Four years ago, I quit my high-profile, lucrative law job.
Actually, I didn't just quit: I walked away from my career at the very top of my game. I was a partner at one of the best trial firms in the country. I had interesting clients with challenging problems. I was on "top lawyer" lists. I was making obscene amounts of money.
It was killing me.
Not in any moral or ethical sense. Not in any literary or hyperbolic sense. It was literally killing me. A year after my daughter was born—when I was about to turn 40—the intermittent panic attacks of my youth returned. They were ferocious, and frequent, and they scared the shit out of me. Goddamn fucking hormones.
It's easy to say that now. For months, I traveled from doctor to doctor looking for a disease that explained my symptoms, and for a cure that would make them go away. Cardiologists. Neurologists. Gastroenterologists. Every day, women are told by their doctors that whatever they're feeling is "all in your head," and yet for months, not one doctor said, "Sounds like you're suffering from severe anxiety, which can be brought on by a chemical imbalance that sets in after your child-bearing years."
But I was desperate for an answer, because whatever was happening was interfering with my high-profile, lucrative law career, and that was simply unacceptable. I'd had my sights set on being a high-powered career woman since I was 10, when I was old enough to understand that my mother had made a choice to give up her teaching career to stay home with me and my two older brothers. I was appalled. "Get out there!" I would scream in silence at her. "Use your brain! Do something for yourself and the world!" That's the role model I wanted, and the one I would always be.
I found a shrink and scheduled an appointment. "I don't know what I'm doing here, but I'm desperate for answers," I told her. "I doubt it's something you can help me with, but I've been everywhere, and no one has helped."
Two months later, I was taking a daily dose of Lexapro, one of many SSRIs on the market. It not only made the symptoms go away, but made me feel more alive, energetic, and productive. Still, I resisted the idea that I needed medication to feel normal, and made my therapist promise that I could taper off the drugs sooner rather than later. She insisted on bi-monthly therapy sessions, and I obliged, because my fancy-law-firm health insurance was paying for it, and I thought, "Why not? A little bit of therapy can't hurt."
Four years into the process, I felt great and talked my shrink into letting me go off the Lexapro. This was a bad idea. The taper takes three months or so, and then the drugs stay in your system for another three months. Sometimes they change your brain chemistry permanently, and you continue to enjoy the benefits long after you've stopped taking them; sometimes they don't. And when they don't, the anxiety returns, worse than before. I understood the risk. No: I thought I understood the risk. I heard what I wanted to hear and filled in the rest with my overachiever personality. I had worked hard in therapy. When I work hard and apply myself, I achieve my goals. What else is there to discuss?
Three months to the day after I took the last half-pill, I lay awake in my bed, my heart beating out of chest, with sweat leaking out of every pore in my body. It was back. With a vengeance. And this time, the Lexapro didn't work, not at the original dosage. Not only did my body need the help to balance my brain chemistry, it now needed more and more of it. Just to feel okay. Not great. Just okay.
I was a fucking wreck. My be-smart-work-hard-get-results approach had failed in a big way for the first time in my life. Five years of therapy turned out to be nothing more than the circle-jerk that allowed me to avoid the tough questions.
The tough questions were all about my kids.
My daughter is the younger one. She's almost 11 and in fifth grade. Her older brother is just shy of 14 and headed off to high school next year. As they tell it, they don't remember much about my anxiety attacks and the crying fits that followed. They remember that I used to work in an office downtown, traveled a lot and wasn't around much. They also remember that we used to have a lot more money.
I thought I was a setting a great example. My son would see his mom doing important work outside the house and understand that there should be no limitations on women in the workplace. He would learn to treat girls as equals and with respect. With my husband taking the laboring oar at home, my son would appreciate the value and importance of being an involved father. My daughter would absorb the same lessons and be proud of me, look up to me. She wouldn't scream inside her head at me to do something with my life, the way I did with my mother.
We were raising two perfect little feminists.
What a load of crap.
The message I was sending my kids was the message I'd repeated to myself for 35 years: If you're smart and good at something, do that thing, even if you don't love it. Even if the long hours take you away from your family. Even if the stress makes you sick. Achieve because you can achieve, and don't ask too many questions.
That's not empowering. That's a horrible lesson to teach a child.
Looking back, it's easy to say, "I couldn't take it anymore, so I just quit." But that belittles my agonizing decision-making process. When I knew I had to make changes, I tried every which way to convince my firm's two senior partners to let me transition to more of a counseling role with less travel, fewer hours, and minimal stress. They resisted. I was angry and sad, because I worked at the firm for 17 years, and was the third-most senior woman partner. I felt like they owed me. But they were right. Some kind of modified counseling gig at a firm that didn't have a counseling practice wouldn't have worked for long, if at all. And it wouldn't have given me the clean break I needed.
I told the kids, my husband and myself that I was taking a one-year sabbatical. Get healthy, read books, practice yoga, drive carpool, go to PTA meetings, have lunch with friends. Breathe. Be present, for them, individually, and as a family. We had money saved up to help us get through the transition while my husband looked to move from the non-profit world to the private sector. Somewhere along the way, I'd think about next steps.
All the people I'd known for years—all the friends who said, "I just can't see you hanging around all day in yoga pants and T-shirts, sipping coffee and browsing the web"—were wrong. I loved it. I loved the freedom. I loved the afternoon naps. I loved not thinking about getting more clients or keeping the existing ones happy. I loved not worrying about this brief or that court hearing. I loved that within weeks of quitting, my favorite baseball team—the San Francisco Giants—won their first World Series since the franchise moved to the West Coast in 1958. (Causation or correlation? Who knows.) I loved that my schedule was no longer dictated by a judge or an opposing lawyer, but by whatever my kids needed, whenever they needed it.
I was giddy, exuberant, and full of energy. I was completely free of panic attacks.
My kids asked lots of questions along the lines of, "What do you DO all day long while we're at school?" Sometimes I answered with a list of things I'd done that day. Sometimes I just said, "I make myself a happier person, so I can be a better mom and a better wife." They didn't quite understand what that meant—and four years later, I'm still not sure they do—but I am undeniably a better mom than I was before. I listen. Carefully. Closely. Not just when they're asking me a question or telling me a story. I listen to how they talk, when they talk, how they interact. I feel the cadence of their speech and the rhythm of their emotions. Seems obvious now, that a mom should be so in tune with her kids. For me, it was a revelation.
But four months or so after I quit, a bit of boredom began to creep in. I didn't miss practicing law—not one bit—but I missed using my brain in an intellectually challenging way. So I started to write. Notes. Poems. Short essays. Whatever came to mind. Then the light bulb went off: "I love to write. I love baseball. I'm going to start a baseball blog." I contacted friends in the Phoenix area, found a cheap airplane ticket, and took off for spring training. A week later I had hundreds of photos, some interesting material, a blog, and a Twitter account.
I wrote about baseball. Every day. Some days I wrote only a three-line baseball haiku. Other days I wrote long, rambling statistical analyses. I have no idea how many people read my early stuff. I wasn't keeping track and I didn't care. I had found that mystical passion project.
At some point, though, people did start to read my stuff. A few national baseball writers started following me on Twitter. They liked my writing. They linked to it. That brought more readers and more Twitter followers and pressure to write good stuff more often. Internal pressure. I wanted to do more and do it well. Did you think I'd just left the eager-beaver overachiever behind?
Less than a year after I started writing about baseball on a blog I didn't think anyone would read, I was a contributing writer for two national sports websites. Then a third. Then a fourth. I wrote a few book chapters, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal and one in San Francisco magazine. Now I'm writing for Deadspin.
I'm lucky and I know it. I was the chief moneymaker in the family for 20 years; now my husband is. I have the luxury to write, and on a schedule that leaves time for myself the kids. Since baseball is my main gig, the summers are my busiest time, but with the kids out of school, everything is more relaxed. No hours of homework stress. No after-school activities. Dinner is whenever. It's not a perfect balance, but it works.
Friends and colleagues often ask my teenage son: "Do you realize how cool it is to have a sportswriter for a mom?" He shrugs and avoids the question, because he's a teenage boy, and what teenage boy wants to say nice things about his mom? I think mostly he feels cheated that he can't lord his sports knowledge over me (except for football, which I largely ignore, and basketball, which he was born to play). And he gets pissed off when I tell him to change the channel when I hear Stephen A. Smith's sexist and condescending bullshit.
But when I talk to him about Ray Rice and Jameis Winston and the sexual-assault scandal at Oregon, he listens. He asks questions. He says he understands. I don't know whether being a sportswriter gives me more street cred with him, or whether he understands the seriousness of the issues, and that he better listen or else. Maybe it's a little of both.
My daughter doesn't care much for team sports. Somehow, I gave birth to one of the least competitive people I've ever met. But she is fierce and pushes herself physically in ways I was never allowed, or inclined, to do. Rock-climbing. Skiing. Aerial dance. All beautiful and strong modes of self-expression. I watch and wonder if my abrupt life change has made her more willing to take risks—physically, intellectually, emotionally. God, I hope so.
There's an old saying: "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life." It's an alluringly simplistic approach, but I don't think it's true. All of the things we love require work. So I tell my kids, find what you love and go after it. Dig deep. Then try new things and develop more loves. Dig deeper.
Just don't dig so deep that it almost kills you.
Wendy Thurm writes about sports and other things. She practiced law for 18 years but is now almost recovered. She can be found on twitter @hangingsliders.
Image by Tara Jacoby.
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