My memories of 10 years ago are vivid and painful, and they remind me that some things do indeed work out well.
Along with a couple of other consultants, I was in a small Midwestern town dominated by a tech company. The trip there had been eventful, and the local hotel did not offer the comforts of the downtown Minneapolis Embassy Suites where I stayed when visiting that office. The phone in my first room did not work, and no one seemed inclined to fix it. The “continental breakfast” proved to be a box of corn flakes with milk and orange juice. There was nowhere to walk, and no time for it anyway. From personal and professional causes, I had slid into a severe clinical depression (diagnosed) that sapped all my energy as I struggled to hide it, mostly successfully, from coworkers and clients.
During this client visit, we were to put the finishing touches on an employee communications program surrounding a rollout. My Minneapolis coworkers, of whom I was fond, teased me by saying that they had insisted that I come, too, to experience their pain. Apparently nervous and controlling, the client seemed to want to be sure that we were working devotedly on their project. To that end, their plan was to put us into a small room with our computers, printer, and supplies, close the door, and leave us to it. Bathroom or water fountain breaks were to require an escort. At 36, there’s nothing like having to ask permission to use the facilities, being led to them, and rushing because your escort is waiting.
We arrived late at night, when I would have been tired and most vulnerable to feelings of sadness. I started to feel generally ill, and then I found it — a hard, sore lump in a place where hard, sore lumps have no business. Quietly, I became panicked, almost hysterical. Because the phone didn’t work, I couldn’t call anyone for reassurance and comfort; it wasn’t something I could discuss publicly on the lobby pay phone at 11 p.m. So I cried to myself, probably hard and for a very long time. I slept little, if at all.
The next day, I discovered what life was to be like for the duration of this visit — with no privacy, bent over a computer for hours, with creativity and wit and solutions expected to flow like something that can be produced on demand. On top of feeling depressed and ill, now I was exhausted, too. I thought I was hiding it all well, but my coworkers and people from the client told me that I looked terrible and deathly pale. And when I looked in the mirror, I had to agree. Yet I could not excuse myself from spending the next eight hours or so hunched over the computer, being “creative.” That experience over two days taught me a little of my grit and resources.
The lump turned out to be an impacted, infected gland that would bother me for more than a year, even with treatment, before finally resolving itself. A year later I would leave that job with few regrets, with those mainly for people who had already left. I would not have survived had I stayed (the practice was sold), and I found myself in a position and a culture then more suited to my personality and temperament. With that, the clouds passed on, for the most part. I still have moments, but they are mostly just that. I live in a better place, I work in a better place, I’ve met people I might never have known otherwise, and the work that I’ve done — big projects and small — has made a difference for a lot of people.
I hope never to be so alone and so frightened again. If I am, I know that I have it in me to do what it takes to endure, and that what looks like a storm may lead to a rainbow.