If you’re reading this, then hopefully you’ve been following me on my 40 before forty journey through The List, and my attempts to be present in each moment. And to live intentionally, and deliberately. Which means that you’ll be expecting this post to reveal the next item on The List – that is, after all, what my blogging is (and has been) about.
However, this post is going to be a bit different. It’s been a difficult one for me to write and I have been putting off publishing it for a while because of the judgment I know I will encounter once this is out there. Nevertheless, there are things in my heart and mind I want to share, which I do today through writing about something that was not on The List.
In my last post, I shared my story around the Paris Marathon which I completed (and loved!) in April 2017. It was such a blissful time for me – not only did I achieve the very thing I had been dreaming of and working towards for the last year, but I had an amazing holiday in Paris with my bestie while I did it. And my time in Paris was only part of a very special two months of being on sabbatical from work. I know many people swoon when they find out about this particular perk that employees at Lightstone have – being a fully paid two-month sabbatical after five years of employment. And it is certainly swoon-worthy. I’ve never had two months off work in my entire career, and it’s not something I ever thought I would have. So when the time arrived, I grabbed it with both hands. My sabbatical was a mixture of time spent at home with Chuckles, travel to Paris and the Champagne region, doing stuff around the house that I’d been meaning to do for months (or even years!), time down in the Cape where I could walk on the beach, catch up with friends (while Chuckles caught up with his friends in the Cape too ;)) and just allow my soul time to breathe. Doesn’t it all sound magical? It was. I won’t downplay it one bit – it was an absolutely amazing and special time.
I duly arrived back at work in the middle of May, ready to pick up where I had left off, both regarding the content of the work I had been doing, and catching up with the people that I had been working with over the years. However, in the context of some comments that had been made prior to my sabbatical, there was a seed of angst that I carried inside me on my return to work. And that angst proved justifiable – within two weeks of being back in the office, I found myself packing boxes of my “stuff” from the last nearly six years. Files, papers, photos, miscellaneous junk that somehow manifests in your desk drawers… there I was, silently packing my boxes and packing up my professional life as I knew it. I had been retrenched.
I had been thinking about setting up my own business for a while, and so this was probably the push that I needed to get it going. And, in fact, for a few days I was really excited about the opportunity – being retrenched meant receiving a severance package, which in turn meant that my living expenses could be taken care of for a while, while I set up the business. Seemed almost ideal.
I had no idea, however, of what I was going to go through in the weeks that followed.
On the morning of Monday, 5 June 2017, I woke up feeling like someone had squeezed all the air out of my chest and left a ten-ton bulldozer on top of me. It was the first full work week where I didn’t have a job to go into and although I logically knew that this was the beginning of an exciting new venture, it was also the first time in my working career of more than twenty years where I didn’t have a workplace to call my own – a place where I had a substantive role to play and a contribution to make. I felt completely (and unexpectedly) overwhelmed. I felt empty. And purposeless. I felt that if I got knocked over by a bus that morning, no one would even know for a few days. There was nowhere I had to be, and no-one that was expecting me.
To re-emphasise: I really do know that my new venture is going to work. I know that I am a good attorney, I do good work, I develop great relationships with my clients and other people I work with, and I believe there is a market for my services. I’m putting the building blocks in place to establish and grow my business. In my first two months of business, I have already done significant work for new clients and have generated revenue, facts which I view as extremely positive and encouraging. And I know this is just the beginning.
So if I am so positive and encouraged about my new business, then why did I experience those feelings of purposelessness a few short weeks ago? And where did the emptiness come from? And why the need to write this post? And it’s not only that I did experience those feelings (as in – past tense), but that I’m still experiencing those feelings 😦
I think I’m sharing this post just because I’m being true to who I am. I have said on so many occasions throughout my posts that I believe in being real, and that I’m nothing if not real. So I guess it’s that I want you to know why I’ve perhaps been a bit quiet of late, and why there’s no immediate plans to attack the next thing on The List. Life is not a list, and it can’t be perfectly planned – sometimes what’s not on The List is what threatens to characterise your life for a while, as opposed to what is on The List.
I remember when I left the large law firm environment six years ago, I went through quite a crisis of identity – I realised so much of my identity had been wrapped up in being a partner at a large law firm. And when that was no longer, it took a while to figure out who I was again. I’m going through a similar thing right now – my career has always been the stable thing in my life. I’ve put my head down, worked hard, worked smart, added value and progressed significantly throughout my career. On the occasions when I’ve had meltdowns about how life has turned out for me (or not) in personal spheres, when I’ve cried heavy tears that I’ve not found someone to settle down with and have a family with (and that time is now running out), I’ve always had the apparent stability on the other side of the scale, on the professional side. But now – now… it feels like I have uncertainty on every side I look.
As you’ll know, I’ve been on a long journey fighting depression (And yes, I use the word “fighting” very deliberately – it’s a daily struggle that I take on, a battle which I turn up for every day and arm myself as best I can). Over the first five or so months of this year, it was incredible that I felt (for the first time in years and years) that perhaps I could finally beat this depression thing. That perhaps I could live with some semblance of hope and expectation for the future. And for someone who’s had very little hope, to find even a glimpse of that hope – you can imagine, is life-changing. But now – now… the darkness is real again. And close. And suffocating. Those five months seem like a dream, a temporary repose from the painful reality which I now face again. Even as I write this, my chest is constricted and I can’t breathe properly – the heaviness over my heart feels physical. A great sadness weighs me down to the extent that I can’t even imagining breathing freely again.
And the more I tried to reason with myself that everything was going to be fine, better than fine in fact, the more I was confused by the immense (and seemingly disproportionate) sadness that I felt. It was only when my doctor shared that it is not uncommon that a major life change (such as a change in relationship or job) triggers an episode of depression and anxiety, that I understood that this was something I simply wasn’t in control of. The illness that is depression had struck again.
There are a myriad of guides out there giving insight into how to treat people with depression – and by “treat”, I don’t mean treat medically, I mean how to treat on a day to day basis in relationship. So I’m not about to try and rewrite the self-help books and medical journals. However, I have had one major realisation (well, major to me at least) as to something I believe we need and crave as humans, which I’d like to add into the mix. Following my retrenchment, the people in my world have gone above and beyond to be encouraging. There’s been loads of “this is going to turn out to be the best thing for you” and “your new business is going to fly” around me. And when people ask me how I’m doing, it’s generally in the form of asking how the new business is going, and client- or work-related stuff. It’s all about looking towards the silver lining. And I have so appreciated everyone’s encouragement. But do you know what I’ve really needed? More than positivity and encouragement? I’ve needed someone to acknowledge how painful this process has been. I’ve needed someone to just be with me, put their arms around me, and recognise the pain and hurt, without trying to fix it. Just to sit with me in the fire so to speak, and say “Nix, this is really rough. And painful. I can’t change it, but I’m here with you.”
I’ve found it mind-boggling that, by and large, we all tend to practice positive psychology in tough situations, always encouraging others (and ourselves) to look up, look forward, look at opportunities, stay strong, believe, etc. etc. And before all the positive psychology followers start shouting me down, hear me out….positive psychology is largely awesome, and encouraging, and all those good things. What I’ve experienced over the last while though is that we seem to treat each other ONLY using the principles of positive psychology, with little acknowledgment of what is really happening and how we’re really feeling. And for me, when I’ve been related to that way, it has made me feel even worse…as I then feel badly about myself that I’m hurting and sad, and unable to get on the “positive bandwagon” with everyone else.
I think it’s partly a product of the social-media dominated society we live in, where everyone’s lives are reflected as a highlights reel on Facebook or Instagram. When last have you seen a post on social media from one of your friends that tells you they’re anxious, sad, or even lonely? And I guarantee you your Facebook friends experience all of those – and yet we can’t put it out there, because then it doesn’t look like we’re living a happy, fulfilled life that everyone is envious of. We are ashamed of the less-than-pretty parts of ourselves and our lives, so we can’t be authentic and put those out there as we’re scare of being judged. And if we can’t put those out there and be real with ourselves, then how can we expect to be real with others – to meet them in their place and space of vulnerability.
The realization of needing to be acknowledged in the space that I’m in has impacted how I’ve been relating to the people in my world. I’ve been trying to first acknowledge where someone is and the reality of their situation, whether good or bad, before offering any “positive psychology”-type encouragement. Whether it’s been with someone who was struggling with leaving a job, someone who has been ill or someone struggling with a relationship. And it’s been amazing how well that acknowledgement has been received. It creates another depth to the relationship when we’re willing to just sit with each other in the fire first (and I say ‘first’, because I’m in no way advocating that we must leave each other there…)
It’s perhaps summed up best in two lines from my favourite poem, The Invitation, where the poet says “I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it…. It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.“
I completely acknowledge that this post is somewhat long-winded, and not particularly well structured – if you’ve made it to this point, thank you for your understanding. I don’t even have one particular goal in writing this post, but rather a number of them, including filling you in on the reality of my retrenchment, sharing my unfortunate re-encounter with The Great Sadness that is depression, illustrating that sometimes life happens outside of The List, and most importantly encouraging us all to be authentic, to meet people where they are, to sit with them in the fire and acknowledge their reality before offering encouragement and proceeding to help them out of the fire.
Postscript: the reference I made at the outset to exposing myself to judgment through publishing this post, is because I know that there are people who are going to be thinking things like “Pull yourself together, there are people with much greater problems or issues than you”. And that’s true – I know there are. I know that on the whole I am immensely blessed. But I also know that there are not enough people who are authentic about themselves, their world, and how they feel. And so if my authenticity bothers you, or you feel that I share “too much” (which I have been accused of in the past), then please feel free to move on. I make myself vulnerable in the hope of encouraging others to be vulnerable too. So if you are moved to judgment rather than vulnerability, I invite you to move on and wish you only the best.
Another postscript: if you’re reading this and thinking “What is she talking about? I’ve been there for her!”, then you are absolutely right. You have been there for me, and I am so grateful to you for being there. My writing is in no way an attack on anyone. My writing is a reflection of what is in my soul, and I don’t want to have to make any further disclaimers than that. I love you.