cobbled together some writing work and interior design projects that, along with semi-regular withdrawals from my 401(k), kept me afloat. I worked every moment I could and literally said a prayer of thanks every time I deposited a check. (I was probably quite a picture at the ATM.) On the outside, I was “being creative” and “taking initiative” and “carving out an interesting little niche for myself.” But inside, I was terrified and couldn’t even admit it to myself, except in the middle of the night as I lay in bed and imagined losing my home and everything in it.
One of the things about working for yourself is that you have lots of time alone. And I used all of it to try and answer that silent question that hung in the air. What had happened to me? Where had my promising career gone? Who would I be professionally if I wasn’t the sharp, young wiz that everyone admired and respected?
What the hell had happened to me??
And I gradually realized that, for nearly 20 years, I had been apologizing, in one form or another, for my career choices. Offering justifications and explanations and reasons to assure everyone – including myself – that I hadn’t just made one sad mistake after another. I felt foolish as I accepted the truth: the question wasn’t new at all; only my conscious awareness of it was.
And then one day, as a bitterly cold 2014 melted into a milder 2015, I found my answer.
Life. Life had happened to me. Except that it wasn’t a passive thing. It didn’t just “happen.” I had engaged my life and made my decisions to the best of my abilities at the time. Each and every one was made with the best of intentions and with the best information I had at the time. I revisited my decision to leave DC and move to Colorado, knowing now that that single move downshifted my career in very obvious and meaningful ways. I examined my decisions to hop around, trying this job and then that one, and the experiences I gained from each. I remembered the heartache and fear of having a sick toddler, and the relief at watching her get well. I noted for myself some of the friendships I made being a Stay At Home Mom and how well those friendships served me later during my divorce. But overall, what I really did was simple: I forgave myself.
I forgave myself for essentially throwing away a very expensive education to follow my fancy down other paths.
I forgave myself for sacrificing my career altogether at the altar of motherhood.
I forgave myself for not having the driving ambition to match the opportunities provided to me.
I forgave myself for getting older and surrendering the Young Crackerjack title to other, younger, less seasoned people who are just as likely to make dubious choices as I was.
And I cannot tell you how wonderful that was. I felt so free from guilt and explanation and justification and that incredibly heavy burden of “What If.”
Surely there will always be people who hear about my career and wonder, “What the hell happened to you?” but the people who seek an explanation will never truly understand, because they will always judge me by the words on my resume instead of the life I’ve created and the lessons I’ve learned. And the ones who do understand me don’t ask for or need an explanation.
Remember how I said that some of the young women I mentored drifted away slowly after my firing? Well, there were some exceptions, and one in particular inadvertently helped me reach my peace with my past. For some reason, we had become much closer as my unemployment dragged on, and I confided occasionally in her of my fears. At the last lunch we had in 2014, she said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you’re much more interesting and inspiring now than when you supposedly had it all together. Or at least, you are to me.”
Her words stayed with me, sitting lightly on my heart, and made me wonder if maybe there was something better than having it all together.
I don’t know for sure what I was supposed to gain from my long, terrifying journey through unemployment and self-employment, but I think it’s pretty clear that in order to find any real professional satisfaction again I was going to have to make peace with my past. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life apologizing to others and myself for choices that were not inherently wrong. I had to forgive myself for making the decisions I had and fully acknowledge the realities of the circumstances that had created those choices.
I don’t know if I’ve fully forgiven myself yet, but I have deliberately replaced my self-loathing with a renewed appreciation for what I gained from all those years. I have a job now that I love and want to do for a long time. I am not ashamed to tell people what I do, even when I see a glint of surprise or superiority in their eyes. I am grateful for the opportunity I have and the work I am given and the paycheck that accompanies it. But most of all, I am at peace with all that has gone before in my professional life. It has been a wild and unpredictable ride, but it has been my ride. And that’s really the best thing that any of us can say at the end of the day, isn’t it?