Help me to rescue my job, or come up with a viable alternative.
March 28, 2012 4:45 PM   Subscribe

There's nothing wrong with my job. There's something wrong with me. Please help me to choose what to do.

I've had a pretty stressful 15 months. Split with my husband. Leaped into casual self employment. Had problems with finances, and depression, and anxiety. Empty nest syndrome. Moved back to the family home. Ex was arrested for exposing himself. Daughter was angry at our break up. Son continued to do nothing, despite much encouragement from me (no work, no study, just computer games). Started navigating the horrors of mature dating. Got burnt a couple of times. Started an on again, off again LDR relationship. Sold the family home after ten years without help from ex in cleaning it up and getting rid of stuff. Moved again, to a neighbourhood with junkies with a 12 month lease and discovered my flat is on the market yesterday. My mother died, estranged. There was family stuff. Some other stuff. Can't remember it all.

Anyway, so I have these casual jobs with academics on a campus 15 minutes from me. They have been good to me, and have respected me, my work ethic and my wide skill base. The work is flexible. Work from home some days, work from my great little office on campus. Training in statistics. Promise of scholarship and supervision for my phd once I get through my honours. Great personal relationships, one lasting over 10 years.

But I'm fucking it all up. I have fucked up at least one academic to the point I can't imagine her recommending me to anyone. Quite the opposite. The thought of doing my work makes me panic (and while I had anxiety, panic is new to me). It gets further behind and more scary, and I get more scared. I felt like an elephant is standing on my chest, and when he's not, he's on my back. I hate the quality of work I've been turning in, but mostly not doing. I'm missing vital deadlines all over the place. Have been for months but it's getting worse.

Because I'm casual, I have no contract, no sick leave, no work programs to assist with my situation.

I'm sitting here, dreading going to work to try and fix the stuff that should have been done ages ago, the stuff that my academics have been kind enough to let go, again and again.

So I'm thinking about quitting. I have some money in the bank from selling the house. But if I quit, well, there's some projects I've been on for ages (5 years) and if I quit, someone else will take them on, and I won't ever get them back. I'll have to find another job, and I doubt I'll ever find anything as flexible as RAing. And then there's the scholarship and the phd.

I am on anti-anxiety medication. I have suicide ideation often. I feel nauseous with fear. I can't seem to make a decision about anything.

My preference at night, instead of working, is to dry to drown the feelings with alcohol, but I don't do it every night because I don't have a car (or a license) and happily the pub is not terribly close by.

What am I not considering here? What is so fuckingly glaringly obvious? Should I break my lease, send my kitty (who wakes me at 3am for 3 hours) back to my ex, and join the circus, or go wwoofing?

I've done so much therapy over the years - I last saw someone in January, but she wasn't much help. She just wanted me to tell her my problems, and she would say, "that sounds difficult." No solutions, no insight, just sympathy.

Oh my skills:
I have great organisational skills, expert at Word (just formatted over 1000 pages at high level for mining consulting company for publication), Illustrator, Excel, Access. Can find stuff out quickly. Hate working with the public.
posted by b33j to Work & Money (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Since you are a freelancer, this is a bit of an unusual suggestion, but could you take a leave of absence for medical reasons? Mostly this would be a formality, but at least you could press pause on your professional development while you deal with your depression and anxiety, which are very real medical issues. You may have to hand over some beloved projects to someone else, but it would be temporary, and when you are in a better place, you could reevaluate your work situation without being under such severe duress.
posted by katemcd at 5:08 PM on March 28, 2012

I would love to post a longer and thus more sympathetic answer because you've had a hell of a year here but am on my way offline. So what I really want to say is:

I have been there. I have learned that it is never as bad as the anxiety says it is. (I have lost one client but I have not lost the dozens and dozens I've been afraid I've lost when I'm busy not doing the grownup things I'm supposed to be doing.) I have learned that people don't want to be mad at you or keep score; they just want their shit. I have learned that when I cannot pull myself out of a slump, it is vital I pull someone else in just to get the mechanics of Getting Work Done in motion again. When I cannot be responsible to myself, I can usually be responsible to them.

I suspect that you may find it useful to have someone else to organise yourself around. For me, it's a temporary assistant to come in and deal with my email. The first time I did this, she came in for two hours a day for ten days and my mother paid for it as an act of humanitarian mental health. I directed the lovely assistant on the laptop from the couch, where I literally hid with my face under a pillow, dictating email replies. I have done it a couple of times since, always much sooner, shorter and well before crisis point.

Also the ability to get someone to send emails saying "Hi, I'm Fifi and I've come on board as B33j's scheduling assistant; I'll be reviewing all outstanding work and agreeing a delivery date with you this week" is worth it's weight in breathing room.

I don't know what you could recruit someone for - scheduling, printing materials you need, whatever you can think of - but if you are anything like me, it will help you feel less overwhelmed and more capable of facing the mountain. Get help - less medical and emotional, more practical - and pay what you need to for it. Consider it an investment in keeping your job.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:20 PM on March 28, 2012 [11 favorites]

Oh my goodness, b33j, I am so sorry you have had to deal with all!

I thought of the same thing as katemcd, the sabbatical, but the problem is that with work like yours, there's no guarantee that you will be able to come back and pick up where you left off.

So then I thought--how about sub-contracting the work out, just for a little while? Get some help, maybe from someone over at oDesk, a temp agency, or a college student (as long as there's no conflict with the assignments from the academics). What about that son of yours, how old is he? Could he help? This is his mother's HEALTH we are talking about! I'm betting someone can help you catch you the work back up to a place where it's all not so overwhelming, at least. You need breathing room.

Then, make yourself take a day to go see your doctor, and spill everything about all this stress you are under. I know you are on anti-anxiety meds, and good for you, but HOLY HELL have you been through a lot! An anti-depressant, something to help you sleep without alcohol every night and get out from under the weight of all that stress--could certainly help in the short-term.

Absolutely move. If you have some money, you should not be living with junkies! You need a home you can look forward to coming home to at night.

I don't think you should get rid of the kitty. Pets can be good motivation to actually get out of bed in the morning because you know you have to feed them, etc. And they're actually good for you, too. Sit and pet the cat, and do nothing else, the next time you feel stressed, to help you calm down.

And when you can, if you can, as soon as you can, get away to somewhere sunny and bright, even if it's only for a long weekend.
posted by misha at 5:28 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

misha made the suggestion of subcontracting work from the overdue projects, which I second wholeheartedly. In my graduate student days, I picked up a lot of spare cash from similar situations.

Once you have made a workable plan (and the most workable plan might be to quit for medical reasons, but you'll have to see) you are going to feel so much less stressed, I predict. The guilt spiral of being behind on work can take a much bigger toll than the stress of doing the work itself.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:42 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, don't give up on therapy because you saw a bad therapist. If your car broke and you got a bad mechanic, you'd find another mechanic, right? You wouldn't just say "Well, repairs don't work for my car."

I know it's not that simple, but please consider seeing someone for a medication review at least. It doesn't sound like your anti-anxiety meds are doing their job.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:44 PM on March 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

I went through a rough patch 3 years ago and my work started to sag. My boss and I started meeting once a week for a few minutes to talk about any concerns that may have emerged since the last meeting, and about how I was doing in general on working on the issues he initially brought up. (This was a short term strategy and ended at the end of that school year.)

Maybe there's something like this you can set up with the people you work for. It'll depend on the particulars.

Anyway, I found that having this extra layer of accountability helped me be more mindful. It also cut down on my anxiety, because everything kept being okay at the last meeting, and because it was no longer possible that a colossal, damning mistake was sitting there "collecting interest" with another set of eyes on me.

Also, it gave me a much better clearer understanding of my boss's expectations. It turned out that I was stressing way more over this stuff than he was and the "sagging" hadn't been the point of crisis I thought it was when he first discussed it with me.

There's something wrong with me.

I hope you're seeing this as situational. You've been through a hell of a lot.
posted by alphanerd at 5:47 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't be too hard on yourself--I think most people would be quivering in a corner given all that you've been through this year! No, "been through" is a bad choice of words: you've gotten yourself through all these horrible things, which shows that you are strong. And yes, like a human being, you're having issues coping. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you.

You say you've built some great relationships with the academics you work for. I would work on salvaging the remaining relationships, leveling with them that you've hard an extraordinarily difficult year personally, and you are aware that there are some issues with your work lately. Tell them you're addressing them and have developed a plan to get back on track. Then make the plan (this is something I find extremely helpful when I feel a panic attack looming): a concrete, small step plan that has not only deadline dates, but deadline times. Build a routine. Stick to it. When you fall off the routine wagon, don't beat yourself up, just redirect yourself immediately. No recriminations, but no excuses, either.

Can you make yourself go into the office everyday until you've established a routine? Do you have any good friends who you can ask to help keep you accountable? Better yet, do you have a quiet friend who has a likewise flexible schedule who can work alongside but independently from you? I find it MUCH easier to stay on task if I know other people are around.

Please try another therapist because obviously, suicide ideation is bad. Call the hopeline.

Be kind to yourself, and truly, best wishes.
posted by smirkette at 6:06 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

You asked if you were not seeing something glaringly obvious. I'm not a doctor but if you're feeling this way *on* anti-anxiety meds, I don't think they are working. All I can tell you is from my experience. I tried meds for anxiety/depression and they helped for a little bit. Then they made things worse and worse without me even realizing it. In fact I ended up adding meds at my doctor's suggestion and I was a huge over-medicated mess. Getting off them absolutely sucked, but now that I have I feel a LOT better, more productive, increased mood - and I've been able to start exercising regularly again which is helping a ton too. Meds did technically help with anxiety and mood but also made me too weak and tired for all non-essentials - which defeated the purpose. Ignore all of this if you know for a fact that they are helping you, but I wish I never tried them. Or at least, I'm glad I stopped taking them. Feel free to memail me to talk more.

As for your cat...actually, I think you should give him to your ex for now. I understand how ridiculously annoying it is to be woken up in the middle of the night by the damn things. You don't need that right now. /hug
posted by infinityjinx at 6:27 PM on March 28, 2012

Ugh. You have had a horrible quantity of stuff dumped on you in the last few years, and It's understandable that you are feeling panicky. Normal even.

I agree with others that subcontracting to get through this moment is a good plan. You can also be straight with your clients and tell them you are sick. You're allowed to get sick, even if you're a casual employee. You can use your nest egg to get through this time, and your employers are likely to be more forgiving than you fear.

I spent my life around tenured academics, and they often have things go pear-shaped or late. And good help is hard to find - that's why you have strong relationships - you are likely good at what you do.

I really strongly recommend Brene Brown's TED talks and website about dealing with shame.

I have also found Cognitive Behavior Therapy to be helpful at dealing with depression, panic and overwhelmedness.

You've pulled yourself through a lot. Take a rest, then get through this too.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 6:30 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Freelancer here. In my experience, you don't quit--you just call your clients individually, explain in extremely general terms that a lot has happened to you lately, and tell them you appreciate their patronage & will let them know when you are back on your feet.

Usually, what happens is a complete reality check: Your clients probably love you, they just want you to be OK, etc.

Then I recommend spending your (burnt out) therapy money on a business coach or life coach (assuming it can only go to one or the other for now). That's the sort of person that gave me extremely valuable advice for tricky situations, and I profit from it every single day.
posted by circular at 6:36 PM on March 28, 2012

Every academic I know of has struggled with depression. Most have been on medication for it at some point. Most have had burn outs. ALL have had projects that didn't get finished on deadline (or ever) and that they are too embarrassed to even think about now.

Unless the ones you are working with are assholes, I think you should arrange a meeting with each and lay out exactly what your situation is and has been. Explain that you aren't telling them this because you want them to keep excusing you for work left undone, but that you want them to understand that this is situational and psychological, and that you are usually a reliable person, and that you are embarrassed and don't want people to think you are a flake. Then do, or don't do, whatever work you still can for them - maybe you have to tell them you just won't be finishing a particular project at all.

I am suggesting this because I think you will feel an awful lot less guilty and ashamed once you have had these conversations and tied up the loose ends on the work that looms over you right now.

Then you figure out how to keep earning money/getting clients/doing new projects. That's a second step. But I bet part of why it seems so scary and hard is that it's all tangled up with the shame about the projects you have flaked on.
posted by lollusc at 6:48 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

You don't mention your age but if you're in your forties or older you should consider the possibility that your hormone levels are making all of this even harder. Get a good physical work-up, get those levels tested. Your son who just wants to play video games can he be coerced into helping with some of your work, like the personal assistant mentioned above?

In my experience alcohol will only make things harder. Can you smoke pot to relax? Exercise?

It sounds like you need to move to a better place if you possibly can, and get rid of the cat too. Sure there's some comfort to be found in sweet pets, but this one does not sound very sweet. I've been through some similar insane rough patches, things do get better; try not to despair too much and be sure to get enough sunlight and enough sleep.
posted by mareli at 6:55 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

your brain needs sleep, please consider losing the cat for a while. sleep deprivation throws off your judgment and mood, and it's impossible to think your way out of or around it.

also, you say you're on anti-anxiety meds. are you being monitored on a regular & frequent basis by a qualified psychiatrist? the meds don't sound like they're working so great, and whoever prescribed them for you should: 1) be aware of that and 2) be busting down your door trying to get them dialed in.
posted by facetious at 6:58 PM on March 28, 2012

Reality check: when you say "there's something wrong with me," you've also listed the 80 million things that are wrong with the world around you -- most of which have very little to do with you!

--Mom died -- very sad, but not your fault.
--Ex exposed himself -- TOTALLY not your fault.
--Landlord selling your place -- I highly doubt you're the reason this person needs money.

I'm not trying to minimize the impact of these things on you and your life, but please recognize that while some of your brain chemistry may be a little haywire right now -- understandably so -- there is nothing wrong with you that wouldn't be absolutely normal under these very, very difficult circumstances.
posted by Madamina at 8:21 AM on March 29, 2012

Response by poster: Hey.

Thanks everyone. I quit one of the jobs and felt immediately better. She's found a replacement already but still funneling some small amount of work to me, which is good. I talked to my main academic client (who has enough work alone to support me), and she is totally understanding and has no problems with my work. My kitty has settled in and no longer wails at 3am, and is very good at giving me someone to chat with.

I'm still stressed, and I do need to see a professional. I will get there. But I am much better than I was when I posted this.

You guys as always have been a huge help, particularly in helping me understand this is not my fault. Thank you.
posted by b33j at 5:52 PM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

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