How My Career Suddenly Became Toxic
And why we finally had to break up.
Most of us can pinpoint at least one romance that, in hindsight, was not a great choice. In my first long-term relationship, I was smitten with a slightly older Australian I met overseas. He seemed so smart and worldly, and — most alluring of all to my 20-year-old self — he liked me.
I dropped everything to be with him. Unfortunately, he was also narcissistic, emotionally immature, and did not respect me. It took a visit home, to my old life, to see the toxicity of the situation and realize that trying harder wouldn’t fix it.
Years later I found myself in a similarly unhealthy relationship, except this time it was with my career.
I became a public school teacher 14 years ago. It’s not the career I envisioned for myself growing up, but it seemed to be the best fit at the time. My impetuous sojourn Down Under had brought me heartache and deferred my studies; it was time to start adulting.
There were many things I loved about teaching: working with kids, tapping into my creativity, seeing student growth, and continually learning new things. Much like my first love, I became swept up in the excitement of possibility. I dedicated everything I had to it, taking setbacks extremely personally. My happiness became contingent on how things went at work, and I spent more and more time trying to control all possible variables so everything ran smoothly. As any teacher will tell you, this is futile.
There are countless factors over which we actually have very little or no control. Just as in any relationship where you let your worth be defined by the other person, I set myself up for heartbreak.
A supervisor saw it coming: “You’re doing an amazing job, but if you keep going at this rate you’ll burn out in less than five years.” I ignored this, and I suffered. Determined to be the best darned teacher I could be, I neglected my eroding well-being, not acknowledging that many elements of the job ramped up my (as yet undiagnosed) anxiety.
Coincidently, five years in, tragedy struck. A beloved student suffered a breakdown and committed an act of violence against a classmate at school. Both students were well-liked, and my tight-knit class was devastated. The attacker was a youth I had poured energy and care into for two years, and yet I was powerless to stop what happened.
Rattled to my core, I should have taken at least a couple of days off, but I stubbornly persisted, feeling duty bound to lead my class through this crisis. I ended the year feeling the potent sting of both heartbreak and betrayal (this wasn’t how it was supposed to work) and fell into a dark depression.
Meanwhile, there were other things going on in my life. I was a newly minted full-time stepmom with family obligations beyond my career. I had to take stock. I admitted that teaching, or my relationship with it, was unhealthy for me, but the pull was strong. Not wanting to throw away all the effort and heart I already had poured in, I stayed for five more years.
Fortunately, an opportunity arose to work part time (four days a week), and I grabbed it. This microstep back allowed space for elements of my life that my career had mostly crowded out: music, writing and friendships.
I started teaching piano again and remembered how much I love working one-on-one with students in a subject I adore. Room emerged for new elements as well: namely, my son. A scary experience with postpartum anxiety forced me to accept that I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life. The codependent relationship I had with school teaching (plus the increasingly complex realities of the job) exacerbated it.
These shifts in my noncareer life gifted me perspective to see that, although public school teaching is a noble and rewarding vocation for many people, it’s not a good fit for me. With my mental health and happiness in mind, I’ve left the profession.
I couldn’t have made this decision if I were still in the thick of it. Just like a starry-eyed adolescent who forgets to eat or pursue passions apart from their beloved, I had lost myself in my work. And, as with a habituated-yet-ultimately-unhealthy romance, it wasn’t going to get any better, no matter how hard I tried. Reflecting on my career with my complete wellness in mind has helped me understand that the right vocation, like the right relationship, allows you to be a full, happy person both in and apart from it.