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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tipped off the Hamster Wheel - Defining who we are

This week marks the second anniversary of a seminal date in my personal history...the day I became "differently employed". I prefer the term "differently employed" to "retrenched". For the first few weeks I wandered the house marvelling at day time television, revelling in not having to face the morning commute but underlying it all was a terrible sense of having somehow failed.

Let's face it, we define ourselves by our occupations and for all my working life I have defined myself by the title "lawyer". The first time I had to reinvent myself occurred when we moved to Singapore for 3 years with my husband's work.  At the time we left I was in a part time job that I loved, I was qualified for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve with the possibility of command of one of the University Regiments but when I arrived in Singapore I found I was no longer a lawyer or an army officer, I was "just an expat wife". No one knew or cared what I did back in Australia. What mattered was what job my husband did, what apartment block we lived in, what sort of car we drove and which Club we belonged to. Holy 1950s, batman!  My husband had his work, my children went to school while I became a home maker. I do not devalue the importance of that role with a husband who was hardly on the island and two miserable teenagers but somewhere I lost myself.

Mercifully I found the ANZA Writers Group and they saved my life or at least my identity...I suddenly realised I could be a "writer" and that's how I occupied my time in Singapore. I even started a "freelance writing" business and for the first time put "writer" as my occupation on the re-entry card to Australia.

In our lives we think we make decisions but in reality if we look back over the span of our years we can see the "decisions" we agonised over and thought we had made, really weren't decisions at all, just  stones in the crazy paving of our lives.

(Over the years other "decisions" I thought had been made and set in contract had to be rethought. The one decision I think I did make and that had the most significant influence on my life was a left field decision in my final year at university to join the Army Reserve. Why, you ask? (as indeed did all my friends!).
1. You got paid...
2.  Broken heart...need to do something different with my life etc, etc.
3.  I liked uniforms)

Defined as a "Lawyer" (the one and only time I ever wore the "uniform")

Did I decide to study law? Not really...I fainted at the sight of blood (ruling out medicine  and suffered numerical dyslexia (my own term for being mathematically challenged...ruling out accounting). I had no desire to do either teaching or nursing (reference to blood above), the only other "career choices" available to a girl in the late 1970s. I came from a family of lawyers and my father (the only one who was NOT a lawyer) made the valid point that even if I never practised law, it was good to have a trade.

So when the time came to return to Melbourne at the end of our Singapore stint I announced my decision to anyone who would listen. "I am NOT, repeat, NOT going back to law." Two weeks after my return I was running a friend's legal practice. So much for  that decision. From there I moved into a full blown career...and I was stuck on the corporate hamster wheel, running ever faster, ramping up the stress and anxiety levels. To use another metaphor, I became a frog in a pot, the heat was being turned up gradually until in late 2009 I found myself in the dream job - a senior executive role that on the face of it brought together everything I had ever don. This, I swore would be my ultimate job, the job I could retire from.

It all came crashing down in a manner that is worthy of a 6 part television series. By the time it got to October 2010 I had seen 90% of my PD disappear in an organisational restructure and was told in no uncertain terms that I was no longer a member of the Executive. A full and fearless discussion was had with the new CEO in which I explained that this was  not the job I had signed on for. I was called into the CEO's office on a Friday afternoon - and yes, the box of tissues was on the table and the outplacement guy in the office next door. I got a "this isn't about you, it's about me" dissertation followed by the "don't come Monday" talk and do you know what, I sat there, looking at the plane trees beyond the window and thought "I must remember this will be useful in my writing".

I had been hurled sideways off the hamster wheel and I probably owe a small debt of gratitude to that CEO but I'm not going to tell him that! There is still a small well of bitterness and hurt about my treatment that is like a scab, I can keep scratching at it and it will start to bleed again...even after 2 years.

As I drove home that night in a veil of tears, I was halfway home when the reality hit me. I had been set free.
I wiped out the pain with several large glasses of Glenfiddich, followed by most of a bottle of red wine. My husband seemed oddly relieved (apparently he had been living with something called "the stress monster")  and assured me that financially we could manage quite well without my salary.

For six months it felt corporate uniform gathered dust in the closet, I lost weight, I got fit...I started to write properly. I paid lip service to my former identity by keeping up the outward appearance of a legal practice but my heart had gone out of it. I had put everything I had into that last job and I had nothing left.

This year I did not renew my legal practising certificate which was a monumental psychological barrier but I am back at work again...on my terms...with a small not for profit. I earn a fraction of my former salary but I love my job, I like the people I work with and most importantly I feel like I am actually doing some good. That is what my former CEO did not understand, working was never about the money, it was about making a difference.

So what is the point of this ramble? It is about the decisions you make in your life, or at least you think you make. We can't predict what our lives are going to do but what we must always do is make the very best of the opportunities it affords us. What if I hadn't joined the Army Reserve? Would I have met my husband? What if we hadn't gone to Singapore? Would I have had the confidence to continue my writing? What if I hadn't gone straight back into law... and what if I hadn't become "differently employed" on a fine November afternoon two years ago...?

I would never have had the courage to inscribe my last re-entry card into Australia with "WRITER".

Winning the 2012 Romance Through the Ages Contest - Anaheim