This is my first full day post-job. I awakened at 6:40 as usual. I showered and ate breakfast (raisin cinnamon oatmeal). I didn’t hurry up and get dressed in nice slacks, sweater and shoes because I never do that on Fridays; it is my usual day off. But I made a cup of coffee, and that was a bit alarming, as I drink chamomile vanilla tea on the mornings I don’t work. Coffee (one cup) is for working paid ten hour days; they made it pungently strong there and it got my blood flowing at top speed. I even add one-third of a mug hot water so I can get it down. Or, rather, added and could, as that occurred in the past. That was before the tough choices were made.
What somewhat older woman in her right mind would leave a job she loves in this economy? Right before Christmas? Is it arrogant stupidity to just walk away from work that can afford extras like trips, arts events, a little help for our children and grandchildren, unecessary shoes and dinners out? My spouse has a decent job that he also likes great deal. So I got up the courage to ask him what he thought. His reply: “Do it.”
I lingered over my newest copy of Architectural Digest and sipped my coffee. As usual, the houses I studied in the glossy pages were coolly elegant or startlingly imaginative or deeply, expensively comforting. But my vision blurred and I was right back at the meeting I had had the day before at HR. The exit meeting I had requested with the HR Director.
I had fretted about it for a week. I had written and edited what I was going to say, consulted with a few people who have been directors and managers, and determined the priorities with bold bullet points in my memory. In the end, I sat down and said,
“I am resigning after eight and a half years here, but I feel it is under duress. I love my work and have for over twenty-five years at many places, serving a variety of populations. So, I need to tell you why I am choosing to leave.”
The woman before me was calm, relaxed and chatty. She talked about my work at the agency, some of the events and changes that marked the years. She spoke with me as though we were chatting and I knew she was talented, with a good eye for what my face was saying, a good mind for discerning the larger truth between my words. (She was another sort of counselor, and she laughed when I noted that.) And because I respected her manner and methods, appreciated her gentle composure, I forgot what I had written. I just talked.
Still, how does one talk about things that make no good sense or are painful, experiences that are baffling and finally dismaying? How does a counselor talk about a business that is supposed to be helmed and served by dedicated individuals providing compassionate and ethically excellent services–but has failed in some crucial ways? If I was writing fiction I could tell the tale in all its surprising details; the anxiety would bleed out of it, and the anger would be easily dispensed and dispelled. But simply summarizing the facts?
But M. listened well. She asked the right questions. She responded with empathy, dismay, insight, support. She, in fact, understood so well and knew so much more than I expected that it suddenly felt as though she was on my team. She, too, clearly advocated for others, clients and staff. And even though I was blowing a whistle, she took my words and gave them more stoutness, and put them in a neat row to further examine. And said: “I am so sorry.”
A note here: I am hardly the silent one in a roomfull; I have a habit of nearly always speaking my mind, for good or ill. If difficult things still get swept under the rug, I lift it up and pull it back out more often than not. I abhor unethical behavior, actions (or inaction) that deliberately harm others, ignoring the truth even though it is messy, choosing to deceive which is the coward’s way out. I want us all to be accountable, myself first of all, and even after a lifetime of knowing that isn’t always going to happen, I am willing to take a risk and say either “I am at fault” or “you may well be.” There is nothing safe about this. I am not an adrenalin junkie; I don’t crave drama. I just want things to work out well, if at all possible– for my clients, and for those I work with. And myself. And if things are not set completely right, then made better. Much better.
I was clear of purpose when I decided to leave my position for reasons of safety, both emotional and environmental. But when I told my clients, it became stickier. The working environment is one thing. But my clients are another. They have fewer choices that I have. They have very big problems: addiction and mental health, housing and economics, domestic violence, health and legal issues. Can I say this? I have loved them, each and every one, in some way. I made a decision when I was twenty, sitting in a place that fully resembled hell, to be of merciful, steadfast service, an advocate for others if I made it out alive. I promised God, to be truthful. And I made it out. Fifteen years later I walked out into the world with my paltry work history (but a mother of five) and nagging sense of failure and I was given the gift of a little job that was the start of making good on that promise. I was ecstatic to be able to watch over wounded, ill and otherwise challenged adults in an adult day care for minimum wage. From that start I began a career.
I haven’t looked back, though the work has morphed in many ways. Each day has brought me the chance to be of some use, and to hold their lives up to them in the light of hope, tell them they can recover and heal. Create solutions, inaugurate change. Grow stronger, be even braver. And they have and they do. I listen with great appreciation of their efforts, as they are more often than not heroic beyond imagining.
So saying good-bye to them was tough. Hearing their responses to the news took me to the brink of tears a few times, although I reassured them other counselors who would be just as helpful. I am clear that I am not the only one who cares–human service workers are innumerable, working in many difficult, even dangerous conditions. I know this because I have worked alongside of them.
So why did I leave? Sometimes you just know when it is best to exit. Sometimes you need to take a break, even though it seems an extravagant and risky thing to do. For me, it came down to the fact that needed changes could have happened, and yet did not; issues that sent an alarm within me after all these years were ignored by people who might have addressed them. And maybe I need to do other work, even work that has no monetary reward. Or just rest.
But back to M. and me. She was attentive and heard me and was distressed, too. I am amazed. She took many pages of notes. She assured me that something would be done to address the concerns. And she suggested that if I still wanted to work there, I might reconsider. I should stay in touch with her. But it is not the right time to rescind the resignation. My voice had been raised for months and it had seemed to come to nothing until this hour. I was fortunate to have a chance to share it with someone who had power and I trusted her. We shook hands. I left with her good words in my ear. As I walked away, I waved to three other employees with whom I had worked over the years. I wanted to stop and say,”Hey, you have been great to work with–but I’m outta here.” But I smiled and went on my way.
Later, I listened to Yo-Yo Ma play his vibrant, expressive cello and I cried. For myself, for things that have no clear lexicon. But I can tell you this: validation is a vindication as sweet as it gets, especially when you least expect it. And yet it is humbling, too.
Now it is the end of the day. I did all the things on my list. I don’t have one for tomorrow. I look out over a momentarily work-free (for pay, that is) horizon and I know something will happen that is interesting. That piques my curiosity. It always does. And I will be writing about it and wondering over it.