Suck it, Rilke – the burnout post (series part 2)

“If only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

“Suck it, Rilke.” – Me

Backstory

At the end of 2016, I was laid off from my last regular job (“regular” as in – there was an office to go to with a boss and HR policies and passwords and entry badges, and leftover bagels in the break room, and folders passed around with birthday cards to sign, etc) because the program I worked for, which was housed in a local chapter of a national nonprofit, was defunded in a top-down decision.

In my job, I was responsible for a 30+ member team of National Service (AmeriCorps) members, who served in schools, government agencies, and nonprofits throughout greater-Portland each year. I led workshops. I wrote a weekly update. I conducted site visits. I created curriculum. I planned events. I understood. I advocated. I cajoled when needed. I listened. I did a LOT of paperwork. I was a warm and trustworthy mother duck with high expectations, for them and for me, and I took members’ imprinting seriously. I was good at it.

When we learned that our longstanding program was to be eliminated, at first it hurt my feelings, even though I knew it wasn’t personal. And then I realized that it hurt my feelings for the very reason that it wasn’t personal. Our program was successful. I invested. I cared. The work capital-M Mattered. The members mattered. The people they were serving mattered. It mattered to our communities, and to our country (yes, it surprised me as much as you to realize I am, deep down, patriotic). I was pissed and disappointed, but I finished out the program year as I had done in previous years, on a positive note, with an end-of-service celebration highlighting the difference members had made. There were certificates, gifts, special guests, a written reflection activity (of course), catering to accommodate every dietary restriction today’s millennial requires. I gave a speech about the importance of getting involved – about taking the hard road and having it be worth it –  that made people wipe away tears, myself included.

As we wrapped up our program, people kept asking me what was next. (Why the hell do people always expect you to know “what’s next” when you’ve had the rug yanked out from under you??)  My answer was always an upbeat, “Well, I am sure I will find something!” Chirp fucking chirp, but the fact was I didn’t know where I was going to land. I seemed to be in a perpetually bad mood – preoccupied and scared.

The more I thought about it (it wasn’t like I HADN’T considered the “what’s next” question on my own, basically all day every day), the more it struck me that I was done, not just done with that job, but with social services in general.  I had always relied on my empathetic, high-achieving, creative, quick, funny, sensitive, focus-on-the-positive, detail-oriented, deadline-loving, bureaucracy-is-my-wheelhouse, leave-no-person-behind self to get me through. But when I went to dig deep to replenish my resolve, it was gone.

I realized I was not “just” burned out, but empty – that my entire resume – the WHOLE THING – represented a way of life I did not want anymore.

I wish I could say I felt immediately free and liberated. “I have paid my dues, and then some. Peace out! Let someone else save the world. I am going to enjoy my life.” If I were a Hero’s Journey subscriber, or if this story was fiction or myth and not what actually happened, this would be the place where I could tell you that I made the decision to “follow my bliss.” But here I will step back and remind both of us that “bliss” was a foreign concept to me by then, and that I didn’t have enough trust in things working out to “follow” anything…

I felt like I was in quicksand.


Trajectory of nope

From the time I graduated from college, when an internship at a domestic violence shelter turned into a paid staff position, and including two terms of service as an AmeriCorps member myself, I held a succession of ten positions (yes, exactly ten, I have counted them on my resume) with increasing levels of responsibility at nine different social service agencies over the course of 16 years. All of my positions up until 2016 involved helping vulnerable and marginalized individuals, populations, and communities. The span of my career was an immersion into suffering, poverty, need, victimization, neglect, struggle, and trying to pull together resources that too often either weren’t enough or didn’t exist at all. 

To note, I was laid off not just this last time in 2016, but two previous times, too, in part due to the economic downturn that hit Oregon so hard, and in part because I was drawn towards working with the people and organizations that have the fewest resources to begin with, which for whatever reasons seems to make them invisible (the clients and the programs) to the uninformed eye, thus making them even more vulnerable when belts tighten. Each time I scrambled back into the trenches, my heart firmly affixed to my sleeve, because if people needed help, I believed it was my responsibility to help them. How could I possibly look away? 

“Nicole, are you sure you’re not Catholic?” you ask.

Yes, I am sure. As my friend Carol, who is Jewish and has worked in nonprofits herself, said to me one day when I was talking with her about how having a belief in God may have made aspects of working with various populations easier sometimes because there would be someone to hand things over to at the end of the day, “You’re an atheist. Well, shit. This means you have to put all of your faith in people.” We had a good laugh over that.

(Joke break: Being an atheist martyr is about as rewarding as it sounds.)

I should take a moment, too, to say that because there are so many non-profit-y types in Portland (educated, liberal, progressive, idealists keep wanting to move here, hooray/alas), there is a certain level of poverty-elitism almost about who can subsist on the least amount of income while doing the most difficult work: “I’ll see your ‘I have seven housemates and an overnight shift at a shelter for homeless youth, and I will raise you an ‘I drink my leftover pasta water and distribute clean needles by bicycle.'”  The short of it is that people like me are a dime a dozen (almost literally) in this town, and competition is fierce even for jobs that don’t pay more than $15/hr. (If only intrinsic rewards could be used to pay ever-increasing rent…) What I am getting at is that you don’t earn enough working in a lot of these jobs to, say, buy a house, or plan a trip to England to see your friend’s new baby, and there is always someone to replace you.

But back to the faith part. The truth is, though, I really do put my faith in people, and I have been rewarded (humbled, gratified…) in so many ways in all of my jobs, even the ones I hated (I won’t name names here). Of course there were triumphs, which I was/am always on the lookout for, and undoubtedly why I lasted in social services as long as I did, but at a point it began to register with me that I did not want every day at work to be about bearing witness to inequities and disparities, and fighting for someone’s basic human needs to be met. I saw more and more how, without having adequate systemic supports in place, attaching a label like “resilient” to a human being can be a convenient way to blame the victim if they aren’t successful make it more possible for overworked staff to avoid drinking themselves to sleep every night minimize the impact of trauma.

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I was beyond tired. I realized I had gotten to a point where I couldn’t rally. I couldn’t go back, which meant I needed to figure out something else, but I was suffering from so much compassion fatigue I was in no shape to use my imagination constructively.


The parallel demise of my mother

Keep in mind, too, that as I took on all of these jobs in social services, I was also experiencing the gradual-at-first-but-then-rapidly-snowballing mental and physical decline, then disintegration, then death of my mother. When I review my resume, I remember things like, “This is where I worked when she could no longer drive.” “That is the office I left to go get her at her apartment the day she attempted suicide for the first time and I couldn’t remember how to get us to the hospital.” “This is where I used FMLA to take her to appointments at the County Mental Health Department, where she had five different practitioners over the course of two years, who, after 15-minute consultations with her about her symptoms, prescribed her medications that made her too shaky to sew anymore, made her drool, made her lose her balance and start falling down, and falling down…” “This is where I worked when she called me and said, ‘Nicki, my legs aren’t working right.'” “Here is where I went out to the covered bus shelter for privacy on my break and raised hell with the State Ombudsman when a caregiver forcibly bathed her.” “Here is where I worked when my sister and I toured a combined total of 19 assisted living facilities, none of which would accept people with our moms’ diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder” (also, if only she had been ‘lucky’ enough to have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s instead of from being punched in the head too many times  – Ed.), “I was driving to this job when that man named Kevin called to tell me my mom might have to go before a judge for a sanity hearing only because they could not find housing for her, with the possibility of being committed to the Oregon State Hospital.” “This is when I worked in North Portland and had to get to the care home in Outer Southeast during rush hour the day the police were called, and the care home owners kept speaking to each other in Russian, and the husband smelled like alcohol.” “This is where I worked when I brought my mom a pie for her birthday in the psychiatric ward.” “It was on the sidewalk outside that agency, next door to a marijuana dispensary and with a view of a strip club, where my sister told me over the phone that our mom was enrolled in hospice care.” “This is the agency that never gave me a straight answer on their bereavement leave policies.” “This is where I took off my coat and sat in my low cubicle and burst into tears the day I returned to work.”

My resume represents a chronology of circumstances and events I am finally ready to say I don’t want to think about anymore, not as the backdrop for job interviews, anyway. I need to put them in my book where they belong. Had my mother’s health improved, and if she were alive and safe today, perhaps I would feel differently. But when she died, it seems a significant portion of my hope for humanity died with her. I did not stop to truly grieve until my job died, too, I guess. And when I finally did, I knew I could never go back. My old life was really over.


So what happened?

I ended up having the most amazing year. I will tell you about it in the next post.

Entrepreneurship, and where the hell have I been since May (series part 1)

Prologue

entrepreneur: one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise

The summer before fifth grade, I started a small business picking blackberries and selling them to the neighbors on our cul-de-sac for $0.25/pint. The berries grew wild (I did not know the word “invasive” yet) on the undeveloped property adjacent to the brand-new subdivision my dad was building, where we lived in an enormous house with a swimming pool. I had no clue what a bargain the neighbors were getting. Word spread quickly, and business boomed.

My mom would let me go pick alone as long as I would take our dog, Heidi, a Belgian Tervuren (bred for protecting sheep) with me. Heidi came to us as a former stray, already named, found by some customers of my mom’s dollhouse store, after my mom told them how our house had been broken into. Heidi was huge – she looked like a cross between a wolf and a bear, but was, as many large dogs are, completely tolerant and docile with her people. Along with chaperoning my blackberry picking expeditions, Heidi also let my sister and I dress her up in hats, tube socks, and moon boots (remember those?), and pulled us on our roller skates on the Promenade at Seaside. Once Heidi caught on that blackberries were our commodity – and delicious – she learned to pull her lips back carefully in order to not get poked, and would eat the low ones directly off the vine. My mom believed, probably correctly so, that nobody would bother me as long as Heidi was close. I remember her telling me, though, “If anyone comes after you, run into the blackberry bushes. You are smaller and they won’t follow you in there. Don’t worry about Heidi. She can take care of herself.” Nobody ever bothered us, thankfully. 

As business increased, I developed a system for picking efficiently. I would drag a sheet of plywood into the brambles to make an even surface for the 6-foot stepladder I would carry in, as well as a level place to keep the flats of berries from spilling. I wore old tennis shoes, jeans, and long-sleeved woven shirts to avoid being scratched, and tied buckets to my belt loops with rope so that I could pick with both hands. I wore my swimsuit under my clothes so that when I went home (which was usually only after it got too dark to pick), I could strip down and hop into the pool. The chlorine bleached away the stains on my fingers, and swimming around usually got rid of all of the little stickers in my skin, the kind you can feel but not see.

Despite the trauma, my childhood was, in so many ways, perfect. 

I loved picking blackberries. Yes, I did it obsessively, because, well, that is how I go about things. There were always more than I could pick, and the best ones seemed to always be dangling in whole clusters just out of reach. I loved how they smelled, earthy, warm, and sweet.  I loved how my fingers recognized the “give” of the most perfectly ripe ones as they would release into my hand. I got used to the spiders and bees that also love blackberries. I loved filling the pint containers from my belt loop buckets. At home, my mom always gave me free reign of the kitchen whenever I wanted, and I loved making tiny pies in those little aluminum pie pans. My mom used to hang loads of berries in cheesecloth, which she would suspend between two lawn chairs with a large bowl underneath, outside on our pool deck, in order to collect the juice to make blackberry jelly especially for me, because I did not like jam with seeds. 

When I’d close my eyes at night, I would see berries.

When I smell them now, I remember all of this.

Well, that summer when I was ten, I picked so many blackberries that I developed tendonitis in my wrists. My mom took me to the Urgent Care clinic that was close to our house, where I was given a prescription for an anti-inflammatory of some kind and told not to pick for two weeks. By the time I left the office, I had orders from the nurse and the receptionist for a full-flat each, which I picked and delivered as soon as the two weeks were over.


I’ve missed you. I’ve been missing me, too.

I am aware I haven’t published a new post since the end of May, and no, this does not mean I ran away with the homeless guy who made me laugh on my walk to the courthouse, although wouldn’t THAT be a great story? “You didn’t kill me, so I should probably elope with you” is **old** Nicole thinking. (See?? The affirmations are starting to kick in.)

The bad news is I have been in a funk. Or maybe more of a dither. And by “funk” and “dither” (btw “Funk & Dither” would be an excellent name for a law firm), I mean I have been in a cycle of extraordinary worry and despair that has made it difficult to concentrate on many things, especially writing.

I am rebounding, though, or at least finally coming up for air.

I have so much to tell you.

Over the next several posts, let me give you a bit of context about the buildup to this emotional crash that happened to me recently (and fine we can call it “crippling depression and anxiety” instead of “funk and dither” if you want to get technical – I say “tomato,” you say “mental illness”), and then I will be able to share some of the the weird and funny parts of what has been happening lately, too.

There are many.

It is lovely to see you again.


 

Jury duty

juror summonsI was called for jury duty last week.

In order to save money on parking, and because riding my bike downtown scares me, and because public transit is so … public, I decided to walk. This meant that in order to get to the courthouse by 7:45am, I had to leave by 7:00am, which in OCD language meant out the door by 6:54am, which meant setting my alarm for 5:23am. (Someday I will show you the algorithm.)

Factor in that I was worried I would oversleep my alarm, which meant I didn’t let myself go all the way to sleep the night before, and basically spent most of the night considering the phrase “jury of their peers,” and got very hung up on the word “peer.” I was also extremely anxious (the “you know, if I were to get hit by a car, I won’t have to do this” kind of anxious) about being stuck in a room full of strangers and their contaminants for eight hours, the prospect of small talk (after spending so much time alone I sometimes worry about my ability to modulate my own voice), answering questions about myself (what if I AM a felon, and somehow did not know it?), and an overarching philosophical angst about what would happen if I made a mistake that ruined someone else’s life.

Awesome.

What I am getting at is that I was not exactly in the best mood when I left that morning.

no tresspassingWalking the 2.6 miles (yes, I google mapped it) from my house to downtown meant that I would be passing several homeless camps. I am not sure if “homeless camp” is a respectful term, and if I am using the wrong language, I apologize. We have a homeless crisis here in Portland, a “progressive” city where affordable housing is nearly non-existent (people are being displaced with virtually no options, and one of my 3:00am (the time of day when no problem is solvable) worries is that I may succumb imminently, as my own rent has increased 46% in the span of two years – a topic for another day); we don’t have enough resources for people with mental illness (I have plenty to say about that, too); Portland seems to be too busy telling the world how wonderful it is to notice the enormous cracks people are falling through; et-fucking-cetera.

(Joke break: “My what a delightful handbasket, Portland. Did you make it yourself? Also, can you tell me where we are headed?” -Ed.)

I have been admonished in the past that I should not call someone “homeless,” but “houseless” (to use people first language, wouldn’t that be “person experiencing houselessness” then?), and that I should refer to a person living on the street as someone “living outside.” While I appreciate the sentiment, I am not sure I support the terminology, and I also know that I, someone who has a home/is housed (knock on wood), am not the one who should be deciding on the labels. I am eager to learn, I just don’t always know who to listen to.

Whatever the vernacular, as I approached a particularly elaborate “camp” that took up an entire streetcorner (a tent, multiple tarps, bicycle parts, a small Weber grill, an Igloo cooler – I don’t recall all of the items, but I do remember that there were a lot of them, also no comment on brand recognition…), a man emerged and started rummaging and gesturing and talking loudly. He seemed agitated. It struck me that we were both starting our mornings with resistance, only he was being much more vocal about it.

When I realized he was talking to me, at first I was frightened (reasonably so? I am not sure, as I am not always a good judge of that, in either direction) of this disheveled, wild-haired man and his gesticulations. I was very aware that I was invading his turf, ironically (or not), on my way to perform my mandated civic duty. I also knew that I was allegedly the person of “privilege” in the scenario, which adds a top-down element to compassion (the one who disperses it, the one it is bestowed upon) that I do not like.

To note, having compassion for someone and being in ardent opposition of the social structures that arguably put them in a perilous situation do not guarantee they are not going to hurt you, or ask you for money, or call you a bitch if you don’t give it to them.

I often wonder what I would be if I wasn’t afraid.

(Joke break: It was so much easier to be a liberal when I lived in Lake Oswego.)

I take responsibility that the fears I directed at him were my own defensiveness and biased projections, based on my own complicated, internalized perceptions and responses to potentially “dangerous” situations. (A long way of saying I have PTSD that spills into just about everything, for sure, and also a long way of saying I am a woman and he was a man and this is the world we are living in.)

This was me, a person who hates conflict, on guard, preparing to run if I had to. This was me, a single woman with a trauma history, out in the world, exposed, who might not have anyone notice other than my cat if I didn’t return home on time. This was me being forced to leave my apartment to perform a role that made me nervous, to be outside when my agoraphobic tendencies have been so escalated, invading someone’s claimed space because it was along my shortest route from here (a place I am not sure I can stay) to there (a place I didn’t want to go). I told myself I was not trespassing, even though it felt like it.

All of these feelings in the span of less than a block, first thing in the morning. I thought about crossing the street, but made the decision that I was going to face whatever was going to happen. I put my shoulders back, tried to look friendly, purposeful, and taller, and hoped he would not harass me.

“Good morning,” I said as I approached. I smiled what I hoped was a convincing (to him or to me) smile.

“Sorry things are such a mess,” he said, and began collecting items that were in my direct path, piling them against the wall of the building. He was apologetic. Considerate. Fretful, yes, but non-threatening. I found myself feeling embarrassed for my initial reaction to him. I said I was sorry for walking through his stuff.

He did not pause for my apology, but kept talking. “Every time I have an idea, I get started on it, and then I get another idea, and I start that one. I just can’t seem to follow through with any of them,” he told me. He looked pained, bewildered.

“I know just what you mean,” I said.

I stopped and stood there on the sidewalk, softening as I registered how earnest he was.

I listened as he described what he had in mind for the various objects he had collected, how he was going to assemble them “into one big piece of art.” I nodded as he was talking, making ambiguously supportive replies along the lines of, “Cool,” and, “Hey neat!” and, “That would be rad.” (Yes, I think I actually said “rad.”) I am sure I sounded like a complete ass. He didn’t seem to mind, and that softened me further.

As he talked, I realized that I liked this guy. I realized I was no longer afraid of him, and what a difference that made inside me as I was standing there. It occurred to me that I was not there to be attacked by him, or to rescue him, but to share a moment of connection with a fellow human being, which we were doing.

Remarkable, that shift.

I became utterly present.

Unsure of the penalty for being late to jury duty, I told him I’d better get going, and started to walk away.

He called after me, “For twenty bucks you can give me the address of someone you want to get back at, and I will set all this up in front of their house.”

I turned around and he made a sweeping motion with his arms, indicating “all this in front of that person’s house.” He was grinning.

My mind instantly went to several people who would seriously lose their shit if this dude showed up on their sidewalk. I burst out laughing.

“Oh man, that is tempting!” I called back to him.”You just made my day.” I meant it.

I laughed to myself for the whole rest of my walk, writing this story in my head so that I could share it with you.

Judgement. Peers. Revenge fantasies. I felt better.

I made it to the courthouse exactly on time.


p.s. I found an exceptionally shiny penny in the jury room as I waited in line to turn in my paperwork:jury penny