You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from. Joan Didion said that. If I had said it, I probably wouldn’t have ended the sentence with a preposition. But more importantly, I would have added, “and the places you do.”
We’re a growing breed, the adult runaways. We’ve left behind jobs, guys and/or girls, the West Coast, and more recently, the State of New Jersey, in the name of opportunity — have abandoned apathy and quicksand for independence and skyscrapers. We’ve flaunted our calculated risk-taking in the face of older relatives who have been stuck in the same dead-end [towns/jobs/marriages] since before we were born. And we could because, despite any temporary fears or hang-ups, somehow everything always worked in our favor.
Until the one time it didn’t. Until the time we were sold a dream and ended up swallowing a nightmare.
I stopped writing around the time I took a new job at a new company. A company that bristled with promise, with its midtown address, impressive cast of Ivy-wreathed characters, and its mission to save the world. But within a couple of months, a dark reality set in. We woke up to harassing emails, pretended not to hear the yelling that took place in the office on a daily basis, and somehow came to accept the expectation that we’d make the impossible happen until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. And still, it wasn’t good enough.
I lost myself completely in a job that soon meant anything to me. I hadn’t spoken to my parents in weeks. I hadn’t read a book or done laundry or gone to the grocery store in two months. I hadn’t seen the best friends — the ones who had not long before dubbed me their unofficial fifth roommate — in just as long, which meant that I didn’t know one of them had been in an accident. I had disappeared from my own life, was a stranger inside of it, and couldn’t seem to find the time or strength to think of a way out.
The last straw came when I got near-death sick. I woke up on a Saturday morning after a marathon workweek feeling like my brains were swimming around in my skull. Every time I turned my head to try to get more comfortable, I threw up. I couldn’t get out of bed. Or see straight. Or call for help. It took my angel of a roommate to revive me enough to email my colleagues and say I couldn’t do any more that weekend. And still their emails came.
After I was threatened into staffing a work event in the brisk autumn cold the following weekend, even though I hadn’t come close to recovering and had vomited the night before, my symptoms became more respiratory and it felt as though someone had wedged a butter knife beneath my right rib cage. (In reality, I probably pulled a muscle from coughing too hard.) I went to the doctor twice. He listened to my lungs and ran blood tests. And he couldn’t arrive at a medical diagnosis. “You’re too stressed; you need to take care of yourself.” It was one of those crazy psychosomatic things. My job was literally killing me.
So that was it. I knew what I had to do. This was a place I had to walk away from.
When I walked away, I left behind a heap of intellectual property and a good deal of bitterness. That pain in my side still flares up from time to time — and forgive me for waxing poetic when I tell you it must be a metaphor. But overall, I walked away with my integrity and agency restored. I didn’t know — still don’t know — what the hell I’m going to do with my life now, but I’m the happiest I’ve been since I moved to New York.
Look, unemployment isn’t some fairytale, and I know what I’m about to say makes it sound like I’m romanticizing it. Let’s be real: not having a job can be terrifying. But having some time in which your only obligations are to yourself (and to your landlord, of course) is sort of beautiful. I’m talking about making a triumphant return to your own life: reviving your friendships, seeing a new guy who is actually nice to you, mentoring a pre-teen in an outer borough, reading an epic poem and some Neruda in the original Spanish, and sitting around in a bathrobe drinking chardonnay out of a plastic cup while spilling your heart all over your keyboard. These are the things that will make you feel human again, and like yourself again, in a way very few jobs ever will. It’s called a work/life balance because work and life are, in fact, two different things.
So, I’m not advocating that you up and quit your job. Not because it’s lame, or boring, or hard, or your boss is kind of a dick, or your cubemate told everyone how you boned Becky in accounting and now things are super awkward. But if it’s preventing you from living, get out. I just want you to be happy.
What I’m coming to realize is that the places you don’t walk away from in this life won’t take the shape of office buildings or your first grown-up apartment in [Long Island City/Bushwick/Hoboken]. They won’t be fabricated of glass and concrete, and they won’t have a zip code attached. They’ll be those edgeless institutions unbeholden to geography: unconditional friendship, the safety of conversation, and the places that feel like home — genuinely, and not in some socially constructed way — even if they are 3,000 miles from where you were born and raised. They’ll be the places where your dreams have been alternately incubated, dashed, and brought to life again. The places that stay under your skin and under your fingernails. They’ll be the places that — even if you do stray for a while — will be right there where you left them, waiting for you when you’re ready to take your life back.