I got an early jump on the pandemic. My existential crisis started a few months before. Ever since I’ve been whipping a U-turn on my life.
Last summer, I relapsed on alcohol when I crumbled beneath the combined pressure of my job, family commitments and my personal relationship. The breakdown made me question my understanding of the world.
I’d been chasing the wrong goals and priorities. All my life I believed that money, status and power defined success and afforded happiness. I learned they don’t, and their cost is high.
By cutting myself off from the world in rehab, I was able to hit the brakes on the rat race and focus only on myself. Without the pressure, I exposed the absence of meaning in my life.
I spent last fall unraveling my twisted priorities and rediscovering myself. To achieve all those shiny signals of success, I’d actually compromised my values, sacrificed personal growth and transformed into someone I was not.
Where I Was
Over the last 15 years, I had worked my way up the ladder to senior vice president at top public relations/marketing agencies. I’ve managed large corporate accounts for Fortune 500 companies in the tech, financial services, professional services and healthcare industries.
I’d broken news of major M&A transactions, managed crises that could sink stocks, put C-suite execs in top-tier media outlets, released jobs market research that moved the market, shaped product rollouts, and much more.
There were events at the Rainbow Room, a black-tie NYPD gala at the Waldorf, access to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, overdramatic industry award shows and employee parties held on party boats. Every event had an open bar.
Those, however, were the exceptions to the emergency client fire drills, regular 60 to 70-hour workweeks, angry and unstable clients to calm down, urgent calls to take on vacation, clients competing to fill up my calendar and missed birthdays, date nights and family functions. I was always on the brink of burn out.
But I took pride in what I did. I thought it was important work, and the gleam of success reflected back onto me. But my self-esteem was wrapped up in my job. I relied on the professional validation of colleagues, managers and clients to buoy my self-belief.
As I climbed the ladder, my personality had changed. Little by little I creeped into ethical gray area. I bragged about “telling selective truths for a living.” I cherry-picked stats, showcased the exceptional and downplayed the damaging facts.
Like my peers, I became extremely good at massaging the message. But this moral flexibility seeped into my life. I made special allowances and employed situational ethics. I began to seek out chaotic relationships and volatile client engagements, as sophisticated excuses for my burgeoning addiction.
The Violent U-Turn
Looking back, I made myself miserable. I’d turned into a people-pleasing chameleon that could read and deliver what you wanted.
When you’re constantly trying to be someone else, you forget who you are. It was as if I was floating out in space, detached from my core self, severing moral ties and out of reach of any true personal connection.
Peeling back the layers of my onion, I revealed the softer parts of myself that I’d silenced to be a good corporate soldier. At agencies, many execs view sensitivity and empathy as weakness.
They are actually my biggest strengths. In therapy, I worked hard to unlearn what I’d been taught throughout my career. All that “dog eat dog,” adversarial “zero-sum game” bullshit. I reject it and embrace my authentic sensitive self.
I wasn’t actually stuck in a rut and trapped in my job. I really did have a choice. So, I crumpled up my SVP business card, chucked it in the garbage and applied to grad schools. I choose happiness and meaningful work over crippling stress and moral compromise.
With all the reflection, I remembered that building personal connections and helping others through hardships makes me happy and brings fulfillment. Last week, I started my master’s in social work so I can help on a human level.
For someone who used to walk into meetings always wondering which colleague had the knife, I can honestly say it’s been quite a breath of fresh air to be in the presence of others who genuinely want to help those of us in need.
Every time that I balked at the idea of throwing away a high salary at 39 to start over with a mountain of debt — the pandemic and resulting economic fallout have strengthened my resolve. The toll is much higher than the numbers on TV. America is about to have a mental health crisis on its hands, and I want to be there to help.