If someone walked up to you and asked, “Who are you?” how would you answer? Would you just say your name, confident in all that that name represents? Would you say you are a mother/a sister/a daughter/a friend/ a coworker/a pet owner? All of the above? Would you answer with your job title? Or would you think for a minute and answer, “…I don’t know.” My answer would be, “I’m trying to figure that out, and whether or not it really matters.” I’ve come to realize that the question, “Who am I, really?” seems to be the undertone of the 30 somethings of this world. We spent our 20s capping off our developmental stages and laying the foundation for a life that we didn’t think to question whether we really wanted or not.
In our 30s we are able to step back and survey our surroundings. We have some life experience under our belts, but we still have time to make changes and adjustments to our chosen paths. We get to lie in the beds we’ve made, so to speak. A lot of us thrive in the world we built. We marry, have children, we get promoted in our careers, develop hobbies, start exercising regularly and learn to consider the consequences of having ice cream and Pepsi for dinner every night.
Some of us find that we had the best of intentions and the best laid plans for our young lives, but parts of it don’t fit anymore now that we are in our 30s. Maybe we married too soon, or didn’t marry at all. Maybe we bought a house we can’t afford, or a house in the wrong city. Maybe, as in my case, we realize that the job we have as a result of a decade of blood, sweat, tears, and sacrificing holidays and weekends to form a career turns out to be the wrong job for us after all.
I had a lot of jobs in my 20s. Apparently, I am the type of person who can have literally dozens of different jobs before finding one I am able to stick with. I have many passions, not one, and it takes me a while to find the correct channel through which I can direct my energy. I have heard several people who didn’t know my work history say to me, “I hate those people who have a bunch of different jobs all the time! That just drives me crazy!” What? There is a shaming sort of category that people like me fit into, and we are judged by people who don’t understand or agree? Thank goodness, because we sure need more of those in the world. What an odd thing to have an opinion about. Just because one person sticks with a career path for life, either by a belief in principle or by true passion, does not mean that those who don’t have made some terrible mistake.
I can really only speak for myself, but I’m not interested in logging time doing something that makes me unhappy. At the same time, I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up. I want to try a little of everything so I don’t potentially miss out on something that might be perfect for me. I have been everything from a candy striper, ice cream scooper (ice cream is a true passion of mine), a certified nurse’s aide in a nursing home, a receptionist for a Hummer dealership (if for nothing else than the writing material), a radio DJ, to a hostess at a third rate Mexican food restaurant before my first job in a veterinary hospital. Ten years ago I applied for, and got, a position as a veterinary receptionist and was soon transferred to a technician role. I finally felt like I was making a difference. I finally felt like I belonged. Plus, I got to work with animals! Animals have become my thing; that’s what people know about me, that I know a lot about animals. I’ve worked in corporate veterinary medicine, animal rescue medicine, specialty veterinary medicine in ophthalmology, and finally veterinary internal medicine specialty.
I am at the top of my game. I work with technicians who spent years in school and have sentences of credentials after their names. They are the best of the best, “the careers,” if we were in THE HUNGER GAMES, and somehow I find myself among them. I worked my ass off to get here too. Over the past decade I have worked long, bloody, shitty, and stressful hours for doctors who belittled me and worked me as hard as they could while paying me as little as they could. I got scratched, bitten, vomited on, shat on. I challenged myself to learn a new skill each week, then mastered it. I worked for many doctors who encouraged me to learn, went out of their way to teach me, and some that became my friends. Each new job I took was a step up from the one before. My determination and sheer volume of experience has lead me to where I am today.
So how come I’m not beaming with pride, planning out the next 5 years of my life in this field, relishing in the lifetime of job security that I scored for myself? Why don’t I feel fulfilled with the culmination of my hard work?
Because it isn’t right for me anymore. My “foot” has outgrown the “shoe” that is veterinary medicine. My career path kept me afloat in the terror of my 20s, it provided me with stability, a channel for my passion for animal welfare, and it gave me a purpose. Somewhere through the years, though, that purpose became my identity. I didn’t have to worry anymore, I knew what I was meant to do! Soon I didn’t know who I was without my job. I’ve always been someone who jumps into the deep end of any job I do and gives it my best. That is an asset until the balance gets tipped and the job entwines itself with self-identity and self-worth.
I ignored the warning signs that started a couple years ago. My depression started flaring. I spent most of my time away from work recovering from work. I stopped having things to talk about that were not related to work. I started feeling drained at the end of the work days/weeks instead of accomplished. My husband became depressed because I was so often out of my mind with exhaustion at the end of the day that I had no energy leftover for him. I initiated a growing distance between me and most of my friends. I forgot that there were other types of jobs that don’t make you work on holidays, or where you couldn’t accidentally sit in a puddle of infectious urine, or where you aren’t responsible for life and death decisions for hours on end. I forgot that there might even be jobs that could make me happy.
My husband and I are in therapy right now, for a lot of reasons, but my lack of work/life balance is a big one. This past week the therapist asked me, “Why is your job more important than your marriage? Why do you get to be the only one who is exhausted in this marriage?”
The honest answer to those questions is, “Because I am my job, and that’s all I can see. Without it, I honestly don’t know if there is a me.” I’m not saying that’s within a stone’s throw of healthy, or even sane, I’m just saying that’s how I feel. It got me thinking, though, about what it might look like to have a life where my marriage and family and friends get the best of me. What if I had time and energy to do things that made me happy? What if I started caring about myself more than caring about my standing at my work? What would that look like?
I have no idea, but I have decided to stop feeding my soul to the black hole. I know I cannot stay in my current job because doing so will continue to take everything I have. I don’t want that. I want my husband and my friends back. I want my energy back. I want the depression to lift. I want to be able to come home without excrement of some form or another on my person. I have pursued my passion through to its dead end. It is time to try on something new. I’d even be okay with taking another dozen jobs before I find one that fits my life better, public opinion be damned. I don’t need perfection, I just need help balancing the scales again.
Life is way too short to spend whatever time I have left destroying myself (and consistently being shat on, metaphorically and non metaphorically). It’s time to make some changes. I don’t know how to untangle my identity from my position as a veterinary technician, skilled handler of difficult animals with complex illnesses, healer of families. It will not be a clean cut, and it may not ever be completely disentangled, but I think it’s necessary to try in order to stay alive. I have plenty of time left in my 30s, or 40s, or 50s, etc. to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Still, even if I figure it out I may not be able to answer the question, “Who am I, really?” That’s okay, though, because the more I live, the more I realize that everyone else is also trying to answer the same question. The point is not finding a definitive answer, but accepting that while the question never changes, the answer will change every single day. Therein lies our purpose.