Of Guts and Goals: My 2017 Year In Review

2017 started for me in the aftermath and recovery from gallbladder surgery, an emergency procedure that had been carried out following months of unexplained crippling pain, recurrent ER visits, severe dietary restrictions, and weight loss.

The procedure was supposed to be the resolution of an intractable set of problems which had started the night of my 23rd Birthday in late 2016, when an episode of pancreatitis took me out of university, out of work, and left me bedridden. At the time, I feared there may never be a return to normalcy. The recovery was going slowly, the removal of my completely nonfunctional gallbladder didn’t resolve anything right away, diet was still severely restricted, and the pain continued.

The search for the ultimate cause of my illness led me to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, where I received the unfortunate and unsatisfactory diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome; a catchall classification of symptoms which said more about the inexplicability of my problems than a prescription for how to move forward, rebuild my life, and get better. From then on I knew I was going to have to figure out what was wrong and how to heal on my own.

After the number-one hospital in the country failed to bring any closure to this ongoing disaster that was the state of my gastric health, I resolved to live life as normal as was permitted. While I worked out the particulars of diet, stress-management, and lifestyle changes that would need to be made in order to maybe find some peace, I also started figuring out how to re-enter society. Life with a chronic illness is hard. Life with a chronic illness and temporary disenfranchisement is even harder.

Having left college in the throes of my illness, unsure whether I’d ever truly get better, I knew I needed to find a career path that would provide enough flexibility to deal with the complexity of these problems, while also providing enough financial security to deal with the mountain of medical costs that had already accumulated and were likely to continue ballooning.

It was under these conditions that I returned to coding. A passing interest that had occupied small segments of my middle school, high school, and early college years presented itself as a way forward in a life that had become completely unrecognizable to me in the span of only a few months. Sick, bedridden, and in pain, I started in earnest to learn what I would need to know to move from unemployed former political theory student with no degree to software developer.

Progress was slow. In April of 2017 I took the highest paying gig I could land after having been out of the workforce for nearly 7 months. Working as a pharmacy technician at Meijer for $11 an hour wasn’t glamorous. When my friends and girlfriend had gone off in the last year to their new jobs and grad programs in cities across the country, I was taking an entry-level job with irregular hours, long days standing up, and a paycheck that was less than half what I had been making working part-time as a student in college. Adjusting to the notion that this may be my life for a while was not easy.

I spent my time outside the pharmacy continuing to improve my skills, learning about what I’d need to learn to get to where I wanted to go, and applying to positions closer to my desired field.

It was in the depths of depression and despair at my situation and it’s apparent hopelessness, the frustration of unmet expectations, that I was given a chance. A local software company called me back one day after having spent the weekend shooting resumés into the void. They asked me about my history, what I was learning, why I hadn’t worked in so long, and where I was headed. After the initial phone interview went well, they invited me to the in-person.

11 months of illness, unemployment, learning, and recovery had culminated in being offered a full-time position, salaried, with benefits. It seemed like a miracle. The job wasn’t quite what I was after, but it was close enough to where I wanted to be that it didn’t matter. I was thrilled to leave the pharmacy, significantly upgrade my income, and set myself on a structured trajectory to my ultimate goal. Things were getting better.

Then work started. It wasn’t quite what I expected nor had been promised. The path to full-fledged developer within the company become more and more illusory as time went on. Days started to string together as the promises they had made for my learning opportunities and pace of progression faded into vague meaninglessness, and the office environment that had been such a relief from the hard hours and stress of pharmacy work changed from a white-collar respite to a stifling and repetitive grind. I was making money, and working in software, but hated even thinking about work. After 90 days, I found myself still going through the motions, lacking in any sense of fulfillment or progress, and once again, hopelessly depressed.

A sense of urgency, that this was not the place where I should be spending my precious time, and further, that the negativity associated with my work was not sustainable, began to permeate my every waking moment.

The decision to leave was painful. I had worked so hard to get here. I had been given an otherwise unbelievable opportunity. To leave without a solid alternative in place seemed like throwing it all away. Disappointing the company with the departure of one of their newest and most promising employees felt utterly ungrateful and wrong. When I submitted my resignation letter, my manager, who I expected to respond with anger, had only words of goodwill. The sentiment was somber. He thought me leaving was a bad idea, but acknowledged this was something I had to do for myself and not a decision anyone could make for me.

I purposely set aside the month of December to regain my bearings and continue my job hunt anew; ready to see if my past successes could not be replicated or surpassed. This time it was deadly serious. The stakes hadn’t changed, but I certainly had. Dipping my toes in the industry gave me a better idea of where I needed to go, how to get there, and what to avoid along the way.

This past year was all figuring things out. My health is finally stable. My prospects for the future are uncertain, but I’m more certain of my aims than ever, and have more clarity on how to attain them as well. The trials and triumphs of 2017 provided the leverage I’ll need to carve out a future worth having in the days, months, and years to come. I’m not where I need to be at the moment, and that’s ok. There’s more work to do as I continue to take steps towards getting myself back on track and creating a life that’s not defined by what’s happened to me, but by the choices I make along the way.

2017 was a year of surviving, but 2018 will be a year of thriving. This, I have no uncertainty about.