May 6, 2016

It's Okay to Quit.

I recently read a blog post about a fellow adventurer (and by fellow adventurer I mean he's far more hardcore than the little Arkansas hikes I share with you) who's taking a year off from medical school due to depression. I found it inspiring because I have made a couple of similar difficult choices--the difference being I didn't tell the world. I casually took it down from my Facebook rather than end-dating it. I say I completed the summer training of the first instead of fully owning up to all the details. I had to tell those close to me but I simply hoped others wouldn't notice the change. I was embarrassed for quitting. In the span of a couple of years I had abandoned two big commitments that I thought others would be impressed by.

Both of these events were heavily influenced by depression, but there were other reasons than my mental state. I thought I would hit the pause button on blogging about previous adventures to take a moment and share my choice to quit with you. I hope it gives you courage to quit or hit the pause button on things that are hurting you, draining you, or things you are otherwise just unhappy with.

Decision I: TFA

During my final semester of undergrad I accepted an offer to join Teach for America as a corps member. Let me first explain what brought me to that point.

Growing up, I always thought I would become a teacher. That's pretty typical of teacher's kids.
It's an okay salary (although severely underpaid for the work itself), it's giving back to the community, you get your summers off, and its an ideal job for "moms" which I was looking forward to becoming one day. (I never looked down upon stay-at-home moms, but I used to say I could never see myself becoming one, that I would have to have a career. It's so funny how these opinions change with time--I can't dream of a better luxury after studying child development.)

The point is, I was an English Education major at one point, taking 18+ hours a semester due to all the classes you have to take. When I chose counseling (in the form of psychology) over becoming a teacher, I always had my doubts and even took an Art of Teaching course for my Honors IV requirement after I had long abandoned the education degree. I also became a glorified TA for my final year, or what my college referred to as "Pedagogical Associates."

Again, don't judge my online grammar against my previous desire to become an English teacher... we're just stickin' with stream of consciousness here, folks. 

Upon entering my senior year, I knew I didn't want to jump straight into graduate school. I wanted a "gap year" at the least to rest my weary eyes but I couldn't afford the luxury of traveling and, truth be told, certainly not alone. I'll tell you about the few days I attempted to do so in France sometime (after spending the first couple of weeks with a friend).

When a fellow classmate asked me what my plans were, I didn't know what to say. I no longer recall the exact wording of the conversation but I must have said something that led her to say, "oh, like Teach for America or something?" I just nodded yes to get out of the socially anxiety-inducing dialogue not having a clue what Teach for America was. When I went back to my on-campus apartment I sat down and began Googling. It was exactly the thing I had been looking for - improving the broken school system, helping the impoverished rise up, being an advocate and social justice warrior. It was a two year commitment with lots of opportunities after completion. I applied right then and there.

At the time I didn't really know how elitist TFA was, how difficult it was to get into. I even butchered my presentation when I went to my in-person interview. I bumbled along and only learned that it was a big deal after so many people told me so once I was in. I was very proud of my accomplishment and excited to be moving to South Louisiana, the land of jazz and creole food.

Summer Institute was the most difficult thing I had ever done. It was go-go-go from dawn until dusk and we were lucky to get a decent 5 hours' sleep. Talk about teacher boot camp. If we weren't teaching or prepping we were attending seminars on things like managing classroom behavior. We were all exhausted. But the food was good, for cafeteria food. I taught 9th grade English at a low-income school in Houston with a large Hispanic population where I'm pretty sure my students thought I was as white as white girl comes. I graduated Summer Institute and I was proud of myself, despite the phone calls home crying about how hard it was and how much I had wanted to quit.

I found the cutest shotgun home about 45 minutes north of Baton Rouge, just down the street from my school. We had these huge interview days before Institute, like a job fair with different schools at different tables, rotating applicants in and out. But I didn't know what subject or grade I would be teaching until maybe 2 or 3 work days before school started. I knew I would be at an elementary school that went through the 5th grade.

Second-year corps members were very inviting. They tried to make you feel at home, especially in such a podunk town where the railroad still divided the whites and blacks. The African American community didn't trust you because TFA was an elitist two-year commitment and people were always in and out, and the white people didn't care much for your mission (most of their kids went to schools you wouldn't step foot in).

I was very depressed at this point. I was away from my family, friends, and boyfriend. I have a hard time making new friends because of social anxiety. It doesn't help that so many people mistake introversion for stand-offishness. In general, I get waves of severe, chronic depression without there being a "reason" to begin with - Crohn's disease doesn't allow your body to feel great in general and we're learning so much about the link between microbes in our gut in correlation with our mental health.

I was also freaking out. It was bad enough having less than a week's notice on what grade/subject I'd be teaching, but when I was told I had to teach children how to read... well, nothing prepared me for that. I knew all the methods in the book on getting children to behave in the classroom. I knew how to create lesson plans. I was even comfortable on building on what teenagers already knew about English. (In fact, I feel like if I had been assigned high school I probably would have completed my two years.) Not once had anyone taught me how to use hooked on phonics. I had been the baby in my family. I didn't know how to teach a person to read! Analyze literature and improve comprehension? Sure! How to write (anything)? Sure! Even how to solve an equation, or memorize science and history facts? Sure! But for days I stared at blank word documents in an attempt at creating my required lesson plans. I Googled as much as I could. But I continued to throw my hands up and run them through my hair. I had no clue what I was doing.

I went through the motions of meet the teacher night. I went to the first day of school and met my children and had a really difficult time keeping them under control and had to stifle my tears when I stared at the little girl in the middle of the classroom watching the chaos, huffing with frustration because all she wanted to do was learn and I was letting her down.

But do you want to know what the icing on the cake really was? A seed had been planted by one of the second years. She told us about all the times she had wanted to quit, in a chipper voice while simultaneously letting us know how depressed she had been and how this was the hardest thing we'll ever do. We asked her why she was still there.

"Because I can't back down from a challenge." She had committed to a grueling two years and she was going to see it through.

I realized that she and I were from different worlds.

I may use cheat codes to make games more enjoyable sometimes, but I do appreciate a challenge. But I had met those 30 children and they weren't guinea pigs. They weren't a challenge. They would remember me for the rest of their lives. They deserved someone who knew how to teach them to read. They didn't deserve to have a semester wasted away while I (maybe) figured it out.

There were a few other things that came into play with this decision, including the fact that I had not "drank the kool-aid" as TFA leaders bragged about. Things like improvement scores being skewed (a lot of the stats TFA brags about come from tests that the corps member wrote themselves), although I'm not saying these kids don't learn. But the last straw was that those babies were not a challenge to me. I saw their faces and knew I couldn't do it.

I called my "supervisor" crying at the end of the day and told her I wanted to quit. For some ingenious reason they had sent all of the "supervisors" to a week-long training during our first week on the job. She basically didn't take me seriously and told me just to hold on until she got back from Chicago and we would talk.

I felt hopeless that evening. All I could think about was how miserable I would be making myself by sticking it out. How maybe I would help a few kids, touch a few lives, but at what cost?

The next morning before school began, I walked into the principal's office and resigned. Bless her heart, she was so kind to me. I cried about being depressed and I don't remember much of what I said but I remember how supportive she was when I'm sure all she was thinking in her head was "this b needs to get out of here so I can find a substitute for today and hire a new teacher." TFA was not happy with me. I started packing my things immediately - I wasn't going to wait a couple of weeks to go through the full process. I remember doing my "exit interview" over Skype around a week after I got back to my parents' house. My boyfriend was a trooper - after helping my family move me out from my college apartment to Texarkana and then to Louisiana, he turned right around and helped me single-handedly back to Texarkana.

I stayed there for a bit while I tried to figure out what I was going to do. I knew I couldn't stay in my hometown - I found it too depressing. I was also incredibly broke due to all the moving expenses I had just blown, and had even loaned my roommate some money until she received her first couple of paychecks, and then I had to pay back my loan to TFA pronto. I decided to go back to my original plan of graduate school but it was obviously too late for the fall semester. I needed to stay in state and avoid out of state tuition, but I didn't want to go to the exact same school as undergrad... but didn't want to downgrade either. This left the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. With no luck applying for jobs without already living there, I moved. This time, I didn't blame my boyfriend for not wanting to help so I took the bare necessities for my first trip.

Kafka hated my ~300 sq ft apartment.

Decision II: Graduate School

I worked at a movie theater when I first arrived because it was the only experience I had and I needed to pay rent while I looked for full-time jobs. I really lucked out when I was offered a custodian position at the university - with it came a 90% tuition discount. I figured this must be a sign that going to grad school was the right choice. But I had no such luck getting in to the couple of spots available that spring semester. I tried to take other classes anyways, but as it turns out they don't really work with your schedule like they say they will. All classes I was interested in were in the late afternoon to evening and my shift began at 3.

As you might can guess, I was a little ashamed to have gone from being accepted into a highly revered program to a janitor who wasn't taking any classes. My dog was also eating the furniture I acquired. He also ate part of my favorite pair of pants I had bought in France, and leaving his teeth mark in an plastic dish left in the kitchen sink.

With that said, this was actually one of the most productive times I had after graduating college. I had always been a messy, right-brained kid who dreaded nothing more than to clean my room. Being a custodian, in combination with having to keep my stuff picked up for fear of my dog destroying it, led to me having a somewhat tidy place for once. I couldn't use a broken vacuum cleaner as an excuse because now I knew how to fix them.

I also made some great older friends and never had to buy toilet paper (because we had to replace them if they were less than halfway full and they would otherwise be trashed). Cleaning for 8 hours straight a day also kept me in what was sadly the best shape I had been in as an adult. I have never been fond of gyms, at least consistently, and have been gifted with a petite figure thanks to Crohn's. I got away with not being fit because I was thin - but pushing those rowdy buffers toned up my arms a bit! Plus, parking tags were ridiculously expensive so I walked to work.

This gave me more energy and discipline, too. For the first time in my life I seriously attempted diets. Though they didn't stick through my next job (where I was on the road a lot, so fast food was a thing), I ate fairly well for some time. I had smoothies, salmon, and eggs almost every day. I even limited my sweets intake (yuge) to one or two peppermint patties a day. I even did the grain-free thing for a little while (the most short-lived), introduced more anti-inflammatory foods, and tried to make all the things from scratch (from food to laundry soap).

Kombucha & Kimchi - even though I had never tasted them before. 
I was really getting used to making healthy decisions for myself. I felt good about my choice to leave TFA after coming to terms with being a custodian. I didn't regret it one bit. I was literally eating and being healthier. My mental health was better - I was spontaneous and went out for drinks, and I walked my dog, and I socialized with some crazy (cool) people at my best friend's apartment complex. I even stopped letting friends drain me. I put my foot down when I didn't feel like playing counselor that day, I set boundaries for myself. I was more vocal about how I deserved to be treated in my relationships. One of my fondest memories since graduating was my time as an "Institutional Services Assistant."

I actually was put on a waitlist for the fall semester, and I really began feeling very average for someone who was salutatorian at a redneck high school with a graduating class of 70-something. It was around the same time that I received my acceptance letter that I was also offered a job as a mental health paraprofessional working with foster children.

After some debating, I accepted both and left my janitorial position, as well as the tuition discount which I had been unable to use. I was getting field experience in a job I loved with a guaranteed position at the end of my degree. It was bliss.

I'll try to speed this story up because the next section goes through my first year at my new job and graduate school. Although my job was stressful, and although I eventually chose to leave it (after my choice to leave graduate school) it was never because I didn't love that job. It came first, before school. Those kids were my kids. I once had a school partner get mad at me for "choosing work over school" and I about laughed in her face. Although it wasn't true in the context she put it in, it was true. And if she had real live clients, I hope she would have put them first too.

That being said, this job also showed me that maybe I didn't want to be a counselor. I still might, but not in the near future. I took the summer off, partially because you had to be on campus for two hours straight in the middle of the day every weekday for one class and that just wouldn't work with my job. I also took the summer off because I was working over 40 hours a week and trying to take graduate level classes - it was exhausting. I had also bought a house, and before the end of the first month learned I had collapsed plumbing (and spent the next few weeks without plumbing at all, and maxed out my credit card).

During what was supposed to only be a sabbatical, even though I think I always knew it might be a years' long or permanent one, a lot of hard things happened at work. I knew I wanted to work with children - I didn't think I could not-be judgmental towards some adult problems after seeing what my kids had been through. But I was like a sponge at this job. I soaked up all of their trauma and pain. I didn't know if I could bear it, and I knew I didn't want to be a school counselor because they're mostly dealing with testing nowadays and the real therapy is outsourced.

Don't get me wrong, despite some depression tendencies, I mostly stayed afloat mentally. This didn't protect me physically, though. Stress, even when I feel as though I'm managing it, heavily affects my Crohn's disease, which I suppose has been brought up enough times I'll have to do a post on that in the future as well. Even when I was entirely mentally stable, I noticed I had been taking a lot of sick time because my body was physically ill with stress. I was handling it then, but could I handle it as a lifelong career? Should I really keep pouring student loan debt into something I wasn't 100% certain of?

The hardest part for me was telling my mother. She had been so proud I had been accepted into TFA. She had been so proud she could tell others I was off getting my Clinical Mental Health Counseling license. I wasn't sure how proud she would be to tell them I had quit something once again--and that I had no future plans but to continue on my $24k salary.

As I mentioned before, I casually removed this event from my Facebook, LinkedIn, resume. I didn't make it a public decision... until now.

In Summary

If you've made it this far and it wasn't just a rant for myself, I hope if you take nothing else away from this, you'll take the following: your only obligation is to yourself. 

I was always worried of disappointing others, of being ashamed. Chances are, you're not going to disappoint anybody, but even if you do (which, chances are they aren't the most supportive people in your life), they aren't the ones waking up as you tomorrow or in ten years. That person is you.

If you aren't happy, change something. If something or someone is making you sick, you're the only person making yourself stick it out. Sometimes quitting is the bravest, truest thing you can do. Whether it's a boss or a partner, they'll figure it out without you.

If you aren't happy with your job, find a new one.

If you aren't happy with your friends, make new ones.

If someone isn't treating you like the king or queen you deserve to be treated as, leave them.

If you realize your last degree wasn't for you, go get that second bachelor's. It doesn't matter how long you've been away.

Change as many times as you need to find your happiness and discover yourself. Be true to you. No one gets to judge you for that. There is certainly something to be said for sticking things out and not giving up without a fight - but when a true roadblock gets in the way of your happiness, find a better path. Take a break and recharge. Being stuck is just in your head - pull yourself out.

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