Throwing out the life script
“First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes baby in a baby carriage.”
I had it all planned out according to that script. I would date, marry, rent, buy a house, and then adopt a white, fluffy, allergy-friendly puppy. I would keep working really really hard to establish myself professionally, take some leave to travel and then return home to start trying for a baby.
Then after maybe six months after childbirth, I’d return to work and pick up where I left off. I’d contribute and make a difference at the not-for-profit I worked for. I would be one of those few women in working in tech that stayed and made it, and I then would have had it all.
Everything was going exactly to plan. I had the doting husband, the dog, the house and I was receiving wider recognition at work. I had a long-awaited holiday to the UK scheduled and was planning to fall pregnant sometime after we came back.
Of course, as life would have it, it stopped going to plan after that.
I had been at my old workplace for a long time, but after a rather ruthless raft of management changes, the culture had shifted. More was expected for less, and despite all that, I powered on out of a love for the place and the mission. I was good at my job and I worked really hard until my 110% became the expected norm.
I burnt out, and I burnt out hard. Still, I kept at it, telling myself that it would all be worth it at the end. When I first started getting an inkling that it might be time to move on, it was on R U OK day, a national annual mental health awareness campaign day. Work had changed all our desktop backgrounds to the R U OK poster. By that point, I was fraying and I was withdrawn and looked like I felt like hell. No one asked if I was okay.
During that period, I had been put on a politically volatile project with impossible deadlines and I delivered anyway. But the cost was high. Something broke inside me. I started falling apart at work. My fuse was hair-trigger; my emotions ran rampant. My underlying depression had been very dormant and almost non-existent for years, but at that time, it came back with a vengeance, followed and then overtaken by its good friend, Anxiety.
I was shaking and trembling for no reason. I was ridiculously on edge. After many years of functioning normally, I cried at work at the slightest trigger. All my managers, especially the ones who had a duty of care to me, ignored me on the day I cried and cried and could not stop crying. Management of me and my time kept being bounced around between different managers, even ones outside of my team if I was on their projects. I was even told that I was hard to manage, and that “if you weren’t a high performer, we’d be having a very different conversation.”
Everything I raised to my manager and to HR was met with “I don’t see it”, undermining my experience and causing me to doubt myself. HR told me directly “that this wasn’t the place for me.”
That was when it became clear that staying was untenable.
So I quit that job without another one lined up. Gave two months notice to finish all my projects and document my role extensively. My husband was quite over seeing me in so much anguish that he was fully supportive of me leaving with nothing lined up.
It was when I quit that the narrative towards me at work started to change. By quitting, I had lost any legal protections I may have had, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was just in so much pain that I just had to make it stop.
I had previously raised issues I saw with the workplace culture and the stress everyone was under in previous one-on-one meetings. I called out bad behaviour. Now that I had quit, all that was suddenly turned around on me and I was told that I was “hostile”. I was the one in the wrong because I was the one falling apart. They didn’t see any of the bad behavioural issues that I had raised, because it didn’t happen to them, therefore my experience wasn’t real. “I don’t see it” became a constant refrain.
Classic gaslighting 101.
The damage ran deep, and it was the reason why I was and still am so terrified to speak up for myself.
When I quit, I was a mess. I was seeing a psychologist regularly to help me navigate my ridiculous levels of anxiety and depression. I had given many years of my life to that place, and I was still struggling to let go.
I had offered to rescind my resignation halfway through my notice period but was told that I wasn’t wanted any more despite my stellar record.
After urging by others in the organisation, I gently raised the issue of me taking up a few months off as unpaid leave to deal with my mental health issues, as there was a recent precedent. That was immediately shot down and tacked on with an uncalled for mini-rant by said manager about pregnant women always having kids and always going off on leave.
Uhmm, okay… Yet another red flag.
After beating myself up and wishing I could get my job back during a therapy session, my psychologist stopped me and said, “After everything I’ve heard, you did the right thing leaving that place.”
I’m still grateful for that. She has done so much in helping reestablish my own reality, one of the ways to combat and survive gaslighting.
I’m still terrified of telling my story, terrified that it could be used to attack me by those I left behind. But telling this story is important to me, and finally writing about it publicly is just another baby step in reclaiming my courage and my voice.
At that point, I hadn’t fully committed to freelancing just yet. Instead, I started putting very thin plans in place for a side hustle, because it was something I had always wanted to do but never had the time for. My intention was to secure another full-time job, and then slowly build up to part-time freelancing over a few years with the hopes of one day going full-time.
I started a food blog because even though I was terrified of the pain that came with learning to write without fear again, writing about food was easy.
Food wouldn’t trigger me. Everyone ate, and it was a safe space for self-expression.
I was unemployed for a month before I started at a new workplace. It was the role of my dreams, one that I had worked really hard for the last few years to secure. For a while, I thought that the script was back on track.
But I underestimated the depth of my burn out. My new boss caught me hyperventilating at work a few times and I pooh-poohed it away as sinus issues. My hands would shake at random times of the day for no explicable reason.
But I was getting better, and hoped that time would help.
Then I found out that the an ex-manager I thought was on my side had actually given me a bad reference to my new place while I was applying for the job. He had cautioned the new workplace that my ability to handle stress and my mental health issues will impact my work.
I should have known, as that was the manager that once pulled me aside and once told me that “depression does not exist. It is a character weakness.” But loyalty is a funny thing, and I let that slide at the time.
The new place hired me anyway, but when I found out about the bad reference, it destroyed me for weeks. I started becoming paranoid that it had tainted my fresh start at the new workplace, and it exacerbated my mental health issues.
I hadn’t been at my new place long before my mental health had started to unravel again. And to be honest, it never actually recovered. I had just lived with it long enough that I was publicly functional. It was just at home that I still failed to hold it together.
After a while, I recognised that I actually needed so much more time off to recover. I quit my new job, and to their credit, they saw through my professional and tight-lipped facade and got it out of me that my mental health was the issue. They were so supportive. They tried to get me to stay and even let me stay on but let me pick my hours. Those folks are good people, and I’m glad that they were the last place I worked at because they’ve restored my faith in organisations and in people.
But I couldn’t stay. I knew that this time, if I quit, that would be it. I still can’t answer why to this day, but the thought of going back to work shuts me down and triggers a whole bunch of nasty emotions. It has been months, but I still don’t feel like I’m fully put back together at all.
Since then, it has been a long slog to stay above water with my moods. Some days, and even weeks, I struggle. Progress is slow.
In the weeks after I quit the new job, I vegged out. I watched too much Netflix. I cooked a lot. The last straw was when I made 90 buns in a bid to freeze and eat it over time to save money, and my husband begged me never to do that again.
I needed to keep my mind active, and I now had all that free time, so I signed up for an online freelance writing course. Baby steps.
I flew overseas to catch up with close friends who had moved away. A support network is always key to any recovery, and this time, I actually had the chance to spend quality time and catch up with them.
I spent a lot of time on the ground in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Kuching. Even though I can pass for a local, I was effectively a tourist there, having lived in Australia all my adult life and not really travelling back to the region a lot until recently.
I ate many things. I met many people. I heard many stories, especially stories of how others had made a career change, and that reminded me that I was not alone.
It was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life.
It was probably the holiday high and the resulting newfound confidence that then made me decide to fully commit to freelance writing as a career. It wasn’t a sudden overnight decision; in fact, it was one that had been on the radar for years, but always put on hold because other things got in the way. It was something I never dared talk about because I was too embarrassed that I would fail.
Instead, it was a quiet commitment that I was going to make this work. No more what if’s. No more fear or doubt or not trying so I would never fail.
I have a journalism/public relations degree but I have never used it. Instead, I fell into a career in IT by necessity, and because I was good at it.
Now, almost a decade later, I had come full circle.
It has been a few months, and I don’t have a success story as a freelance writer just yet. I’m taking things at my own pace. I still struggle with regulating my moods and my writing is not as prolific as I would like it to be. Pitches to publications that I’ve sent out are languishing in the void of no replies or “thanks but no thanks”. Savings are running thin. The panic is starting to rise again.
But I’ll celebrate the little things like having a roof over my head, an extremely supportive spouse and a loving dog. And I celebrate the ability to write on sites like Medium, where everyone has a voice, even though I am still learning how to have a courageous one.
And maybe one day, and hopefully soon, I’ll get a “yes” to a pitch. Until then, I’ve got to keep working at it.