You’d think that getting a melanoma, losing half your hair, and almost losing the plot would be enough if a sign that something needed to change.
But it wasn’t these events that made me buck up and do something. It was a simple question, asked in passing nearly two years later, that I had never bothered to ask myself.
“Do you want to do this?”
This is a story about knowing and accepting yourself and learning that ‘waste’ and weakness is a matter of perception.
Let’s wind back the clock. The year is 2008. Fresh out of university, bachelor degree in hand, I was offered a job in a big consultancy firm. Broke from spending the previous five months backpacking around South America and Europe, I was elated.
The commute was 3 hours a day but that was no worse than University, with the added benefit that I didn’t have to do assignments and work part-time jobs in the evenings and on weekends. My boss warned me work would be much harder than University but it was, in the academic sense, much easier. I had a full-time job, was using my degree, and my weekends were mine – life was grand.
But after only three months, something wasn’t sitting well. I wasn’t unhappy exactly, but there was a new, unpleasant sensation I had never experienced and couldn’t explain. When I sought advice I was told, “the first year is always the worst. It will get better. You just need to move up a couple of rungs on the ladder.”
I saw out my first year, my second, third and fourth. I stuck it out because I was assured things would ‘get better’, whatever that meant. They didn’t. With each year I became more miserable and jaded, premature frown lines forming on my brow. That ‘something’ I couldn’t work out was now buried deep beneath other, more obvious problems. I was bored senseless and embroiled in a world of nasty office politics I did not know how to navigate. Sexism – something I had never encountered before – morphed into bullying, harassment and even assault.
Like a frog being boiled, it happened so gradually I became used to it. I just shrugged when I woke up one morning to a series of bruises up my arm. This, it seemed, was the corporate world. You could either hack it or you couldn’t. Cue one of my paradoxical weaknesses – I hate being considered weak.
I did eventually wake up enough to leave. I moved to a smaller company doing largely the same job but was just as unhappy as before. I changed jobs again, this time working with wonderful staff who are still friends today, but the unhappiness built and built, and I started getting sick.
Something wasn’t working.
I was miserable wherever I went. I knew I loved my field of study (I’m a soil scientist – I fix soil to help plants grow), but every job I tried was fraught with problems. Maybe I was simply burnt out from the first one and it tainted the rest.
By 2014 I was at the doctor’s office every week and sent down the conveyer belt of specialists to try and diagnose a series of slippery, mysterious symptoms. Hair loss, stomach pain, memory loss. My stomach was so inflamed it was barely absorbing food, and I watched my cheeks sink and my eyes recess into their sockets. I cried every time I washed my hair, clumps swirling towards the drain. I found a melanoma on my lower back, thankfully early enough that a major excision under general anesthetic was enough treatment.
Ah ha! you might think. Here lies the source of the issues. But removing that little cancer didn’t solve the problems because it wasn’t causing them. It was a symptom.
I saw a rheumatologist, naturopath, and diabetes specialist. All agreed something was wrong with me, but none of them could work out what. I did everything I possibly could – I cut out all processed foods, took supplements, exercised, took up yoga, and meditated. I reignited old friendships and started some new ones. Maybe climate was the problem (I hate humidity), so we packed up and moved from Brisbane to Sydney. I changed toilet paper brands though I’m not sure how I thought that would help. Such is desperation.
My efforts were not wasted, but trivial. It was like I had glass in my foot and was ‘fixing’ it by taking paracetamol. It might mask symptoms for a while but eventually, the wound will begin to fester.
Eight years had passed since I noticed the ‘something’, now long buried and forgotten. I saw three different psychologists but found little relief.
It was one hot summer evening that changed everything. My husband and I were cooking dinner while I recounted my latest session with the latest head doctor. He listed patiently, stirring the pot, then leaned over to the sink, flicked on the tap and filled a glass of water.
“Do you even want to be a soil consultant?” he asked casually, before taking a big drink and turning back to the stove.
I stopped. No-one had asked me that question before. I hadn’t ever asked myself that question – not even when I was studying. Do I want to be a soil scientist? What an outrageous question. Of course I did. I mean, I had to right? I spent four years studying and now nearly a decade working as one. I was good at it, the science part anyway. Besides, what else would I do? I’d dedicated 13 years to this quest. Giving up now would be stupid and ridiculous.
It would be weak.
That one question, asked in passing, did more than anything else I’d tried. It woke up the ‘something’ that had lay dormant since 2008.
Six months later I hung up my trowel and resigned.
The ‘something’ was…Me. Real me, squashed into submission by the person I thought I wanted to be. Smooshed and crushed by bravado, ego, and a strong dose of stupidity.
I am creative, introverted, and have a strong sense of play. I play piano, write, draw, build with Meccano, press flowers, crochet. Almost everything I do is creative in one way or another, and solitary. I like a quiet existence where I can be completely absorbed in my task.
These qualities are polar opposites to those I needed at work. I was a fish out of water, a square peg in a round hole or any of the other well-known clichés. I can survive in that environment, but I’ve seen the consequences. The harder I tried to fit in, the more mangled I became.
It took a long time to realise all those years weren’t a waste. In fact, without them, I couldn’t be doing what I do now.
Today I’m a freelance writer, mostly science writing, something that lets me indulge my curious brain, and uses my skills. I do short contract work as a soil scientist and am significantly happier with this set-up. I truly love soil science but am not cut out for full-time corporate consultancy. I quite frankly hate it. Admitting your failings are hard. Ignoring them is stupid.
To exercise my creativity I make greeting cards and poems – thank you and humorous cards and gifts for midwives, doulas, doctors and nurses. I have written and published a book with my mum, a midwife. Hatch and Dispatch: tales and advice from a midwife compiles her advice to expectant women, and stories from the last 40 years of delivering babies.
It took me even longer to accept that changing is not the same as ‘quitting’, and it’s certainly not weak. In trying to understand this mess and while unearthing creative me, I wrote The Clever Fish, a Dr. Seuss type story about at Fish who climbs a tree. What ‘serious adult’ works through their issues by writing child-like poems about fish? This one. Welcome to real me.
I won’t pretend that my career shift was an immediate success.
I taught at TAFE, took an admin job, and said yes to every single freelance job that came my way. There was self-doubt, criticism, fear. It has taken nearly two years for my freelance work to pay off and for me to let go of the crutch-jobs.
I sometimes ask myself what I would change if I went back. Would I study something different, creative writing maybe, and put my life on a different trajectory? Would I tap out after 3 months when the ‘something’ started to rear its head? No, I wouldn’t change anything.
Yes, it was a very unpleasant number of years. But I’ll admit I can be quite thick at times, and I needed the misery and the problems to kick me into action. Jim Collins said, “good is the enemy of great.” If things had been good, or even ‘OK’, I might have stuck it out for another three decades, one day looking back as an old woman, regretting that I never did what I really wanted to do.
And what would be the point of that?
Alisa Bryce is a multi-genre writer and soil scientist. Her books include Hatch and Dispatch, The Clever Fish, and Gardening 101: Soil the Foundation. She was born and raised in Sydney with her two brothers and one slightly mad border collie.
She graduated from the University of Sydney as a soil scientist. After a few years of pretending to be a serious professional consultant, Alisa studied at Cambridge University, completing a triple Master of geography, cycling on cobblestones, and looking like an extra from a Harry Potter movie. When not writing, Alisa enjoys playing the piano, patting dogs, and browsing foreign supermarkets. www.alisabryce.com.au, www.hatchanddispatch.com Facebook