"What do you really do for a living?"
This was asked by one of my regular customers at the pet store. The question gave me only momentary pause, and I think I mumbled something about this, that and the other freelance stuff I do, and then made a hilarious joke about kibble or bully sticks or something.
Though this was only a vaguely condescending remark, I've noticed that if you are a certain "type" of person -- articulate, halfway intelligent, seemingly well-adjusted -- a clear, identifiable career path tends to keep others around you comfortable. They know what you're "doing."
I've been in conversations where it feels as if my job gives the person I'm talking to an easy gauge in which to determine my intelligence. I guess sometimes it does. If I were designing nuclear astronaut toilets, I'd better have passed high school physics (for the record I did...by one point).
On the other hand, does your job have to define you? Before I worked in the pet store, I would have stomped my foot and answered loudly, "HELL YES." But now that I find myself -- a relatively smart cookie, over educated, creative, arty-type -- working in retail, I would have to stomp the opposite foot and bellow a resounding "HELL NO."
You see, I used to have a very adult job in a very career-oriented field. I had a fancy title, business cards, an intern, I went to galas and I most certainly defined my worth by my job.
Yet after hundreds of hours of stress and meetings and worrying and fearing the bottom line of my department, I suffered what can only be described as a complete mental and physical meltdown, the effects of which I'm still dealing with years later.
Look, I'm not saying everybody is like this. Most people go through their lives and careers working way too many hours a week and they manage to hang in there, or even better, flourish. I've just learned the hard way that if I'm not careful, anxiety will overcome my brain and body and I'll go back to watching hours upon hours of "House" reruns on my couch while envying Dr. House for being able to walk at all -- a terrifying prospect.
Which brings me to the pet store. I know it sounds a wee bit dramatic, but i can honestly say it saved my sanity.
When I first got the job, I was still reeling a little bit from both moving to Hawai'i and leaving my last job. Anxiety and a profound lack of self confidence governed my every action and panic attacks riddled my days. I had never worked anywhere where deadlines were not always looming and a mistake could cost more money than I could understand.
My poor pet store manager. The first few weeks of working there, I barreled into the job like every sale could potentially topple the dog food industry and when I made mistakes on the cash register I was prone to loudly berating myself as a "bonehead" or a "dummy" in front of the customers.
Finally, one day after I had yelled at a customer over his dog's brain tumor, my sweet manager pulled me aside. I was sure I was going to get fired. I think I was shaking. Instead, she calmly but firmly told me to CHILL OUT. She told me the simplest thing, the kindest thing, the thing that nobody had said to me, maybe ever: "You're going to make mistakes. It's unavoidable. But it's how you handle those mistakes that count."
I think I broke down in tears right then and there in the store room, surrounded by grain-free, non-GMO, beef-based dog food.
After that, it was like someone had taken the anvil off my head.
It took time, but I slowly began to unclench. I started to forgive myself for mistakes. I worked hard and gained new and better responsibilities, and things slowly stopped feeling so dire. Doing simple things like carrying around 30 pound bags of dog food, unloading deliveries and chatting with our regular customers reframed my brain and brought back some long-needed simplicity in my life.
I'm not saying I'm fixed, I still go through bouts of severe anxiety and depression, but its not the norm anymore. And I have the pet store to thank for that.
Will I work there forever? I don't think so, nor do I want to. Especially lately, now that I'm feeling balanced and confident again, I'm exploring dipping my toes back into the entertainment world (my previous life). I have a few jobs lined up in the new year, and we'll see how that goes. I'm attempting to keep the "zen" I've mustered at the pet store and carry it over into my other work.
The pet store doesn't define me, but it has helped me define who I am in my career, or at least how I want to conduct myself.
So what irks me lately, isn't the fact that i work in a pet store, it's the marked difference in how people -- strangers, friends, family -- treat me, from when I had the "real" job and was losing my mind versus now, when I have a dreaded retail job but am happy and decidedly sane.
I hesitate to say "Job Shaming"...but okay, Job Shaming.
Over the holidays, I would tell friends and family about the goings on at the pet store, usually because they asked. I noticed across the board that they were kindly listening and nodding, but as soon as my update was finished, they were asking something along the lines of, "But are you looking to get back into the entertainment industry? How long is this pet store thing going to go on for?"
At first I responded in a way best to please them, "Oh yeah, I'm always looking at job listings in LA. I've sent out a few resumes and CVs and who knows what will happen." To which people usually responded with smiles, interest, support and the offer of Christmas cookies.
But it felt yucky. So I tried something different, and though it felt more honest to me, the response was decidedly less sugar coated.
"I'm pretty happy at the pet store right now. I feel like I'm helping people keep their pets happy and healthy and that feels good to me. I've got a few jobs on the horizon, but nothing full time yet. I'm taking things slow."
I think it made people uncomfortable. I got a lot of "That's nice" and "Oh, really? You don't want to do more?" and at the worst, I got the backhanded compliment, "But you're too smart to be working in a pet store!"
I wish I could rise above this crap. I have a paycheck, a place to live, food to eat, insurance, freedom and sanity -- ain't that the American Dream? Then why does it seem like what I do for a living is up for judgement by the general public?
And if nothing else, when I'm feeling shitty, this is what I did with my day: