"Is this a joke? What is this, an episode of Undercover Boss?"
Across the lunch counter from me, there stood a man in a crisp white collared shirt, his cell phone still pinned between his shoulder and his ear. Like most of our bakery guests, he arrived and left with his mobile device in hand, dressed in an impeccable suit. I worked just outside downtown San Jose, in a metropolitan hub of Silicon Valley. Each day, I served middle-to-upper-income corporate employees who work in the glossy downtown offices on the other side of the overpass. Mostly, they breezed past the wooden barrier between us without interaction.
At his questioning, I blushed, avoiding eye contact with my coworkers. They spoke fluent Spanish, catching up on weekend recap or workplace gossip in conversations I couldn't understand. I took AP French a decade ago, at a college prep academy ten miles away. At the moment, I didn't need a translator. My coworkers exchanged frustrated glances, visibly annoyed. While most customers are less direct, my presence on this production line attracts curiosity. Here, I made sandwiches for minimum wage. The job had simple expectations and few to no pre-requisites. However, in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's possible to be too qualified.
Customers fidget during our interactions, bothered by my underemployment. My job description requires me to greet each customer, but behind the counter, I was also lonely. I'd try to make eye contact, to engage in small talk about the weather. These modest gestures were rarely returned. Our silence eased social tension. Silicon Valley is a technology hotspot, an environment of extreme, competitive employment. Once you crossed the arbitrary line of social success, it seemed, you could never return. My customer's offhand joke was a loose cover for a more complicated set of emotions, unrelated to the avocado I've accidentally smeared on his sandwich wrapper. My presence was evidence that, yes, you actually could slip back down the corporate ladder.
Like this man, I attended an elite university, one that cost my parents a quarter-of-a-million dollar college savings account. My internships took place at Silicon Valley corporate meccas, a pivotal scientific government organization, and with an artist who produced work featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art. My presence was a threatening reminder, a cautionary tale: girl goes to college, girl gets competitive internships, girl makes sandwiches in seventeen-second intervals in exchange for minimum wage at a national bakery chain. This man was willingly to openly say what most of my customers are thinking: how did you fuck up? The answer is two-fold and complicated: clinical depression and extreme entitlement.
When I think about that job, I think about my son, who just turned five. Like the man before me, he's begun sorting his world by categories. In kindergarten, students learn about how we each have an inside and outside self. My outside self, as this man has abruptly noticed, is female, mid-twenties Caucasian, English-speaking, and conventionally attractive. My inside self speaks a very different story. Behind my work apron and hairnet, my emotions churn. One year prior to the conversation with this man, I woke up in the ICU. I was recently divorced, after three years of turbulent relationship conflict and untreated postpartum depression. I'd barely survived the suicide attempt I'd made a few nights before. My heart felt shredded, like scraps of paper blowing in the wind. My inside self needed serious, professional help.
These circumstances were recent, but my emotions are not. My heart hurt because I have ongoing mental health issues. If left untreated, I live in a frequent state of clinical depression. It's a symptom of a larger, genetically inherited mental illness that requires constant vigilance and treatment. We sensed its presence by my sixteenth birthday, when during the course of a year, I lost half my body weight and my grades at a college prep school dropped from As to Cs. College was on the horizon; I had seven acceptance letters. I'd spent my childhood in an incubated environment for success: play groups with gifted children, ballet lessons, a grand piano with private music teachers, an SAT tutor, equestrian lessons, foreign travel, culinary school, a convertible.
By eighteen, I was medicated. College was in full swing. I lived at home with my parents, barely leaving my room for classes, regaining my body weight in empty calories I ate from feeling inherently broken inside. The universe owed me, I thought. I was talented in high school. I was successful in securing scholarships. The universe had no right to strike me with a mental illness. What the hell was I supposed to do with a broken brain? I knew plenty of mentally ill people went on to live highly successful lives, but I didn't give a fuck. I'd lost a genetic lottery. My intelligence, which had carried me through my childhood, didn't matter anymore. All I could do was feel. I felt everything, and I felt it so deeply. I didn't want to feel this way. I didn't want to be this way forever. I wanted my karmic settlement check. It arrived shortly. After my first six months of psychiatric drugs didn't work, my father tried his own version of treatment: money.
Soon, I indulged in a $1,000 a month allowance, as my parents tiptoed around my turbulent emotions. In the brief year, during which I spent an additional college education on lattes, takeout, and movie tickets, I would continue to go to class. I would meet my former husband, drop out, and plan to raise our child, who I loved but wasn't ready for. The universe no longer owed me. My former husband owed me, I felt, for creating a situation where I needed to be selfless. I couldn't be depressed and be an emotionally available mother at the same time. I would buckle under pressure multiple times, leaving our marriage to move home. There, I thought, there were no expectations. I could live within my self-constructed prison of emotion.
For close to a year, my father renewed my allowance. I measured my life in purchases that didn't ease the pain: espresso, distractions, anxiety medication. I craved my medication, begged my doctor to increase my medication. I didn't want to feel a thing. My parents watched, unsure of what to do. After two medications interacted and put me back in the ICU, my mother had enough. I'd been in the ICU seven times that year with emotional crises. I refused to do my own laundry. It was too hard. The walk to the dryer felt like a cross-country hike. "Enough," she said, "Mollie, I will not sit back while you kill yourself like this. You need to get a job. You need to do something. Otherwise, I need you to move out, immediately." I panicked, and called my dad. "I'm with your mother on this." He hung up. The auto-transfer on my checking account cancelled. Over the course of a month, I realized if I wanted to drink coffee, I'd have to buy it. Without my own money, that was impossible. I began to fill out applications.
For the first few weeks of employment, my only motivation was sheer panic. I'd arrive at work, silently thinking my mantra: I'm here because I need to eat. I'm here because I can't afford gas in my car. Then, resentment kicked in; towards my parents, towards myself. I went to work because I didn't want to be at home anymore. Our conversations were circular. I'd come home and slam the door. "I hate my job!" I'd yell. "That's a great thing to think about while you're there tomorrow," my mom would reply, wise to my antics. I've heard my son throw similar tantrums. I was a toddler, stomping my feet when my expectations weren't met. Eventually, I just went to work. It became what I did every day.
What started as a clinical problem boiled into a personal problem. While I can't explain what lessened the depression in the end, I can tell you what worsened it: money. With unlimited access to money and little motivation, I simmered in a toxic attitude of apathy and entitlement. When my parents lovingly cut me off, I was forced to get out of bed to take care of myself. Working a job, any job, was the hardest first step in my recovery from a mental illness. In the end, working a minimum-wage job was my recovery from entitlement, too.
That day, nearly a year ago, I handed the man his order. This time, I didn't need pleasantries to know he understood. In our discomfort, we'd touched on an unavoidable truth. His money and status provided security and distance. His privilege afforded him the luxury of counter space between us. The gap between my job and his wasn't as expansive as we like to pretend it is. We were two humans, with very different social roles, but at the end of the day, we ate the same kind of sandwiches for lunch.