It was the biggest leap of faith I could possibly imagine. After almost eight years, I left my job as a litigation attorney without a back-up plan because I knew deep in my bones that I could not stomach the work I was doing for a moment longer. I was ill in a myriad of ways – I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis; I underwent back and elbow surgery the same year due to chronic pain issues; I had debilitating migraines; the list goes on. I also frequently suffered panic attacks and bouts of depression that rendered me unable to leave my bed, contemplating how much better off my loved ones would be without me. I had been meditating for several months and it became clear that I would not be shown the next step until I let go of my job and everything that came along with it.
Now, for a girl who never does anything without a Plan A, B, C and usually D, this was an enormously uncomfortable challenge. How would I pay the mountain of debt from my school loans and the bills that resulted from my husband’s illness and the fallout after his death? Where would I live? What was I going to do? Most importantly, who was I without my identity as an attorney?
I did not have answers to any of these questions when I decided to quit, but the physical and emotional consequences of continuing to do something that was so diametrically opposed to the woman I had grown into through my experience as a care partner for my late husband that doing barely felt like a choice. I could either continue bartering my life away in 0.1 billable hour increments that made me feel like I was selling my soul with each passing hour, maybe making partner at my law firm and perhaps hitting all the “right” markers in life, or I could do the scariest possible thing and leave it all behind for the unknown. It was a classic conundrum of following the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. Ultimately, I opted for the latter.
The consequences of my decision were immediate and drastic. Gone was the nice apartment in the suburbs; instead, enter a storage unit piled to the roof with the things which at one point seemed so important, and the incredibly humbling experience of moving home with my family at 34 years old. In leaving the area where my husband and I had lived, gone, too, were the daily reminders of our lives together. I saw friendships which I believed would withstand the test of time and distance fade away once the convenience of shared interests was gone. I had to call many of my debtors and explain my circumstances, asking for a reprieve so that I wouldn’t have to file for bankruptcy.
Once the daily distraction of playing a character I was not ever meant to portray was over, my own obsessively self-critical mind resurfaced with a vengeance. Now, it had always been there, but without anything else to take up my energy I became laser-focused on my flaws. Even though I could see the absurdity of all of it, it felt like there was nothing I could do but watch in horror as my “inner asshole” pointed out every ounce of extra fat, the ever-increasing number of wrinkles on my face, my too-thin lips, etc. The mean girl that lived in my brain finally had free-reign and she was going to make the most of it. I was not entirely sure that she would not destroy me before this was all over.
Every day I entered my meditation not from a place of quiet openness, but rather labored anticipation of when I would finally receive the inspiration I was looking for. I thought if I sat with the Universe and behaved well enough, I would get the answers I was looking for – and in a timely and appropriate manner, by my definition! I wanted desperately to be shown what job I was supposed to find, the one that would perfectly support my desire to use my tragic and profound life experiences for the benefit of others while also providing enough of an income to live on comfortably. First, days passed… then weeks… then months. No e-mail from God came through with the answers I was looking for. Instead, I was continually asked to recover from the trauma of the last few years, rest and wait. UGH.
Aside from my negative self-image, the idea that in order to be loved and valuable I had to prove my worth was pervasive. My fear of financial insecurity was almost too much to bear. The more time went by, the more tempted I was to give up on the strong inner knowing that I was meant for a bigger life than the one that safely fit inside the lines but made me woefully unhappy. I spoke to a legal recruiter who had endless amounts of options for me, if I was willing to sacrifice my dreams and play by the rules I had outlined for my own life years earlier. I have been tempted to do so more than once. “Maybe it will be different this time,” I hear myself saying repeatedly. “Maybe because I have changed, my perspective will be new and it won’t seem so bad.” But, even typing that out now, I get the restless, sick feeling in my gut that alerts me when sirens of danger are sounding. I know what the definition of insanity is, and I don’t want to go down the familiar road to inevitable misery.
The only thing that seems to make any sense in this period of change is to focus on what my true passions are. Starting this blog might seem like an insignificant step to some, but it has allowed me to use my love for the written word to explore my own heart in ways that I was unable to before. I traveled to Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research as a member of the Scientist <-> Survivor Program where I learned about the science of cancer and its treatment so that I will be a more effective advocate. I spoke at a first-ever “Cancer Perspectives” event to a company that is designed to support patients through cancer treatment and survivorship. As I write this post, I am on a flight to Washington, D.C. to participate in “Head to the Hill” with the National Brain Tumor Society where I will meet with my congressional representatives to push for research funding for the brain tumor community. I am the busiest unemployed person I know of.
In spite of the continuing challenges, I am more grateful every day for having enough faith in myself and my own intuition to abandon the path I thought I was supposed to be on. I worry less about where I am going to end up and am more excited that I could move literally anywhere and do anything. My inner asshole still pokes at me, but she is quieter these days. I am beginning to know who I am and what is important to me, both of which entirely eluded me after Patrick died. I actually can see the value in who I am without it being tied to what I do. I know that I have personal and professional experience that will make me a huge asset wherever I end up, be it in an ashram or another law office. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I no longer worry about what anyone else thinks about the choices I am making. This is the freedom I have always been searching for in jobs, men, clothes, and “stuff.” I am almost convinced that who I am has nothing to do with any of those things. Almost.
I heard recently, “You don’t have to do something just because you said you would.” Changing course doesn’t mean that I am flaky or that I am a failure for not following through with my plan. It means that I have changed because my life was irrevocably changed the day Patrick had his first seizure.
I understand that not everyone feels like they have the “luxury” of making drastic changes like those I have – I have gotten this reaction a lot from people in my life to my choices. They have bills and responsibilities! I get it. I thought I was destined to be imprisoned by these, too. The truth is, you always have a choice. It might mean having to humble yourself, change your lifestyle, and giving up things that are not only important to you but define you. It will hurt. It will be terrifying. But it just might be the best thing you ever did.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.