Remaking Life After Losing It All
I quit my job this week. While I had fantasies of flipping the conference room table and cussing at a few select people, I turned in a short, polite resignation that still told the truth: I am burned out. I need a break. This is not working.
I've had these moments before in my seven years with this organization. We are a public university in a state that consistently devalues and disinvests in higher education, not to mention the decade it took to rebuild ourselves after Katrina. I've often joked that we make magic with a piece of string, some duct tape, and a paper clip. But our mission is one that has propelled me forward in the hardest times.
At least until this year.
When It All Falls Apart
The most surprising part of grief for me has been its similarity in feeling to early sobriety. When I first got sober, I felt like a fat-tired monster truck had ground me into a mud pit for the last fifteen years. I was exhausted, raw-nerved, frazzled.
Back in those first sober months, the barrier between me and the tidal wave of my emotions disappeared. Elderly people at a bus stop had me sobbing in my car. The love of my dogs cracked my heart open. Cutting me off in traffic lit my anger into a raging fire.
Without the salve of alcohol, I was ready to leap into the deep end of whatever feeling consumed me, and I didn't yet know how to swim.
Early grief has been like that, too. Exhausting. Like swimming in tar. Depression arrived at months three and four. Nearly all my energy went to tending that sorrow. It's a lot of work for me to just let my sadness be. I want to fix. Suck it up. Change everything in my life to make the feelings stop. Things I definitely did in early sobriety.
But this time, I gave the depression as long as it needed. Let it rest. I actually spoke it out loud. With such an immense and sudden loss, I started to ask myself, "What's the point of this life?" Why keep going? If this kind of loss and pain is not only likely but inevitable, every person we love we lose, why keep on living?
I think these things would have been too dark to say earlier in my life. Now they feel self-evident. When our lives are deconstructed by loss - of our loved ones, our identities, the alcohol we've used as a balm for our wounds - of course we turn to questions about existence.
This is the space of possibility. Where we end marriages we know haven't been working. Where we stand up and say enough of this. Where we quit jobs. No matter how scared we are another good job won't come.
What We Want It to Look Like
I am the peacemaker. It's a role my family groomed me for at birth. Unless my needs crackle with the electricity of impulse, I don't consider them. But lately it feels as if I just woke up. For the first time, I'm asking myself what I want my life to look like.
What kind of job do I want to do? What does a Jamie in ten years look like? What does she have in her life that keeps her fulfilled?
These questions have seemed inaccessible most of my life. I grew up in and out of poverty with working-class parents who struggled with substance abuse. When we are trying to survive, questions about fulfillment can feel laughable. I have actually laughed at people. Oh, you quit a perfectly good job because you think you're entitled to something better - eye roll.
That was me telling myself I am not entitled to anything better. I should be grateful for every crumb I have. I've already been given so much more than my parents had access to - who the fuck am I to want more?
It turns out I'm Jamie. And I want more.
From our spaces of loss and sorrow come our transformation. An opportunity to stare directly into that which terrifies us and tell the truth.
The truth is my job had become unmanageable, and I wanted something better. The truth is the loss of my grandpa to cancer then my mom and grandma in the car accident two months later has changed everything. The truth is I have no idea what's going to happen next, but I'm moving forward anyway.
If we think in the macro - the long view, our own omnipotence - if we're lucky, life is long. Our little flesh vessels might extend into our eighties, nineties. Who knows? In that grand, unfurling time, this is a season of excitement and possibility. If we've lost what feels like everything, this only means there is more space for what is new.
Yes, it's hard, but this is the time when we get to remake ourselves. To ask the hard questions. What do you want? Like, what do you actually fucking want?
Scary as hell. But also thrilling.