About Pam Collage Art by Pam Writing Life Manifesto

I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.

I stifled a small sob as I used the power equipment to move an oversized trough full of dough into it’s place. It was another 13-hour shift, my fourth one that week. I had not had a day off in two weeks.  My body was exhausted, my arms ached from being overworked. Sometimes I would wake up at night in pain, my forearms throbbing with an intensity that matched my emotional bleakness.cocoapam

I felt weak. My coworkers, many working as hard or even harder than I, seemed to cope much better with the excessive overtime. My husband, who has worked at this factory for fifteen years, kept telling me it would get better, that just as soon as our union contract, which was about to expire, was renewed that things would simmer down. “The company always pushes more production when it’s contract time,” he said. His attempt to reassure me fell flat. I had never felt more demoralized in a working environment in my entire life. I’ve held twelve different jobs over a thirty year span. This job has been  the worst and best of my life. The best because of the pay and benefits. It is a solid, union job with wages that are the most I have ever earned. I make as much my husband, something new in our 27-years of marriage. And though Jerry never lorded it over me, I always felt the gap of our earning power as I navigated motherhood and working at entry-level jobs with entry-level pay.

When Nabisco (yes, Nabisco!) was hiring again Jerry urged me to apply.  Yes, there would be some overtime and some weekends, but new hires often did not rack up the hours as senior employees scooped up the premium overtime pay. “It’ll be years before you work a Sunday,” predicted Jerry.

Before my second year anniversary I was working 60+ hours a week, including a lot of Sundays. The company, now owned by a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate, made it clear that they were intent on increasing their profit margins.That translated to workers like me being forced to work the equivalent of two full-time jobs. My entire being was collapsing from the pressure.

“I’m not going to work tonight,” I cried as time inched closer to the start of my graveyard shift. “I am wiped out. I can’t even get out of bed.” I laid there like a little girl with the covers pulled over my head. I wanted to hide from my new world of long shifts and production quotas. My eyes were swollen from crying. Why did this job undo me so much?

I stayed home for the next three days. Where I work we can miss up to three shifts. It’s a ding on our attendance and too many dings will result in discipline and even termination. I have never worked in a place where I had to call in just to get time off to rest. I felt guilty. I knew that someone else would be forced to cover my shift, and yet that is the game. I covered plenty of overtime for other people when they called out, too, I rationalized. It’s not my fault the company chooses to run a thread-bare crew resulting in high absenteeism.

“I can’t sustain this, Jerry,” I lamented over and over again. “I have to quit. I cannot live my life this way. It is crushing me.”

Jerry and I had many conversations about my exit plan. We were enjoying the two incomes from the job, yet not beholden to it. We avoided the Golden Handcuff syndrome that enslaves so many workers to stay in jobs they hate.

It was decided. I would leave the company by summertime. We would build up our savings and then I would resign.  I contacted my former boss and coworkers who all encouraged me to return. I used to work as a patient food server at a large hospital. I loved that job, my most favorite job of my working life. The only reason I left was for the Big Money … and to work at the same place as my husband. Besides, how COOL IS IT  to have bragging rights that we make America’s favorite cookie, the iconic Oreo, as well as other beloved Nabisco snacks?

Despite having an exit strategy, the weight of long work hours that isolated me from my community of friends, continued to take it’s toll on me. I would spontaneously start crying over the smallest of things, even at work, which freaked me out. I often worked alone and would just start quietly crying and feeling terribly sorry for myself and the fuckedupness of it all.   Many times I came home sobbing as I dragged my tired body through the front door. My emotions swung wildly from immense self-pity to deep shame for the pity parties I kept throwing myself. Dammit, Pam, get your shit together. At least you have a good paying job! There was no end to the floggings.

I went to four funerals in one month the summer of 2007; I have been through cancer with my teenage son… but it is this job that has me undone. What the hell is that all about? What is wrong with me?

I finally made an appointment with a therapist. I had been reading up on chronic stress and began to connect the dots of why my job was pushing me to the brink. I laughed when I read the remedy for chronic stress : Rest. Personal Time. Exercise. Um, yeah, right, I’ll get on that just as soon as I maybe get one or two days off this month.

It’s somewhat miraculous that I managed to keep my appointments with the therapist, but somehow I did. Talking with her helped me understand the root cause of why a job… A JOB… had brought me to such a low point. It was like my entire being, body-soul-spirit, had been assailed. The therapist boiled it down to a simple metaphor about Resilience.

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“Resilience is like a water tank,” explained the therapist. “The tank has to be constantly filled because it is constantly draining.  Life with  all of it’s stresses keep the tank draining.”

Resilience is the ability to harness inner strength to weather through life’s challenges. Not to be confused with stoicism or toughing it out, resilience is the ability to roll with it and adapt.

We talked about the stressors I had endured in the preceding two years : the stress of changing jobs,  the tremendous year-long stress of our son having cancer, and as soon as I got through that with barely time to catch my breath, the overtime at work kicked in so hard that even the old-timers   were shaking their heads.

“Your resilience tank has been tapped out. Chronic stress strips you of your ability to cope. You have no reservoir to draw from,” she explained.

This  helped me feel less crazy and ashamed for not being Super Woman. I even began to confide to some of coworkers what was going on. “This job makes me feel weak,” I said to one woman.  “Me, too,” she said. And then she began crying. I was not the only one. THAT knowledge, that I was not the only one falling apart from workplace-related stress, somehow comforted me. It empowered me. I began to Own My Story of how the journey of my life had brought me to this low-point. Through journaling and making art I resolved to give myself permission to be weak. Self-acceptance is an effective remedy against self-pity.

As I made my peace with my exit plan a small splinter of fretting started irritating my conscience. Quiet whispers   in the back, the way back, where thoughts I don’t like to acknowledge hang out. You’ll never make this kind of money again. Are you sure you should walk away? The hospital will never pay you as well. 

Life is more than money. What is my vitality worth? You only live once. 

These were my mantras, my prayers as it were, as I leaned into the Spirit for guidance and wisdom.

“This place is a dream killer,” said someone on the management team to me in casual conversation. “The golden handcuffs keep people shackled here for more years than they want.”golden-handcuffs

Not me,  not me, I told him. I am gonna leave. No golden handcuffs on these wrists.

Last month the excessive overtime came to a sudden halt just as our union contract expired. Just as Jerry predicted. Many people have recently retired and  the company is hiring many new people right now.  My seniority, once rock bottom in my department, is now climbing the list. Where I work, your place in rank makes all the difference to the shift you have, the job your assigned and the amount of OT you are forced to work. I have been off the last four weekends, in part because the schedule has calmed down and also because my name has climbed higher on the list. My resilience tank is full. I don’t burst into tears over the slightest pressures anymore. I have not missed a shift for a while. Could a future here be possible?

That is the big question. Do I stay or do I go?  Do I have to sacrifice life/work balance to work here? Do I have to let my vitality take a hit for financial security? (which really, there is no true financial security in the world of manufacturing as jobs are outsourced to low-paying unregulated nations, including Nabisco jobs).   Where I work determines so many choices in life, family and the future. It’s not just about a job. It’s about my livelihood. It’s about my life. And me, being me who tends to fret over little  things and big things as well as over analyze every possible scenario to the nth degree, has been storm-tossed in the waters of indecision.

Welcome to my world.

It is a huge decision in my life. I am mindful of the privilege I possess to have choices and options. But this is my story, my privilege and I get to figure out the next part with all the angst of a post-modern Gen X-er.

I will blog about that in Part Two next week and tell you what I decided, how I settled it within  and what it means. The answer might not be as saintly as some might suppose.

Work is an integral part of my life, of all our lives. The jobs we do are not just about paychecks and paying bills. Our jobs shape us. They reveal parts of ourselves no other sphere in our lives reveal, including  our weaknesses and strengths. Where we work is where we trade our vitality for sustenance. What will I trade mine for? Can I maintain this resilience in this environment? Should  I return to the  job at the hospital?

I will tell All in Part Two.

***What about you? Have you ever felt the bindings of golden handcuffs? What did you do?

 


Comments

Part One : Golden Handcuffs — 23 Comments

  1. Thanks everyone for your comments. I appreciate the stories you shared and the care you feel for me and my well-being as I have described the crushing time I have had at my workplace.

    I wish there were not so many people who identified with what I described. I have become convinced that injustice in the workplace is inevitable no matter where you work. Injustice manifested as unfair labor practices, scheduling, unequal pay, poor working conditions, favoritism, unfair terminations, etc … even the most wonderful work environments have something amiss, though many workplaces strive to be fair and equitable, people being people still create injustice even unknowingly. We each must learn how to be in the systems we find ourselves in or else Exit and move on to the next system where we may find better working conditions. I will describe in Part Two what I’ve decided about my job and what tipped the scales for me. Stay tuned!

  2. Love your story! I love my job, my seniority has made a big difference in the hours I work. I can’t imagine leaving and now I may be retiring after 32 years, in the next few weeks. My decision is based on mainly what it looks like the company has decided for us. Sad to see a company push the workers to make decisions based on what we might loose. I feel your pain, follow your heart.

    • Shelly! Thanks so much for reading and for commenting. I have wanted to write about this for a long time, but needed to wait for the right time. I am prone to insecurity and did not want others to know the depth of my struggle. But now I have made peace with it all and am centered as my resilience tank is once again full.

      I feel for ya as you consider your decision and options. You have to do what’s right for you and your family. And yes, it def is crummy how the company is forcing it upon long-time employees like you who helped build them into the flourishing corporation they have become. 32 years… wow, what a career!

      If you do decide to leave many people will be sad to see you go. You have been such a fierce advocate for so many workers. I hope you can stay on the union board, for a while at least, if you decide to retire this spring. I admire you so much. SO grateful our paths crossed at this time of our lives.

  3. I have never heard the term “golden handcuffs”. I was going through something similar when I worked at NS for a paycheck and the evenings and weekends spent in ministry. My pay wasn’t good and I was a singleom with no child support. I was dragging, in pain and totally wore down. Now I have moved up the chain for the county and landed the job that I dreams of, not just for the pay but also the job suits me. BUT I have been to the point of tears because it’s hard work emotionally and intellectually. I have asked myself it was a good choice. Iam trying to balance my job and my health and what makes me truly happy. I have seen too many people in my job that worked till they were sick and now that can’t enjoy their life.

    • Hi Alisa, Ugh, I used to dream about having a paid church position, until I had friends who had paid church positions and I learned the true cost that many underpaid church staff pay. I am so sorry to hear that your dream job is not so dreamy anymore. I hope you can find resolution about it, how to stay and have centered peacefulness in yourself, or to exit toward some place where you can. I am a big believer is turning to talk therapy for help in such dilemmas. Whatever you need, I hope you will take steps sooner rather than later to preserve your well being. Your vitality is worth it!!

      Thanks for reading and for sharing some of your story. You are not alone !

  4. In the early days of the micro-brew industry I felt lucky to have a job making something I believed in. But the constant, unplanned production increases, six day weeks and (it’s all coming back to me now) the year we were told that nobody gets a vacation because we couldn’t be spared.. it was too much. I couldn’t hold it together and realized that I had to walk away before I was carried away in a straight jacket. I sat for a month in a stupor after that, drinking coffee and not noticing the passage of time. There is an idea that finding personal limits is a good thing. It didn’t look good to me.

    • Hi George, oh unplanned production increases, yep, I hear ya. So not fun when you are trying to make plans and have work/life balance. Where I work I often say, Production is God. In the manufacturing world, the line must not go down for down time means less product which means less money. Production (Money) is God. And what a merciless god it is.

      Glad you made it out alive! You are so right about personal limits. I think that’s what I have needed to realize when I was comparing myself to other workers during the peak of our production insanity. I thought it was just me, unable to keep up as others seemed to just roll with it. But no, everybody has their personal limitations and now I know that many workers were just as undone as me. We just all had our game faces on while on shift. One coworker told me she was in a work restroom crying hysterically and was so loud she thought for sure someone would hear the commotion (but the machines are loud so her crying was unheard). But I never would have guessed that about her, she seems so calm and in control of it all. She has a great game face. But yeah, knowing our personal limitations is our responsibility. We have to take care of ourselves. That is a whole ‘nother can of worms to unpack. Americans are so ingrained with the idea of rugged endurance and individualism. We admire those who work relentlessly and never get tired. When we see each other what are we always saying? “How are you?” “Great, staying busy.” “Awesome, me too.” What if we revolted against our own culture? “How are you? Staying busy?” “No, not all. I wasted an entire day arranging rocks in my garden. And tomorrow I’m sleeping in. Next week I’m going fishing.”

      I am determined to be a counter-cultural American worker :)

      Stay tuned for the rest of the story in Part Two.

      And did you read my A Forest at Home blog post complete with photos of our landscaping project? The front is done. When the back is done we would love to have you guys over!!

  5. Run, run fast. I had a job(s) like this and it nearly drove me crazy! I ended the madness and never looked back.
    I don’t care how much money I make… those crazy jobs are not worth what they cost my well being. I hope you find what you need quickly! Peace.

    • Hi Michelle, Totally, what is our well being worth? What is my vitality worth? That is the heart of the matter. I always say that at the end of life nobody laments having not made more money. Deathbed regrets are about time and relationships. The decisions we make about work affect everything else. I hope you will stay tuned for Part Two where I tell the rest of my story. Thanks for commenting!

  6. I was in a similar situation in my early twenties. I was unable to hold down a job as a software engineer due to an (at the time) unmedicated anxiety disorder. I wound up at a plastic factory for two months. No overtime though – we had the opposite situation. Management was trying to cut labor so they would send people home early, but I had to refuse every time they offered it to me because we needed the money.

    I eventually got on medication and back into the software industry, but this was a very dark time in my life.

    • Thanks for reading and for commenting, HH. Oh the wonders of medication. I used to be quite unkind toward those who needed meds to cope with everyday life … until I became so undone (years ago) and found myself trying Zoloft on for size. I am now on a different anti-depressant but man, it helps me stay even and I cannot imagine how much WORSE i would have been had I not had my med during the hard times of this job. I am a fan of meds that help people since I have experienced the effectiveness of taking one.
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      Work plays such a huge role toward our quality of life. Schedules, paychecks, working conditions, etc… it all adds up. I just had dinner with a friend over the weekend who became a bit panicked in her job when her boss out of nowhere put a project with a pressing deadline on her desk. There went her lazy Saturday she was looking forward to. Work can so easily crowd out our leisure time and connecting time with friends and family … and for me it can also crowd out creative time for writing and making art. I seriously am thinking about writing a book about Work, from a worker’s perspective. There are many books out there by academics and journalists analyzing job related topics, but a true memoir about the working life written by a bluecollar worker, that’s a book I’ve been looking for a long time and I still haven’t found it. So maybe I just need to write it.

      Thanks again for reading my blog and for adding your story. Glad you got out alive and have found what you needed to treat your anxiety.

    • Hi Peter, Wow.. what a blast from the past! Are you still blogging ?? I will have to do a drive-by lurk of your site.

      I hope whatever your situation is in your profession that you are able to find resolution. #YOLO You only live once!

      Thanks for commenting. So good to hear from you… :)

  7. Sadly, the economy has not recovered as much as we had hoped. (Please, don’t anyone attack me for political statements, this is not meant to be political….it’s just a fact.) I am of the opinion that corporate America shows little to no loyalty to their workers, union or otherwise. As a leader myself, that frustrates me greatly….I rely on my employees, and am extremely grateful to them. So, having said all of that….if you are working more than 40 hours, there is a leadership problem. If your soul is being crushed from exhaustion, there is a leadership problem. If you are forced to rely on your own resilience, there is a leadership problem. Now, the big one….if there is a leadership problem, you have to find it within yourself to vote with your feet….WALK AWAY. Cycling back around to my economy statement, you should not leave until you have somewhere to go. Unfortunately, there aren’t many places to go, right now. AND, if you have a soul crushing job, you likely don’t have the time/energy to look for a new job.

    So, my vote? WALK AWAY!!!!! SAVE YOURSELF, YOUR SANITY, YOUR LIFE!!!! I don’t care that things got easier. This is a regular occurrence, and will kill you.

    • Brad, I always appreciate your insights and perspective. I don’t know the details of your career, but I know you have experience with making hard decisions with work. It is not just about money, that’s for sure.

      I totally agree that when a workplace results in exhausted, overworked employees that there is a leadership problem. No argument there. What I did not iterate is that much of what we have experienced in my factory is the result of an emerging globalized economy, the so called Race to the Bottom. Profit margins are pushed to expand as activist investors and shareholders demand higher dividends. You know the drill! Greed is a… and I do not use this word very often …. but greed is a mother-fook-er.

      Thank you for caring about my well-being. In Part Two I will tell the rest of the story. Stay tuned!

        • totally. hopefully face to face. i really wonder if my next book is meant to be about work in some way. i’ve been on the prowl for a book reflecting on work written by a bluecollar worker and i still haven’t found it. maybe i’m the one to write it, and i def would love to pick the brains of white-collars workers. heck, i’d love to pick your brain just because it’s Your Brain!!! say hey to anne. one day we will sit together at a table and hear each others voices !!!

  8. It’s a fookin’ job. If your question was not rhetorical (and I will assume it was not just so I can spew) I’ll offer my opinion. Life…not simply existence…is far too short, far too fragile to waste on a job that sucks the life out of you. Security and self worth must be attained elsewhere. If this job isn’t part of your personal mission, flee. If it is, endure.

    • Randy! Yes, it is a fookin’ job and I do welcome spewings by you anytime! Life is def too short to waste in misery. I am always saying that I can make more money next week, but when today is gone, It is gone. Time gone ain’t never gonna be time to be had again. But money is always there for the making. I hope you will stay tuned for Part Two where I tell the rest of the story and my decision about whether to stay or go. Thanks for reading and for your words of encouragement!

  9. Yes. I’m in the same position now. I cry at work. I cry on the way to work. I cry on the way home from work. Crying is not typical of me. How much is my vitality worth. That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? Thank you for writing about this, Pam. It’s my life right now, and I felt alone. Now I feel less alone.

    • Oh Beth, my heart is with you. I hope you are able to sort it all out SOON and find your way to a peaceful resolution you can live with. I like to think that most people are not truly trapped in their job even if they feel that way. Please, please don’t live in your misery any longer. Find a way to return to your joy !

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