In that time, my little family has faced all sorts of milestones, losses, happiness and heartaches. It's called life, and it has certainly kept on moving.
I've written pages and pages about how it has affected me as a parent, and that was the goal, of course. To be more present and flexible to the needs of my family.
But until now, I've never put words to just how profoundly it has changed ME.
As someone of the introvert sort, in retrospect, the job I was doing for 17 years or so wasn't really a great fit for me.
Let me try to explain it.
Imagine that I'm a huge bag (not a stretch, I know) and imagine for a minute that I'm all full of popcorn. Now in my "I'm a huge bag of salty snacks" scenario, the popcorn represents everything that is good about me, and everything that makes me who I am, like my sense of humor, my energy, my ability to get things done, my interest in things like books and music and current affairs and writing and craft projects, my patience, and everything else that goes into making up me. Now imagine that every time I encountered someone at work, whether it was a staff member, a customer, a delivery driver, a repair person, whatever, imagine that that person was like a little bird, pecking at my fluffy, delicious popcorn. Maybe the delivery driver only pecked away a kernel or two, and maybe the staff member who showed up with a good attitude, on time and ready to work only took one, but then the grumpy customer got about a dozen, and the repair man got about 50, and the booksellers I had to cajole into doing their jobs got hundreds of my kernels, and by the end of the day when I got home, there was nothing left in my bag except the few unpopped kernels, some salt, and those little hard shell things that always fall to the bottom of the bag.
And that's all that my family and friends got of me.
I'm the kind of person who has to expend a great deal of energy every time I interact with people, and I recharge by being alone. I totally get that that's not how some (probably even most) people are. Many people get refueled by spending time around people, and jobs with so many people coming at them - even in a good way - are maybe a good fit. But that wasn't really the case for me.
The way I felt after 17 years of that, day after day, went beyond exhaustion and bordered pretty close to numb. I was totally checked out of my own life. I really didn't feel much. Not happiness, or sadness, or highs, or lows, or joy, or pain. In order to protect ME, I buried myself under layers and layers and layers of nothing, just so I could keep on functioning. Add to that the guilt I felt that I wasn't really enjoying what little time I got to spend with my family, and to put it mildly, I was a hot mess.
Now I know that people work these kinds of jobs their entire lives and are able to thrive on the chaos of it, and when I was in the middle of it, I THOUGHT I was doing fine. Ok. Good even, most days. It's only after being away from it for this long that I have been able to see what a difference it's made.
About six months after I left, R said to me one day, out of the blue, "It's like you just started to breathe again."
And that's exactly what I felt.
And after I started to breathe again, I slowly started to reclaim myself, bit by bit, piece by piece. Now, three years later, I think I've finally started to become more of the person I was meant to be, the person I really am inside.
Now my biggest stressors every day revolve around what I should make for dinner, or whether or not I will ever pass level 102 in Candy Crush. Most complaints in my life are resolved with a cup of juice, a bandaid, or a kiss.
Physically, I feel better than I ever have. When I stopped working, I IMMEDIATELY lost about 20 pounds without trying. It's like the weight of the world got lifted off me. My chronic foot pain completely disappeared even though I'm running 25 miles a week, and the weird tightness across my back and shoulders that was my constant companion (and I thought my cross to bear) went away. Completely.
For all the years that I worked, I wore black clothes. Black pants. Black skirts. Black shirts. Pretty much every day I wore black. I told myself that it was practical. In reality, I think it was just kind of a reflection of how I felt. Over the past few years, I've been slowly letting color creep back into my wardrobe, and I'm proud to say that for the first time in my adult life, the pinks, red, greens and blues in my closet far outnumber the blacks. It feels cheerful and good. It feels more like ME.
I'm learning how to let things go more.
I'm learning how to share more of myself, without worrying that it's not "appropriate." I'm learning how to ask for things that I want, that are for ME, and I'm learning how to be silly again.
And I know that I'm so, so thankful for the chance.