At 26 I landed my dream job as a graphic designer at Pixar.
Holding that offer letter was like having the world at my fingertips, but by then my hands were burning with so much pain I could hardly move them.
A decade before — when I was 15 and greener than the Appalachians in the summertime — the term “dream job” meant I got extra tips for putting up with lewd comments from old men while clearing away their dishes.
I had come a long way.
I’d wanted to work in animation since I saw The Little Mermaid when I was six — a dream that was usually met with laughter and raised eyebrows in my blue collar, western Pennsylvania town. But I focused on my grandma’s advice instead.
“If you work hard, anything’s possible,” she said. “In my day, us girls had one choice: get married, become a housewife, raise the kids. But you can be so much more than that — so go get it.”
By high school graduation I’d changed a lot of diapers, led hundreds of camp songs, and waited on countless tables to pad my bank account for my big, flashy dreams. When I applied for loans and blew my savings on my first tuition check at an expensive, private college, people in my town said I’d be in debt to my eyeballs for the rest of my natural life.
There were moments when I thought I’d have to shuffle back home with my tail between my legs like a pompass stray who’d lost a fight to a Labradoodle. Dropping out and transferring to a state school or the local community college — where most of my kinfolk insisted I belonged — would be a life-defining failure that no one would forget. Especially not me.
No, a belly flop that massive just wasn’t an option.
So I kept channeling Grandma’s mantra and slowly chipped away at my mounting tuition bills from different angles, like a log sculptor at the County Fair. Freshman year, I worked four jobs and took naps with my textbooks to maintain a squeaky clean GPA. I sent out stacks of personal statement essays and made myself a household name at my college financial aid office.
Doggy paddling like a shrew in a shit-crick* I managed to keep my nose just above water until junior year when I finally caught my stride. To my astonishment a flood of acceptance letters filled my campus mailbox, and when I crunched all the numbers this time I realized I was earning more in scholarship awards than my family’s household income.
By the time I got the call back from the Pixar recruiter several years later, I’d finished four internships, two degrees and had built the best design portfolio I knew how.
“I have great news — you’ve been selected for the Pixar summer internship!” she chirped, and for once I lost my words. I had cast a wide net and now had a tough choice to make.
After giving it a few days thought, I turned down a full-time design position at Target headquarters in the Mini-Apple to roll the dice with Pixar. My family squirmed (yet again) at my brazenness, urging me to be practical and take the sure-thing. I hung up the phone, booked my flight for San Francisco and started packing my bags for the far-away, foreign planet of California.
“Thank you, but I didn’t come here to see bridges,” I told the cabby when he offered to take me on a cruise across the Golden Gate. “Pittsburgh has over 400 of them. Take me to Pixar.”
“Do you work there?” he asked, with an undeniable hint of excitement in his voice.
“Not quite yet,” I said. The driver waited patiently while I stood next to the curb, staring up at the big, steel-beam Pixar welcome gate as I drank in the quiet of the place on a Saturday afternoon. He then took me down the street to the new, furnished apartment that I’d be calling home for a while on the company dime.
During my ten week internship I snuck into the office on weekends and worked through nights, desperate to convince the 3D animation gods to keep me. This was my shot and I wasn’t going to blow it.
Not for anything.
Come September my big moment finally came: I was asked to join the Pixar family.
But instead of doing a celebratory touch-down dance when I left my boss’s office that day, I took a deep breath and walked across campus to see the nurse.
Strange stabbing sensations had been shooting through my upper body throughout the internship. But now the pain was constant and I could no longer ignore it.
“It looks like you have RSI,” the nurse said after examining me.
“What does that mean?”
She summarized the mysterious condition for me in her own words, but here is how the internet more formally describes it:
Repetitive Stress Injury describes any musculoskeletal chronic pain disorder (such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis) experienced in the upper body. The condition is often caused by long, intense hours of repetitive computer use in the workplace.
“So how do I make it go away?” I asked, choking back fear in my throat.
“Some people make adjustments to their work habits, get treatment and recover — but for others it’s permanent. You should prepare yourself for either outcome.”
For the next five years I learned from some of the best artists and story tellers in the film industry, did a lot of work I’m proud of, and saw my name come up on the big screen after watching five amazing feature films.
But every day began and ended with pain.
After a demanding work week my symptoms would often flare up, and ignoring it was like trying to sleep when you live above a pumping night club. Stabbing pains pulsed through my palms, forearms, shoulders, back and neck muscles, like the laser sting of a migraine headache.
Then there’s the burning sensations, which are akin to what us ladies feel on the worst day of our period, but the internal ache can be five times as intense and radiate through your entire body. During my worst flare-ups, even the simplest task — like getting out of bed or walking across a room — can feel like a massive accomplishment.
I saw over a dozen practitioners who attacked my problem from both the West and East. I met regularly with Pixar’s ergonomicist, who built me one of the most elaborate custom work stations the studio has ever seen. I dulled the pain with drugs and numbing patches and demobilized my wrists with splints. I worked restricted hours and saved up to take long stints of unpaid leave.
To coworkers and Facebook friends I was a successful, happy career woman. But those I was closest to saw me emptying bottles of Aleve and could sense when I’d had another painful, sleepless night — which was often.
At 28, the doctor managing my worker’s compensation case told me that I would remain permanently disabled for life. To which I kindly said, “I disagree.”
I spent the next two years pursuing alternative treatments that weren’t covered by insurance, all of which had great initial results that inevitably plateaued.
So at age 31 I decided to quit my dream job.
“Yes, Mom. You heard me right, I’m leaving Pixar.”
My confused mother no doubt walked away from our conversation with tooth marks on her tongue that afternoon.
I can’t really blame her. My fiery, 15-year-old self would have accused me of having a few screws loose for walking away from such a cushy gig. My six year old self would have just cried.
Breaking up with a company that many consider to be the holy grail of animation is not easy. It’s like calling off an engagement with the guy that even your tough-as-nails Grandmother loves.
But in the end, I was hopeful that moving out of the nest (and higher in the pecking order of the design world) might make my days less about execution and more about developing big ideas, which could improve things for me both creatively and physically.
I spent the next few years at a kick-ass agency as a lead designer, working on juicy, creative challenges for some of the most recognizable brands in the world. But physically I was in worse shape than ever. I spent the better half of 2015 home sick in bed while my new employer patiently tried to work around my many absences.
So at 32-years-old — after working through the pain for seven years — I finally decided to quit the career that I busted my hump to create. I radically downsized, crammed what was left of my life into a storage unit and recently embarked on a round-the-world healing journey (final destination unknown).
And out here — on the open nomad road — stories like mine are about as common as fumey motorbikes in Asia.
But in the grand scheme of things I’m still one of the lucky ones. Being able to afford long-term travel is the kind of extravagance that few people on the planet can even fathom. And while the condition I’m fighting threatens my livelihood, it does not threaten my life.
All of which I’m thankful for.
In some ways I’m even grateful to the pain for pulling me off the corporate career super-highway (just please don’t tell my former employers or my poor mother that I said so).
Yes, there’s a status and credibility that comes with saying I worked for companies like Pixar, Coca-Cola, Visa, Google, Samsung and Amazon. And I learned a ton doing all of it. But the truth is, spending long, intense hours tied to that machine — all for the benefit of some big corporation — leaves many of us feeling isolated, dissatisfied and broken.
Right now, I’m thankful to be able to put my physical health over the health of my career. To redefine the term “dream job” to mean having no job at all except being dedicated to my recovery.
As I make my way across the globe, my mission is to rest, reset and give my body a serious chance to recover. To seek the wisdom and expertise of international healers and teachers. To eventually arrive upon a healthier, more sustainable career path (whatever that may look like) and a new place to call home.
Unlike the goal-oriented, type-A spitfire I was in my twenties, Cassandra 3.2 has no idea what’s coming next.
I’ve got no five year plan. I can’t even tell you where I’ll be in five months. Or in five days. And to my mother’s extreme discomfort, I can’t tell you how long I’ll be away or exactly where I’m headed.
But I know for sure it looks nothing like where I’ve been.
*shit-crick: Pittsburghese for a creek or stream that allegedly contains sewage runoff.
Pittsburghese: the dialect spoken by many residents of Pittsburgh and parts of surrounding Western Pennsylvania.
More coming soon about The Long Journey to: