A Little Late on the Uptake

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So in yesterday’s blog post, I mentioned a revelation that I had had during therapy, and said that I would be blogging more about it today. I’m quite a bit embarrassed by this, so this is going to be therapeutic on multiple levels.

Back in 2004 I was a certified pharmacy technician, and I was a good one – graduated near the top of my class, managed to get a wide variety of experience in both retail and hospital pharmacy in a short period of time, card carrying member of one of the professional development organizations in the field. I was working in the surgical pharmacy satellite dealing primarily with anesthesia medications, and I was very happy with that job. But a colleague had recruited me for a position with the aforementioned pro-d organization, and it was one that I couldn’t pass up – I was going to be brought on board as the editorial coordinator for the entire organization, with the job of editing the organization’s bi-monthly trade magazine falling within my purview.

When I was brought on board, the organization was in the middle of the issue cycle, and so rather than bringing me on board with the ending of the process, my job for the first three weeks that I was with the group was to disseminate trending news among the organization’s mailing list as a daily digest in several different categories. (This was prior to social media becoming a Thing; I imagine this part of the job is now being published in real time on both Facebook and Twitter.) I was good at this part of the job, because my ability to find relevant news was fairly strong.

Then came the day that I was brought on board with the process of creating a magazine. There was going to be a staff meeting to kick off the next issue, and before that meeting I had a ten minute long one-on-one with the executive director and publisher of the magazine explaining what was going to happen in the meeting. I was told to rely on the others on staff for the creative direction until I got the hang of the job and could handle that on my own, I was given a few other general pointers as well. And then I went to the meeting.

Which everyone, including my boss, expected me to run. I was not informed of this little detail before it happened, I was just basically thrown under the bus in front of the entire office staff. I had no idea what direction I should take the next issue, I didn’t have the first clue about what was going on, to be honest. I was very much outside my abilities at that point and we managed to wing it with a little – and I do mean little – help from my boss.

I pulled him aside after the meeting and addressed my concerns with him, and he explained that he had every faith in me to be able to have a rough draft of the magazine’s articles ready in three weeks.

And shortly – within a few minutes, actually – after that vote of confidence, the executive director of the organization locked the door to his office and hopped on a flight to Australia to fulfill a lifelong dream of swimming with the sharks off the Great Barrier Reef, an activity that he spent three weeks doing.

Remember that earlier mention of three weeks? This guy expected me to produce a full magazine with what was effectively ten minutes of vague guidance and no actual training.

Now, before you jump in and say that I should have known what I was doing when I accepted the job, my complete lack of editorial experience was a prominent point in my interview and I made it crystal clear to him that while I would appreciate the opportunity I had precisely no experience whatsoever of doing this type of work. So he knew what he was getting into when he hired me.

So there I sat without the first clue about how to produce a magazine, with three weeks to somehow magically do so. I had no training, no guidance about what to do, who to talk to about finding writers for the articles, no nothing. And the most important thing that I was without was resources. I knew very few people in my field; I’d only been in it about a year at that point. And the magic Rolodex with all of my boss’s contacts was behind a locked office door and the key had skipped the country.

No direction. No guidance. No training. No resources. Three weeks.

I spent that three weeks feeling my blood pressure rise, and about two weeks into this personal hell I had a doctor’s appointment. I don’t remember what my diastolic was, but i distinctly remember that my systolic blood pressure was in the 250s. My doctor openly wondered why I wasn’t having a stroke in front of her eyes. She asked what my life was like – diet, sleep, workload, everything – and I told her the summary of what my work was expecting of me. She asked if there was any way I could delegate some of my work responsibility and I explained that there really wasn’t anyone to delegate it to. Her order – not her suggestion – was for me to leave that job as soon as humanly possible, and it was emphasized that my health was directly counting on me doing so.

So I bided my time, continuing to make every effort to produce a magazine out of thin air.

When my boss finally arrived back into the office, I made it clear that I needed to see him as soon as possible. He made that meeting a priority, and in it I informed him that I had not completed the rough draft and that my doctor had ordered me to leave the job as soon as I could, and that this conversation was my resignation effective immediately. I left his office to go pack mine up and together my wife and I took the boxes down to the car and started a new chapter in my life.

It was May of 2004 and I felt like a complete and utter failure, and I blamed myself for the whole thing.

It took me almost a year and a half to go back to work, and only then because I had determined the best way to rebuild my confidence in myself was to volunteer somewhere, and the place that I volunteered at was so impressed by my performance that they hired me on part-time after the first month. I worked there for three years, working around 12 hours a week. That was the limit of my confidence. I still felt like a complete and utter failure because of what happened with the editorial job, and I still felt like it was all my fault.

Fast forward to September 2016. I still felt like a complete and utter failure because of that job and was absolutely convinced that the failure was 100% on me. And the experience came up in conversation with my therapist yesterday.

I explained to her what I’ve just told you, and her immediate response was that none of it was my fault. Given what I’d been given, there’s practically no one on the planet that could produce results with as few resources and as little training as I had. I had been thrust in a no-win scenario, and I was not to blame.

For twelve years I’d been shouldering the burden of the blame of that failed experiment, and I let it intrude into almost any situation that required me having self-confidence. It was doing so silently, surreptitiously, with me unaware of how thoroughly it had affected me.

It was like a light went off. It wasn’t my fault. It really wasn’t my fault. I’d been set up to fail from the beginning, and it wasn’t my fault. My former boss was the one to blame, he was the one at fault.

It. Was. Not. My. Fault.

I keep saying that phrase, “it was not my fault,” like it’s a mantra. I can hear myself saying it. But it’s another thing to believe it, and to change my point of view regarding the whole mess, and I’m not at that point yet. I hope to get there in the not-too-distant future. Right now I’d settle for it not being an embarrassment to tell this story – then we’ll worry about believing that it’s not my fault.

Baby steps.

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The Theory of Everything

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Yes, this post will touch on the phenomenal biopic about Stephen Hawking referenced in the title, but I promise you, this is a very personal essay.

Let me get the cheap plug out of the way. “The Theory of Everything” stars Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and deals with his personal life as well as his battle with motor neuron disease and his considerable achievements in science. It was an amazing story and Eddie Redmayne was astounding as Dr. Hawking, as evidenced by his sweeping most of the acting awards that season, including the Oscar. I recommend it to you if you haven’t seen it.

Now, the reason that ties in to my personal blog post is because of something that Dr. Hawking said on January 7th, in front of a crowd of 400 people. In the midst of a typical lecture, he provided the following quote.

“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought.

“Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.

This reminded me of a time several years ago when I seemed to have it all together. I was working, my wife was working – a status that, due to our multiple mental illnesses, has been fleetingly rare in our relationship – and we were comfortable. There was no money stress, there was no panic about what would happen if one of us lost our jobs, we were living well. And the longer that state existed, the easier it became for me to fight my personal demons.

One of the commonalities of most mental illnesses is the concept of cognitive distortions. These are types of thinking that lead to negativity and self-doubt. I’ve listed them before some time ago on this blog, so regular readers who don’t suffer from mental illness have some idea of what these are. The usual technique for dealing with cognitive distortions is to refute and replace the “stinking thinking,” a process commonly called reframing. For instance, if you happen to make a mistake with something you’re doing, and your brain reflexively thinks “I’m a total screwup, I can’t do anything right,” your reaction should be to think to yourself something like “actually, no I’m not; I’m capable of doing many things well and without mistakes – and besides, mistakes are one way to learn to grow.” In the midst of a deep depression, it is extremely difficult to reframe, because in that moment, you can’t believe the positive replacement that you should be using. Oftentimes, you never even get so far as to think to reframe; you just go along with the crap that your brain is telling you, and that drives you even more down.

During that time when we were both working, however, the lack of money stress helped to put me in a better frame of mind, and it was a little easier to start reframing with a good deal of effort. After a few months, I realized that reframing was happening automatically, and the self-thoughts I was experiencing were almost all positive. It was a very good time. Then I lost my job, and she lost her job, and life came crashing down around us. Financially, we’ve never completely recovered, although we make enough to be self-sufficient with the basics.

I used to think that my self-worth came from the things that I was doing with my life outside of the workplace, in an attempt to avoid my father’s trap of almost obsessing about work all of the time. (Case in point: Shortly after his first triple bypass, while he was still in intensive care, he had his briefcase and a phone installed in the suite so that he could continue working.) I resolved not to get my sense of self from the workplace.

Now in my mid-40s, I can see the effects of not prioritizing work life. I’ve struggled to keep a job most of my adult life, in large part due to the difficulty I have with my mental illnesses, and the lack of professional direction throughout my life has pained me. I realize now I do best when I’m working, especially if it’s a permanent job. (My employment history is littered with temp assignments, so many that I couldn’t possibly remember them all.)

Now, I’m not saying that I’m not going to get better until I get a job, because right now it’s beyond my capability to even go to the store on my own, much less hold down a full-time job. But that needs to be the overall goal, because it will do wonders for helping keep my symptoms at bay – so long as I’m doing well on the job and not making a lot of mistakes, something I’ve unfortunately got a history of doing due to stress.

Being on disability helps financially for now, but the boredom of sitting at home is stifling. I’ve gotta start making progress or I’m going to lose my mind.

As Dr. Hawking so eloquently put it, “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.”

Climbing the Mountain

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I know that I reiterated that I don’t have any New Year’s resolutions last time I wrote. But I do have a goal.

As many of you know, I’m currently on disability for several concurrent mental illnesses. Today, just remembering to brush my teeth can be a struggle on a bad day. I have a long way to go. The end goal is to get me back out into the workforce full-time and off disability. With a physical injury, that can be an easily workable goal. It’s not so easy for those with mental illnesses to bounce back. What we have doesn’t go away, and it never truly goes into what most might call remission – we just are better aware of the coping mechanisms that we have at our disposal most days, and rough days are more manageable and easier to get through.

Social Security allows for certain situations where a recipient of benefits can work on a limited basis in order to test their readiness to return to the workforce full-time. I can earn up to a certain amount every month for up to nine months in order to gauge my preparation to go back to work. My goal is to be actively looking for a place to test the waters by the end of the year.

That’s a tall order, but I have a long time to work on it. If I make it, that’s great, but if I don’t, I’m not going to be kicking myself that I didn’t meet a deadline. This isn’t a hard and fast thing for me, I just would like to be at that point in my recovery to be considering a partial return to the workforce.

We’ll see what happens as the months progress. As for today, however, my anxiety is a little higher than usual, and so I’m going to work on getting that under control.

What Do I Want To Be When I “Grow Up?”

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Time recently presented an article on how to figure out what you should do with your life. It’s a short read, but a good one, and while I link the original article above, it can be summed up in one phrase.

G+P+V=C

It means “gifts plus passions plus values equals calling,” and having that spelled out so simply is both eloquent and maddening. Why couldn’t I have figured this out when I was in my early 20s when I had time to build a career, I ask myself in that pissed off voice that I get when I’m mad at myself for some perceived self-slight. And then I stop and remember a few facts that give me pause.

First off, figuring out my gifts is something I’m still doing to this day. My biggest gifts lately seem to be inspiring people and writing, but they haven’t always been that way. When I was working, my mental health wouldn’t always let me hold a permanent job, so I’d make do with temporary assignments as best as I could. My talent for a long time seemed to be working myself out of an assignment, sometimes weeks earlier than anticipated. (Just because I had trouble holding a job due to my illnesses didn’t mean I was a bad worker. It meant that there were days that my illnesses wouldn’t let me crawl out of bed, and most employers have a limit to how many times they can afford to hear that before they decide it’s time to move on.)

My passions are fairly simple. Help people in need, advocate for mental health awareness, make people laugh, cook awesome food, recreate history, play music that makes people happy, build really cool buildings with LEGO bricks, read, write, sing, dance, travel … hmm, maybe this isn’t so simple after all. I think before I find my true calling I should pare this list down from “DO ALL THE THINGS!” (Thanks for that phrase, Allie!) to “this is a passion, and that is a guilty pleasure.”

And my values? Again, this is a work in progress. But that leads me to what I suppose is the point.

In all honesty, all three of these things are fluid. Your gifts change over time, your passions ebb and flow, and your values, while usually fairly solid and based around your core beliefs, might take some time to truly establish.

So the questions now become: Which gifts, passions, and values are most important to you? Which of these would you like to make your life’s work about?

I established what I thought would be my dream job some time ago. I want to start a foundation that would provide last-resort financial assistance to the less fortunate (inspiration: Rev. Dan Larsen): make dreams come true for those who wish to better themselves, their families, and their communities through the fulfillment of their dream (inspiration: Percy Ross);  advocate for those suffering from invisible disabilities and orphan diseases and raise funds for research into their treatment and potential cure (inspirations: too many to name). But while I have the values for it, and the passions to fuel it, my gifts are sorely lacking. However, that might be the easiest thing to resolve. I may just need to find backers willing to help with such a thing, and learn how to administer a non-profit. (I think that’s more realistic than “win a big Powerball payout.”)

When I’m ready healthwise, I think working toward making that dream job a reality is going to be my goal, because at its core, helping others better themselves is what I truly believe my calling is.