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Sitting under the fluorescent lights that defied the ostensible purpose of relaxation — oh wait, corporate — I sunk into a not-comfy chair in the break room at PetSmart and could no longer keep the tears from flowing. I kept an eye on my phone, waiting both for a text and watching the time. I had 15 minutes.

Then he called.

I took the call. We had 15 minutes.

I was desperately trying to wind down the call, as much as I wanted to just hang up on this asshole, when my obnoxious manager burst in.

“It’s been 15 minutes,” she said, rather aggressively. I knew that she was lying. It had been exactly 14 minutes and 37 seconds.

“I have to go,” I told him, and hung up on him. My manager’s judgmental eyes followed me all the way back to my register.

A few days later, she had a talk with me about my “attitude”: corporate lackey-speak for, “showing of human emotions rather than being a perpetually cheery robot.”

“And you had some sort of in the breakroom the other day,” she said, rolling her eyes and missing the nasty poetry in her insult.

That was me. Crazy, with an attitude. And unfairly picked on by a manager who openly mocked customers and looked the other way when her favorite cashiers took hour-long breaks or texted while at the register.

It didn’t matter, though. They say retail is soul-sucking, and it is. The customers often weren’t as bad as the management and their endless march to beat you down and gaslight you into self-loathing, so that you would never think enough of yourself to escape and thus remain their underpaid minion forever.

Fast forward a few years, and I was temping, a ridiculous verb for a ridiculous situation in which you get paid slightly more than part-timers, but have no job security. Strangely, despite being older than some of the full-timers, they treated me like a high school brat who’d invaded their space.

Maybe they thought I was younger. Apparently, I look young, no matter how old I feel. Or maybe, I was a loser, approaching 30 with no job security or savings, coming out of an abusive relationship that had drained the little money I had, a grad school dropout with a useless bachelor’s degree, mounds of student debt, a dinky old car, and a crappy apartment. My good grades in school hadn’t spared me any of that.

Living in a state of perpetual frustration and disarray didn’t suit me. I can do either a roughing-it cabin in the middle of nowhere or a spiffy house with all the amenities in the city, but not the in-between. Living in a slanted apartment with no windows, laundry machines, or space to breathe did not suit me, and I’d misplaced my keys again. I came in the door panting; I had to be buzzed in by the receptionist, who treated me to her daily dose of condescension.

“Ooh, late this morning? Tsk tsk,” she clucked. “Too much partying or too much studying?” I’d told her countless times I wasn’t a student, so I decided to not bother telling her again.

“Yes, well, I lost my keys.”

“Oh, your roommates hide them from you?” she asked, with a kind of mirth and a head shake that said, “Kids these days.”

“I don’t have roommates, but no, my did not hide them,” I said, making a break for my cubicle.

I arrived to find a new laptop, which I’d requested because I’d been using my personal laptop which was suffering from old age.

“INTERN, 221C,” blared the sticky note stuck to it.

I stared it with mild confusion melting into fury. I was not an intern, nor had I ever been one. Maybe this was for someone else? Doubtful. There were very few people on my floor, and no interns at all.

My boss, ever the sexist who frequently expressed concern for my fragility whenever I lifted more than 2 ounces, had put in the request. He knew I wasn’t an intern. And it wasn’t that he thought because Rude Receptionist was also a temp.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being an intern. Or a student with roommates. But I wasn’t one. I was a temp, older than my cubicle neighbor, a full-timer who made three times what I did and played on Facebook half the day.

In the eyes of my coworker and boss, I was bottom-rung, way behind in my career. So much so that they couldn’t fathom that I was even a temp. They had to convince themselves I was a college student and intern.

They didn’t bother to ever check.

I was a loser. That was all.

~~~~~

Fast forward another few years, and I have a career, a full-time job with benefits, my own small business on the side, a couple of savings accounts, a retirement fund, and an investment account with $600 in it. My credit score is 674 — not perfect, but much better than it was. I rent a nice little house with a full kitchen, a backyard, and a dining room. I have a garden and a compost heap. I’m growing measly peppers and spinach, but they’re growing. I have laundry machines. I got into shape and started going to the doctor. I get out into nature on a regular basis. I make art and occasionally sell it. I write on Medium and occasionally get paid. Things aren’t perfect, but I feel content.

What changed?

  • I cut out toxic people. I started telling people when they’d done something wrong. I stopped socializing with creeps, mooches, and bullies, even if it would have benefited me to do so. I ended up being surrounded by gracious and wonderful people rather than jerks and idiots.
  • I stopped prioritizing tasks for other people and instead focused on what I wanted. I’m a pleaser, so it was hard, being called selfish and a bitch. But I realized that anyone who responded that way to “no, sorry, I can’t” was an entitled moron. I started doing things for other people who needed it, not people who demanded it.
  • I stepped out of my comfort zone. I learned to deal with the mild nausea that crunches give me. I learned to not sit down and rest when the going gets tough. I learned to embrace the sweat rolling into my eyes. I built up my muscles so much that I had to donate my favorite blouses. Investing was scary, but I used Stash and step by step, learned the ropes and started seeing extra money roll in. I just bought my first car, on my own, with my own money and credit. I launched a business, even though I’d never written a business plan or filed business paperwork. I researched, asked others for advice — another thing I’m not used to — and got it all done.
  • I worked really fucking hard. I’m talking 8am to midnight, constantly working on projects aimed to grow my career. I use the Productive app to train habits. I use the Momentum and Panda Planners to track goals and my own time. And I started a long-term goal journal to map out my life. Taking the time to do these things saved me a lot of time and energy in the end, and enabled me to work really hard every day. Most importantly, I took time to relax. When I started doing that, ironically, I started getting more done.

Do I still feel like a loser some days? Of course. Because now I have imposter syndrome. But overall, I feel better. I feel secure. I feel better about life.

So if you’re where I was a few years ago, chin up. Evaluate your life and what you can do. You may have to face your fears and cut out a toxic person. Or a toxic job. Or just try something new. Learn to take a risk, whether it’s with a bit of your money or with a bunch of plants. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

If you do that, even if you fall short, you’ve still got something to celebrate.

Written by

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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