The year I turned 24 I went through some fairly significant life changes: I finished my Master’s thesis and six years of university, my grandfather passed away, I moved cities and took my first job out of school, I got dumped in a bad way, travelled to Europe for the first time, lost loads of weight and my period, started smoking, started and quit a PhD program at a French business school (I didn’t speak French and knew even less about business).
It was an extreme time in my life with lots of highs and lots of lows, and very little certainty of what the future would hold for me.
As always, I didn’t appreciate these major, life-changing events at the time. But looking back it’s plain to see how lucky I was to get dumped, to have the opportunity to travel, and to have the career opportunity of a lifetime. These three events in particular were given to me. I didn’t go out and pursue them, they just sort of landed in my lap…
I had done a good job with my Master’s thesis and was lucky enough to have an amazing supervisor who was highly regarded in her field. She appreciated my work and shared it with her network, and as a result I was invited to an academic conference on creativity and management. From there came the opportunity to travel (the conference was in Montreal and Barcelona), and the opportunity to continue my studies and work under some of the most notable economics professors in Canada and Europe.
Getting dumped of course, was not my choice.
Despite these amazing career opportunities that were happening to me, I couldn’t see past my heartache. I was hurting in a bad way, and lost my ability to eat. The first week of the conference I sat in the auditorium and blindly stared at the presentations in front of me. I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening around me. But as the week wore on I started to speak more and more to the participants, and in doing so realised how much I had in common with them. They had the lives I wanted. They were senior management in highly regarded creative companies, they had travelled, they spoke multiple languages and had a joie-de-vivre that I was lacking in life.
After a week of being exposed to these people, I began to thaw. By the time my flight to Barcelona took off I realised that my life would never be the same again. From that point on I knew I wouldn’t be happy with a stable, corporate career in a small little town in Canada.
After I returned home from travelling to my boring office job, I started to plan my exit strategy. I just wanted to get out and see the world. I didn’t care what form my travel would take. I started looking at au pair opportunities in France, and found a host family that would take me in for six months. I thought this was a great idea. My thesis supervisor did not.
A strong, smart and successful woman, she completed her PhD at Brown in the 70s and was a trailblazer for women in academia. She thought my idea of babysitting for six months was a waste of my talents. She saw that the professors of the conference wanted to hire me, and she pushed me to pursue my PhD under their supervision. “Strike while the iron is hot,” she said.
I’d be lying if I said the thought of doing a PhD didn’t excite me. I always wanted to be called Dr. Brooke. I had enjoyed university up to this point, so perhaps I should carry on? It’s not like I had loads of job offers pouring in after school. I mean, this was 2009, I was lucky to have a job at all.
But it was a major life decision. And I made it based solely on what my supervisor was telling me to do. I didn’t stop to think what was right for me.
That wasn’t the only major life decision I left up to others. A few months previous when I was finishing my thesis and looking for work, I took the first full-time job that was offered to me. Nevermind that the opportunity came through my boyfriend’s mother, that it was a clerk position in a property assessment office, or that it was in an entirely different city. Nevermind that I would have to uproot myself from my lovely apartment, from my network of friends and my home for the last two years.
I made the decision to take that job based on what my boyfriend wanted for me, and fear. The job was closer to him, and it paid well. Those were the only reasons to take it, and they were reason enough for him.
Within three weeks of the move and starting my new job he dumped me, over the phone, on my lunch break, whilst I was sitting across from his mother. It was the biggest shit-sandwich I’d ever been given, and a painful lesson that you should never leave these big, life-altering decisions up to anyone but yourself.
Like taking the first job out of uni at the advice of my boyfriend, I made the decision to start working on my PhD at the advice of my supervisor. I threw my hands in the air and proclaimed that she led me well up until this point, might as well keep following her advice.
That advice led me to Montreal (my second move in nine months), and to my new role at a research centre at a French business school.
In the lead up to my arrival I let everyone believe I understood more French than I actually did. They also led me led me to believe that they all spoke English, and that the language barrier was not going to be an issue. But it was.
I moved to the French part of town where all my neighbours and local shopkeepers spoke French. I worked from my office in the campus everyday, where everyone around me spoke French and wondered what business I had to be there. Meetings were conducted in French. Everything was in French. And I had no idea what was going on. It was the most lonely, isolating experience of my life.
For the majority of my young-adult life I tied my self-worth to my work-ethic and accomplishments. I was suddenly in an environment where I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t have the skills to do the job I thought was asked of me. I struggled to get by and felt like I wasn’t doing enough to earn my keep. I had no idea what was going on half the time and it had a major impact on my confidence.
My anxiety and fear got so bad that I didn’t want to leave my flat. I had also picked up the filthy habit of smoking cigarettes and weed on a daily basis. I was so high-strung I didn’t have a regular appetite, so I drank Ensure most days as my main meal. I was skin and bones.
In addition to the mental health issues that were brewing and my addictions, I rejected any form of exercise or fitness. The boyfriend who dumped me so ungraciously the summer before was a gym freak. And the girl he dumped me for was a bodybuilder. I was so badly hurt following that breakup, that I rejected anything and everything that reminded me of him.
Between my poor physical and mental health, my addictions, and the constant fear and anxiety I felt around my day-to-day life, I quickly developed depression. And it wasn’t long until I needed medical intervention.
I finally went to get help after my right breast started lactating. I still have no idea why that happened or what caused it, but it was enough of a start to get me to take my health seriously and get the help I needed.
My depression continued well into the fall, and over that six month period it was clear to everyone around that I wouldn’t be a good candidate for the PhD program. I also started a new and very tumultuous relationship with someone who wasn’t good for me, traveled around Europe, went on and off my medication for depression, moved back and forth between my parents’ place and Montreal, and was on-the-whole very unsettled and very unhappy.
Within three months I knew that I didn’t belong at the business school, and I was desperate to leave but didn’t want to admit failure or defeat.
I made life-changing decisions based on what other people thought was best. I don’t remember ever stopping to think if these situations were actually good for me. I didn’t think twice about giving up my home and my network of friends and the comforts of where I spent the last two years for my first job out of uni. I mean, I might have thought about it, but when I look back at that experience, the thing that stands out to me most is how lost I felt and how dependent I was on others for guidance and direction.
If you have no idea what you’re doing in life – which is often the case with most of us – it’s quite natural to follow the advice of others or to ask them what to do.
Your mind and body will very quickly tell you if you’ve made the wrong decision. My body was trying to tell me, but I refused to listen to it. It finally had to push me to the point of getting really sick to make me pay attention to it. And even then it took me ages to finally take action and make the necessary changes to my life.
The new guy I was dating wasn’t all that nice to me, and he wasn’t supportive of me taking medication to treat my depression. We gallivanted around Europe, staying with friends and making everyone around us miserable with our constant fighting.
As the end of our trip neared, our relationship continued to dwindled. I went back to Montreal. But I had no job and no reason for being there, so I spent the next three months going back and forth between my parents house and the city, living off of the inheritance my grandfather left me when he passed the year previously, and chasing any employment lead I could find.
My turning point finally came when a friend of a friend put me forward for an internship in London, England. I always wanted to go to London. My grandfather was British and I grew up listening to Oasis and the Spice Girls and watching Absolutely Fabulous on tv. I just felt like London could be my city, so when this opportunity came I jumped at the chance and it gave me a renewed sense of joy and excitement in my life.
I got on the next train home to my parents place and left Montreal for good. I had two months until my internship would start, and it was time for me to take my health seriously.
I went to my GP and together we decided that I should go back on antidepressants. I found one that worked for me (Pristiq), and I also stopped drinking alcohol and smoking weed. I focused on work and blogging, I started going for walks, and I just did the best I could to make sure I was prepared for the exciting adventure ahead of me.
The internship in London was whole-heartedly my decision, and without a doubt, it was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made. I flew to London December 2010, and have been here ever since.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if I didn’t take that job out of uni? If I didn’t move to Montreal at the advice of my supervisor? Would I have ended up in London? Would I have ended up with my now-husband?
Some people think we have a predestined path in life that takes us to where we need to go. I’m not sure if this is true. But I realise I wouldn’t be here right now, writing this in a coffee shop near London Bridge, if I didn’t have these painful experiences that came before this amazing one.
I know most people have to figure these things out for themselves, but the lesson I think this story teaches is this: You have to do what is right for you. If you always do what others tell you to do, you will eventually end up miserable, like I was.
I took the first job I could out of university out of fear. I sacrificed my support network of friends and my home because I was afraid I wouldn’t find a job in the city I was living in. I ignored my intuition about the PhD program at the French business school. I didn’t really want to be there, but I went anyway because I was “crazy not to”. I went off my meds because my boyfriend wanted me to. I was too afraid to say no to anything or anyone, and because of this, I became physically and mentally ill.
You need to have boundaries. You need to have authority over your own life. You need to have faith that another opportunity will come along and everything will be fine. Because they always do and it always is.
There will be many times in your life where you won’t know what you’re doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing half the time and I’m in my thirties. But do your best to listen to yourself, your mind and body, and do what’s right for you. This applies to major life decisions, school, work, your friends and relationships, your sexual partners…Don’t ever be afraid to say no, to stop and question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Is it to please others? Is it to please yourself? Are you doing it out of fear? Are you doing it for popularity?
I’m grateful that I went through these painful experiences, because they made me who I am today. I realise this advice is no substitute for learning these things on your own, but if writing this gives someone the confidence to make the right decision for them, then it was a story worth telling.
Picture by Samuel Dixon.