In the summer of 2003, as a fresh faced, frosted-tipped young man of 18, I walked into my local Circuit City and applied for my first “real” job. I had zero experience in retail, but I figured my extensive hours playing video games, watching DVDs and listening to CDs made me an ideal candidate for consumer electronics. Apparently the general manager thought so too, because I was hired to sell televisions, by far the most prestigious of all departments within the store.
I spent the better part of the next 6 years selling TVs. It wouldn’t be my last stop in retail, either. After Circuit City’s unfortunate bankruptcy and subsequent closure, I bounced around in a variety of different retail positions for most of my professional career.
Retail isn’t for everyone. It mostly consists of long hours, excessively mediocre pay, and very limited opportunities for advancement past a certain point. For those who wish to leave the industry, it can be very challenging trying to convince hiring managers to see that the skills you’ve obtained from your prior roles are transferable into the positions they are looking to fill.
However, I managed to break free. While working as a store manager of a high end sunglass boutique, I met one of our vendor reps. I was so impressed by this young woman. I loved the energy and passion she had for her role. Eventually I flat out told her, I want your job. For the better part of a year, I made weekly check-ins to her company’s website hoping a role would open up. I’d email her and ask her questions about her position, the industry and whether or not she was actively seeking advancement opportunities. When she finally was promoted, she quickly let me know the job was available and through sheer will, moderate charisma and boatloads of dumb luck, I landed the job.
The job ended up being everything I had hoped it would be. There was respect from my managers and peers, a decent paycheck, great company culture and most importantly, I loved what I did. For six wonderful years, I never once considered looking for another job. I knew that this was the company where I would make my career. Then the pandemic hit.
After a brief stint of working from home, my entire team received a Zoom invite from human resources. I sat stoically dumfounded staring blankly at the computer screen, watching tears run down the cheeks of my coworkers as my heart broke. Our position was being eliminated.
They say the only thing predictable about life is its unpredictability. When faced with adversity, our only real option is to keep moving forward, hopefully overcoming the obstacles laid before us, and coming out wiser on the other side.
I’m not sure if I came out any wiser, per say, but I did learn a little bit about myself after being laid off.
I had a lot of my own personal identity tied up in my career.
There is so much pressure put on us at such a young age to make career such a large part of our identity. Once our children are able to engage in conversation with us, one of the first things we ask them is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Now the answer to that question should probably be “a fully functioning, relatively stable adult with a fulfilling sense of purpose,” but let’s face it, that just doesn’t have the same ring as “Fireman.” We spend the entirety of our formal education preparing ourselves not to be well rounded individuals, but to eventually find a career. We are taught that hard work and success will lead to a fulfilling and lucrative career. That obtaining said career will represent the culmination of the time and effort.
Four six years, I had reached what I thought I had hit that plateau. I felt a sense of pride and fulfillment in what I did. Aside from being a father, a husband and a son, I was my career, until I wasn’t.
I lost a big piece of who I was that day. It felt like I had mapped out my career and I was so sure I was on the right path that I just kept blindly walking forward, following my charted course and walked right off a cliff.
For a very long time, I wasn’t sure who I was.
No matter how much a company claims to be a family, they are a company. Your family is your family. Your company is a job.
I cannot express the importance of a company’s culture. I would argue that the way a company treats employees should match how it treats its clients. Asking a company to describe its culture has become the most important question I have when interviewing for a job.
But when a company does take that extra step to maintain a great culture and working environment, it’s easy to full prey to the myth that a company is “like a big family.” When push comes to shove, a company will always do what’s best for the company and if that means jettisoning a few “family” members when times get tough, then that’s what they’ll do. It’s hard to blame them. A business may exist for many reasons but ultimately their main objective is to make money and stay in business. Often that means making difficult choices during times of financial strain. Knowing that objectively is one thing, but the emotional impact of that feeling of “betrayal” especially if you’ve bought into the “family” concept can be pretty overwhelming.
How important my mental health is to my success as a parent
Let’s face it; the COVID-19 pandemic did a lot to lay siege to the mental well being of many people over as we continue to work through it. Millions of people have died. The pain brought on not only by those deaths but by the inevitable economic crisis has rippled outward having lasting effects on our mental health.
For me, being laid off meant not just the loss of my sense of professional purpose, but also the loss of many of the coping mechanisms that I had for dealing with stress. I no longer had long commutes to decompress. I no longer had nights in hotels to not only mentally recover but also experience myself as a person and not just as a husband and a father. I no longer had solitude and space.
The ensuing depression manifested (and still manifests) in a number of ways. I find myself faster to anger with my children. I find myself being short and snippy with my wife. I find my moments of joy often balanced with moments of sullen despair. I’ll yell when I’m angry. I’ll retreat when I’m sad. I’ll seek solace in junk food and frivolous buying sprees of comic books and action figures when I don’t know how else to cope.
When I feel myself spiraling, I know I am not the father and husband my children deserve. This self-awareness invites guilt to the party who always seems to have self-loathing in his entourage.
Gaining knowledge without applying what you’ve learned is essentially training for a marathon without ever actually running. After wallowing for a bit, I did take some steps toward improving my mental health.
Like many men, I am unjustifiably hesitant when it comes to seeking out therapy. There just seems to be an underlying feeling that my struggles are not sufficient to qualify with speaking with a professional about my feelings. As a father of rambunctious twin boys, it just never seems like there is enough time to take care of my family’s needs as well as the time required to speak to a mental health professional. I am also 100% aware that I am making excuses. For those experiencing anything like I’ve described above, I would recommend you establish that your mental health is vitally important to who you are as an individual, as a parent, as a spouse, as a child, and as a friend. I advocate for seeking professional assistance with your mental else but also completely empathize with those who aren’t ready to make that leap.
I’ve always believed that service to others, in whatever way feels most comfortable to you, can play an important role in improving your mental health. I’ve strived to increase this as I’ve struggled to sort out my emotions. I’ve tried to build others up, even as I feel down. I’ve always been a firm believer in no good deed, no matter how big or small, is ever done in vain.
I’ve also sought to regain some of those coping mechanisms that I’d lost during Covid. I’ve tried to carve out a little time out of each week to find some solace and solitude, even if it’s just a cup of coffee or a quiet drive listening to an audio book or podcast.
I’ve also attempted to find a creative outlet for my emotions. In my case, that’s been through journaling on twitter through an ongoing thread documenting my mental health journey. For me, the experience has been two fold, it has allowed me to present my feelings to a mostly objective audience as well as hopefully provider some sort of commiseration to others who may be feeling the same thing.
It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m slowing starting to accept that my career doesn’t need to fully define me. That time does a lot to heal emotional wounds but it doesn’t mean that there will not be scars.
Most importantly, I’ve learned that positive mental health is an ongoing journey not a destination.