Part One : Golden Handcuffs

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?