My mom switched jobs every few years when I was growing up. Sometimes she’d get promoted, but more often, she would experience a sudden intolerance for her workplace or her responsibilities or what she imagined for the future of that job, and she’d give notice and leave, like a crash-and-burn. This was in the 1980s, 1990s, when people of my parents’ generation tended to stay at the same company for decades, and my mom’s pattern of departures made me judge her poorly, seeing in her a lack of commitment or assuming she kept her standards too high. She had divorced my dad in the early ’80s, and so my harshness was also colored by that severing of vows, that quest for something better than what she had at the cost of our family.
It’s not that my mom wasn’t capable or accomplished—she was. She held positions of leadership in education, international relations, and community development in Africa. I admired her work and talents but never understood why she couldn’t stay with any one job. I wanted her impact in my own career, but without the volatility, and without the intense periods of self-doubt and depression that overflowed at the crumbling of each position.
To my great disappointment, I have followed in her path: graduate degrees ended early or that seemingly led nowhere, a series of two-year stints in various nonprofits that left me feeling like I wasn’t making enough of a difference in the world, a frustration that I could never find my path, and flailing in much the same way my mom did.
Now, after seven mostly satisfying years of writing, the relentless pounding of the pandemic has returned me to a place of doubt, a questioning of my purpose, asking whether I’m “doing enough.” The creative impulses feel beyond my reach, and so I’ve started my next job search, focusing not on writing but on the local nonprofit sector, yet again.
Recently, however, I was also diagnosed with dysthymia—persistent depressive disorder—and I’ve begun talk therapy and Prozac. In just a few short months, I’ve been surprised to see how my self-views have shifted, how even the once-shameful twists and turns of my career history seem steadier than I’d once believed. Where I never had before, I now see the connections between jobs, the clear skill development, the impact where I had always feared there was none. And, frankly, I feel less of a sharp pull to find impact. Sometimes it’s OK to do a good job with good intentions, and it doesn’t need to change the world in order to be worthwhile.
Now that I know about dysthymia, I wonder whether my mom also would have been diagnosed if she’d sought out a therapist during those many years. Maybe she could have been gentler on herself in a particular job, or maybe the cleaving of positions wouldn’t have felt so much like an ax, so life-or-death. Medication might have helped her, as it’s helping me, to see a straighter line, with more meaning and less chaos. For myself, I know that writing is part of my career path, not a pause away from it.
There are so many things we inherit: a love of storytelling; a script for how we treat each other; disease; resiliency; restlessness; physical heirlooms; privilege; poverty; a peace of mind from sitting under a big, open sky. As we steel ourselves for a difficult winter, let’s take strength from our writers for their poetry and histories, the trials and gifts they’ve inherited along the way.
Milena Nigam is a nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2020, Milena Nigam