A Letter To My Last Boss

Dear Former Boss,

I’m doing something that I never expected that I’d be doing.  I’m living in a condo that was once a big leather tannery in the heart of the most industrial part of a foreign country.  I’m working every moment that I’m awake, eating when I’m hungry, sleeping when I’m tired, and creating things that defy my own sense of gravity, and I’m wildly happy.  Exhausted, but happy.

You hired me because of my unique skillset and obvious passion for the work I was to do.  And I did some great work.  Most of my decisions wound up being saviors for our projects, and became massive values for our company.  But the effort in getting there was not worth the trouble.  I say this without ego, but the corporate culture that I tried to adhere to, was contrary to the best version of me, and only when I had the opportunity to step away from my desk and let my mind wander, did I produce the best results that our group needed.

I’m grateful that you accepted my resignation readily, and gave me the opportunity to launch myself into the life I always wanted.  I’m still beleaguered with guilt that some of the projects that I was working on didn’t get to see fruition under my guidance and that I left some team members holding the bag.   Yet, I’m happy to report that I’ve kept in touch with some of them, and hear that they eventually did find their way to completion, which gives me joy.

The things you know about me, the articles on my CV, the bits of personal information that I shared, were all pretty decently structured, because in that sort of corporate culture, the worst thing an employee could do is share their skeletons.  To be honest, I’ve been a boss before, and dealing with an underling with issues is not always worth the hassle.  And boy, do I have a bunch of issues.

The first one that I want to address, is the one that gave me the most grief.  It’s something that is a significant issue for a lot of people, and is wholly misunderstood, especially by corporate America.  I suffer from significant anxiety and massive panic attacks.  My therapist likens it to PTSD, which afflicts many soldiers coming home from the battlefield.  My version of it, however, stems from a lifetime of events that most people shouldn’t be forced to deal with.  For starters, my dad’s side of the family has a history of depression and mania, with a record of suicide that would put Jonestown on edge.  I fought and beat cancer.  I was betrayed by my business partner, which led to a legal battle with a major corporation, ultimately bringing an end to my career in film.  I was abused and betrayed by my wife, which ended abruptly and painfully.  I was left for dead on the side of the road by a hit-and-run driver.  I’ve spent a lifetime being used and abused by those whom I try to help, and it’s left me with trust issues and a whole lot of sleepless nights.

In your office, when I tried to present these concerns, your immediate reaction was that I had a problem with drugs and/or alcohol.  You weren’t altogether wrong, but it wasn’t what you thought.  Yes, when I was dealing with the anguish of divorce, I developed a dependency with alcohol, which could have been a lifelong problem.  Luckily, I overcame it and found my feet again, which wasn’t easy.  To this day, I still have moments of indiscretion where I find myself looking back down the barrel, but those are few and far between, thanks to the love and support of my friends and family.  Yet, these aren’t issues of addiction, but times where I find myself feeling lost, empathetic and reliving the things that cut me to the bone.  These are times when I find myself aching for sleep that will not come, and sitting up, awake in my bed at 4 am, I struggle to find the strength to make it through the next work day.

The word that I’ve heard too often, whether it be from employers or relationships, is that I am “unreliable”.  To my chagrin, I know that to be true.  I really do wish that I had the capacity for normality, and could find joy in regular work behind a desk, in an office building, from 8am to 6pm every day.  I sometimes feel that my propensity for chaos is a heavy burden, when my value to produce great accomplishments must rely on rigid standardization to corporate regulations.  I’m truly at my best at 2 in the morning, with 4 cups of coffee in me.  But that’s not what’s culturally accepted, is it?

It’s this bit of my personality that has always set off alarm bells with my employers, and I don’t blame any of them for finding my methods unnerving.  But in the course of my career, I’ve had a couple bosses who had the vision to see through my imperfections, and they wound up with incredible results.

The first boss, was my very first boss out of college.  I was hired to be a standard, everyday web designer and I was good at it.  Too good, because I could finish the day’s work before lunch, and wound up being very bored most of the time.  As a company, we were on the verge of a contract renewal that, if we didn’t get it, would have put our division out of business.  Our higher-ups spent every last minute they had focused on that contract.  With the extra time that I had, I started looking into the very bones of the site, and how it might be improved with an unknown set of theories called “HUI”, based on the writings of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.  At the time, explaining what I was building must have sounded like insanity, but my boss listened to my ideas and let me run with them.  What resulted, was some of the very first UI/UX based web work, living wholly within a completely new content management system (CMS), that not only helped secure our company the contract, but is STILL the basis for almost all of the governmental internet presences today.

That work gave me a name.  It gave me a letter of recommendation from the Governor, and put my name, specifically, into a lot of contracts.  What it also did, sadly, was force my company to glue me into that spot permanently, and cut off any possibility for growth.  I had become the creative director of IN.gov in name only, and went back to twiddling my thumbs.  So, when headhunters came looking with other job offers, I jumped ship.  Eventually, a colleague from that project became the chief of staff for the Mayor’s office, and when they wanted to rebuild the city of Indianapolis’s website, naturally, they came knocking.  I was given free reign to build whatever I saw fit, and I did.  I implemented new ideas that were yet unseen, as well as some of the standards I developed with the state’s site.  I even took it upon myself to touch base with some of the agencies that were working towards a whole new image for the city, ramping up for the impending Super Bowl hosting, and pushed hard to help develop the brand of the city on Indianapolis.  The site launched with outstanding success and is still a governmental benchmark to this day.

Shortly after I finished the contract with the website, I had a sit-down meeting with the head of the parks department.  The city had exhausted its budget for the website, but they still wanted to keep their expert around when needed, so they carved out a solution just for me.  They offered me the position of Director of Arts & Events, giving me the opportunity to help shape the cultural scope of our city, while still being available to make fixes to the site when needed.  I took the ball and ran with it, creating new concert series, legal legislations and relationships with local business owners that led to outstanding results.  Again, I was given the opportunity to drive without overbearing oversight, and I did things that nobody expected.  I made the impossible happen.  I even shut down the whole of Broad Ripple for my very first concert, and brought in tens of thousands of dollars to the parks budget – a thing that hadn’t happened since the 1920’s.

However, I began to slip.  It was at this time that my marriage crumbled and I found myself struggling to stay afloat.  My days were filled with ambition and excitement, but also with pain, panic and confusion.  I stopped sleeping at night, and tried to fight the anxiety with alcohol and poor choices.  I lost a lot of weight and a lot of friends.  Everything that I tried to do to find solace only pulled me further from the echo of my former self, and made me afraid of the person that I saw myself becoming, and I finally broke.

My employers saw this happening to me as well, and we decided together that the stress of the job was more than I was capable of dealing with, and I resigned.  The next couple of years, I spent working in the private sector, for big companies and agencies, but my heart wasn’t in it.  I was working for a paycheck to maintain the status quo, keep my mortgage paid and try to reinvent myself.  The problem with that, however, is that I always in a position of senior leadership, and the companies that I worked for expected 100% of me all the time, and it gave me very little ability to go out and find the sense of self that I had lost.  How was I supposed to do the things that would rebuild my very soul – things like building motorcycles and working in my leather shop?  How could I go and play music with my band at local venues, if I was expected to be alert and ready for an 8am meeting the next morning?  How was I supposed to maintain my standard of living, when my standard of living was so repressed?

I honestly tried my best to be all that I was supposed to be, but the harder I worked, the more my heart faded away.  I felt lost, every day, and in every case, the panic and anxiety crept back in until it truly effected my life in every way, not just my job performance.  The more it weighed on me, the more I distanced myself from friends and family, and begun having outbursts of unwarranted and misguided emotion.  I would look at myself from the outside and try to tell myself to STOP!  I’d fight my demons and try to get a good night’s rest, but the more I did to find reprieve, the further away it became.

I was seeking a catalyst for change, because what I was doing wasn’t working.  That catalyst came to me on the day that I stood in my mom’s living room and watched my grandfather pass away.  He had been the cornerstone of our family, and the strongest and wisest hero that I’d ever known.  His relationship with my grandmother is what I’d always aspired to make of my life, and then, so quickly, he was gone.  He had always been a lighthouse in the storm for all of us, and the realization that we were all on our own now, hit me pretty hard.  I knew then that I needed to embrace change and make more of myself than what I was doing.

In the months after my grandfather died, I started looking for new solutions, but the more I longed for change, the more my anxiety haunted me.  I kept slipping up with work, calling in sick on days where I’d been up all night panicking and honestly feeling lost and obtuse from exhaustion.  I started having more conversations about my work habits than I cared to, and I could see that I was on thin ice, which only led to more anxiety.  I was in a runaway train with no way to hit the brakes.  And then something happened.

My whole life, I’ve aspired to be independent.  I’ve worked to earn everything I owned, and I was always adamant about taking responsibility for my own issues.  Yet, in his passing, my grandfather left me and my family with some reprieve.  He was a wealthy man, but you’d never know it.  He never did anything of grandeur, dressed with casualty, and gave us all the chance to fend for ourselves, rather than step in and fix our problems with fistfuls of cash.  He taught me the value of putting a good portion of my income into savings for a rainy day, and I had made a sizable cushion for myself in my lifetime.  But he did me one better, and set aside enough money for me that I had something that I didn’t have before – options.

I’ve always said that money didn’t matter that much to me.  If I wanted to make a lot of money, I wouldn’t have gone to art school.  My experience and knowledge gave me the amazing position to work how I wanted, and be fairly compensated in return, and I was typically comfortable.  But now things were a little different.  I started seeing my job as something that was keeping me from being happy and enjoying the life I wanted to live.  It wasn’t a life of greed and excess and leisure, but a life of meaning and purpose.  Sitting behind a computer screen every day was taking away all that I found beautiful in the world, and I came to understand that I was not helping myself by trying to maintain a broken status quo.

This realization was horror for my anxiety, and the longer I tried to maintain my position in the company, the more I fretted, until there became a breaking point.  We had sat down a few weeks previous, and discussed that I could no longer call in absent, or simply not appear on work days when I was troubled, and that there was no room for leniency.  In fact, in one of my last meetings with the company, my project managers stated that the endeavor that I was about to embark on, required that I be available 24/7 for months, and that they couldn’t fulminate with me taking even a moment to myself.  No vacation time, no rest.  I went home for the weekend, and didn’t sleep a wink.  When I called in on Monday morning, wrecked from the fear of the tasks at hand, I knew I was signing my own death warrant, and it was the last straw.  I knew that there wouldn’t be an understanding of what I was dealing with, nor any resolve to the burden I carried, but it was okay.

I want to thank you for being kind throughout my tenure, and especially in the ease in which you let me transition out of my role in the company.  It was not something that I wanted to do, and the people whom I worked with, and still keep in contact with, created a wonderful environment to have the honor to be part of.  But for my own sake, it was time to go.

I still have a lot of my own demons to conquer, and I still don’t always sleep soundly through the night, but I’ve come a long way in the past few months.  I’ve finally done the one thing that scared me the most, which is to finish the work on my house, move out and put it up for rent.  I love my home, but it was an anchor around my neck from a time that I no longer live in, and getting away from it was necessary if I wanted to continue to evolve.  I took inventory of my world, finally taking a moment to travel and learn, and to risk being my own boss for once, and honestly, I’m much harder on myself than you ever were.  I’ve spent my whole adult life taking care of everyone else’s problems, trying to save those who were drowning, only to get pulled underwater for my attempts.

On every airplane, they have a card that states, in the case of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartment.  Before tending to others, they say, secure your own mask first.  Well, that’s exactly what I’m doing, so that when I finally launch my new company this fall, I’ll be ready.

Thank you again, for everything you did for me, and for having faith in me when I definitely did not have faith in myself.  It means everything.