All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. – Anatole France
So, it happened. On December 9, after 33 years in the corporate world, all of it with one company, I got the call that my position as a Program Management Executive was being eliminated.
So many times in my career, I have had to be the one to communicate these decisions. It’s an awful experience. You follow the HR-provided script, and try to be compassionate, but you must be firm. It’s a one-way call, not a discussion. Nevertheless, you still feel terrible afterwards.
Some people cry, some are really pissed off, and some remain very stoic. The call usually takes about 10 minutes, end to end. And then you, as the manager, go about the reassignment of work, and move on.
This stuff happens all the time in corporate life. Every time you get wind that it’s coming, no matter how good you are, you have to wonder if you are on the list. No one, literally NO ONE, is indispensable.
I was not surprised, and I did not cry – at least not on the phone. In fact, just the opposite. I said, “Thank you. Thank you for giving me the kick in the ass that I needed. It’s time for me to leave. It’s been a really great ride, but I’m ready to go. How can I help you make this easier on our team?”
My manager was kind enough to call me at home, and afterwards I drove to work for the last time. I drove in silence, no NPR radio on for this drive. My emotions alternated between – holy shit, I can’t believe this happened, to HOLY SHIT, YES, it’s finally happened!
I walked through the security turnstiles, used my badge, and thought, “this is the last time I’ll do this.” I strode down the hall to my office and thought, “this is the last time I’ll take this walk.”
Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. It can help you power through a difficult situation. Adrenaline kicked in for me, and within three hours I had communicated to my team, called my closest colleagues to tell them the news, sent my Bon Voyage email, and packed up my office.
Then I drove home to start my new life.
For 33 years, that job was my life. Ten to twelve hours a day, and often on weekends, for as long as I can remember, I have worked. I was dedicated, intense, committed. That job was my primary identity. I defined myself by the work that I did. It paid me very well, and provided for my family. It sent my kids to college. It allowed me to travel all across America, and even across the pond on business. It provided me with rich opportunities to learn, to lead, and to develop marketable skills.
But for the past 12-18 months, something was missing. My needs and desires had changed. I thought a lot about leaving, but was too scared to make the move. Money and financial security were important factors, but separating from that 33-year identity was just as daunting.
On Dec 9, I and my corporate identity parted company, in cold-turkey fashion.
There’s no de-tox guide included with the severance package, but from talking with others who have been through this experience, it is definitely a process that has both mental and physical impacts.
Since writing is cathartic for me, I’m going to document my de-tox experience. I know it will help me, and who knows, maybe it will help others who find themselves in similar circumstances.
Week 1 – Claim Your Gift
Coming down from the adrenaline rush is hard. Be ready for it. I was on fire with purpose for twelve to fifteen hours after the news. After leaving my office, I went home, cleaned and packed my computer and blackberry, responded to final goodbye emails, unloaded the boxes from my car, and talked to friends who called to commiserate/congratulate me on the news. Around midnight, I crashed. I told my son and husband, who were literally hovering, to go to bed. I needed to be alone to start this processing. And then I cried. I had no idea what I was crying about, but I cried anyway.
Expect a panic attack. I woke up at 4:30am convinced that I wasn’t going to get my severance package. There was absolutely no logical reason for this, but nevertheless I was totally freaked. I drank vodka and paced the house most of the morning until my package arrived.
Find a mantra that works for you. Breathe deep and say it, over and over when the inevitable anxiety comes. For the first few nights, I would wake up in the night and just panic. The hot flashes and night sweats I thought I had kicked were back in force. I took deep breaths, listened only to my breath, going in and out, and said, over and over, “It will be OK. I will be OK.”
Claim the gift – and look for others. The universe will be sending them to you if you just pay attention. Within 24 hours of the news, I had an email from a consulting firm asking for an interview. I have no idea if I want a job with them, but it was a great confidence boast regardless. Within 48 hours I got a call from a gifted facilitator who invited me to join a small group of professional women interested in working on release and visioning. On Friday, I paid the remaining balance for the January writing retreat I had previously signed up for on a whim. I went to yoga and had a conversation with the instructor that lifted my soul.
I labeled these gifts (#1, #2, #3, etc) and wrote them down in my journal. I’m keeping a running daily list. Big or small, keep looking for gifts from the universe, because they will be coming to you if you are open to receive them.
Be kind – very, very kind to yourself. I am generally not a kind person. I’m a hard ass, both on myself and others. Just ask my sons and my husband. But right now I am viewing myself as fragile, oh so very fragile. Sort of like a newborn with a gap in the cranium, or a butterfly in the process of coming out of the cocoon, wings all wet and sticky and tearable. I am giving myself a break from the rigorous and demanding self-talk about what should be done everyday.
It took me four or five days to face the boxes from my office. They sat on the dining room table, cluttering up the place (I hate clutter), until I could face going through them. I threw out more old stuff (don’t think I’ll ever need my performance reviews from 2005- 2010), and packed up my most important awards for storage. I just couldn’t bring myself to the point of throwing all that crystal away just yet. If I had it to do all over again, I’d clean out my office more regularly. This was painful, a forced walk-through of my corporate life, one that I wish I could have avoided. Maybe I should have just had a bonfire.
I had lunch with a fellow ‘retired’ friend the day after. I went to yoga two days in a row. I walked the dog a lot. I watched old favorite movies. I read. I cooked (what the hell, I never cook!). I made cookies for the boys and some of my favorite comfort dishes. I looked at the list of “Things I Should Do Now That I Have Time” and haven’t done any of them yet. My damn closets can wait a few more weeks. I went to the post office to mail my computer and blackberry back, and dropped my severance agreement into the mail slot. That was a little hard. (Breathe and mantra, breathe and mantra…)
Be kind to yourself – change is hard, even if it’s good change.
Last lesson for Week One – Control Your Mind. The mind is a funny thing. And frankly, it’s the only thing that matters. It can send you into a spiraling depression, or it can fire you up and provide the power to fuel your dreams. Your choice. When I sense that my thoughts are taking a negative turn, I try to recognize it and stop it before it takes hold of me and drags me down. Do whatever you have to, to control your mind and your thoughts. Breath, mantra, activity, connection with others, whatever. STOP IT before it takes you over.
Week 2 – Glimmers of a New Life
Since this was the week before Christmas (yeah, I know, getting laid off two weeks before Christmas is such a cliche…), I made a scheduled trip to visit my brother and his family.
Biggest ah-ha of this week was how different the experience of taking down time with family was, when there was no work to think about or return to after the trip. I was really and truly present with my family for what was probably the first time in many, many years. I was THERE, in both mind and body. I spent time with my brother, who is going through some tough challenges of his own at the moment. I held my new grand-niece, and played peek-a-boo with my grand-nephew Jack. I brought Christmas presents for all, and reveled in the enjoyment of their opening more than I ever had before. My brother said I was the most relaxed he’d seen me in years. No one has ever used the term “relaxed” to describe me!
I met with a lawyer and a financial planner. I set up an LLC to support future potential contract work, as well as the option to provide photography services. I had the lawyer redraft our wills and Power of Attorneys. I had a frank conversation with the boys about estate planning and who to name as executor and POA. I dumped my entire 401K, pension and investment print-outs into the hands of the financial planner and discussed my risk profile and early plans for the future. My brother and I also made big strides in the work to settle my father’s estate.
I felt like Rocky at the top of the Philadelphia steps. Man, did I get some big stuff DONE! All of it had been on my to-do list for a while, but I had never had the time or the energy to make it happen. It felt GREAT to finally put it all in motion.
One of the weirdest things to get used to was the loss of my Blackberry. For years, I had lived by that Blackberry. Slept with it beside my bed, woke up to its alarm, read and responded to emails night and day, and managed my work and personal calendar with it. I could type an entire memo on it in five minutes or less. I looked at that Blackberry pretty much every hour when I wasn’t in front of my work computer, and now it was gone.
It was like losing an appendage. I felt like my whole life was in total disarray. I didn’t have much on my calendar now, but I was still petrified I would forget an appointment. My Blackberry, work computer and to-do list were all synced like a well-oiled machine. I had a process of life organization that was now all blown up. I had to find a calendar app for my iPhone, and I’m not very proficient at using it yet. I actually went to Office Depot and bought a paper daily planner! I’m still trying to figure out a routine and a new process for managing my life. Damn, I miss that blackberry.
Moments of panic still came to me at night, or at slow times during the day. Frankly, I think they are going to be with me for a very long while. All those lessons that presented themselves in Week One still apply. Expect the panic attacks, be kind to yourself, look for and claim the gifts that come, control your mind, and when all else fails, BREATHE and recite your mantra.
Week 3 – Reality – and Possibility – Are Sinking In
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was filled with more travel. We went to Williamsburg to visit my husband’s family for the holidays. It was the first time in probably twenty years that we have traveled over Christmas.
My husband has a BIG extended family, so there were a lot of people who wanted to hear my news. Having to say you were laid off, over and over again, even with all the positives attached to it, was kind of humbling.
I hid behind my camera, assuming the role of family photographer. This is a multi-generational group who loves to have fun, and it’s magical, but barely controlled chaos when we’re together. I captured some of my best candid people photos ever, and made a video to share. Creating something seemed to help me swallow my pride and manage the emotions that came with the telling of my story.
I also got sick this week, a lousy head and chest cold. Finally, the stress of the experience was working itself out in my body. When we returned home, I slept for twelve hours, then took several naps over the next two days. I felt bad that I was being so lazy – my messy closets awaited! – but it’s what my body needed.
I read a lot this week, and started dreaming of travel. I had to restrain myself from grabbing my passport and booking a solo trip to France, Italy or Spain. I think my husband would have been pissed. Travel will come, but not just yet.
A New Year Awaits
Today is New Year’s Eve, and tomorrow a new year, my year of severance, will start. I think I’m glad that my release happened with the timing it did. Thanks to this gift, I can start the new year with a pretty darn clean slate. Not many can say that.
I’m already beginning to see a change in my thinking. Before, if you had asked me if I could start a photography business, or write a book, or travel a whole lot more than before, I’d have demurred and said, nice to dream, but probably not. There wouldn’t be time, or money in it, and besides, I’m not good enough.
But now, who knows?
This de-tox will continue, and I expect there will be some very deep troughs to go with the highs along the way.
But here’s what’s different. Before, I was petrified by the vision of a clean slate. Now I’m ready to pick up the pen and write on it.
All things are possible. And I just might be good enough to make it happen.
Now that’s a great mantra to take into 2016.