It was my last day at my bakery job and I could not have been more relieved. The relatively new pandemic and social isolation still had a stronghold on my mental health. Every day entering the bakery I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. My boss had become a micro-managing maniac, standing over my shoulder and watching over everyone’s movements each day.
I get it! The business was in a tough spot. Those sourdough loaves needed to be PERFECT. The business needed to stay afloat. Everything we made needed to sell. The pressure and high expectations were killing me, on top of the constant worry about dealing with impatient customers who didn’t seem to give a shit that we were in the middle of a global pandemic. I was 27, but I felt like the 16-year-old version of myself. The one that had panic attacks every other day for no reason. The one that had to get up and leave high school classrooms regularly because she was too scared of getting called on in front of the class, and suddenly couldn’t breathe and needed to escape.
Putting in my two-week notice was a breath of fresh air. I wish that I could say that I was doing it for a greater job opportunity pursuing a creative career path, or to go back to school…or maybe even to have more time to focus on my own artwork. But overall, I was fed up with making $11 an hour for a tough job, and I decided to go back to my previous serving job. At least I could make some money and had friends at the old job. There were months of build-up leading to this point, but I finally took the plunge and told my manager that I couldn’t do it anymore.
RELIEF! Yes. My last day had arrived, and I was more than happy to finish that shift, walk out, and never come back. It would have been a smooth shift, but my boss had to throw in his “final advice” for me. He approached me awkwardly, as he always did, in the last 30 minutes of my shift.
He gave me the usual goodbye chat…I was a great worker. He wished me luck in my future endeavors. All of this chit-chat would have been fine with me if it had ended there, but for some reason, he threw in something extra. “Ellie, I had no idea you were unhappy here. I wish that you would have talked to me. You were always so meek…so quiet. I never would have known anything was wrong.”
I stared at him blankly, not knowing how to respond. Of course, he didn’t know that I was unhappy. He rarely spoke to me in the year that I was employed. I never felt comfortable approaching him or speaking to him about my concerns in the workplace. His typical response to me when I did voice any of my feelings was feigning concern for me and my personal health. “Have you been eating right? Have you been sleeping well? We are a ‘family’ here. I care about you.” His go-to suggestion was that I should do yoga because that was his cure-all for everything in life.
Back to that final day, before I get too sidetracked. He asked if he could offer me some advice and I stood there and awaited the profound wisdom he had for me. He proceeded to tell me something that I will never forget.
“Ellie, as you go forward in life I just want you to remember. Don’t be a mouse.”
I stood there silent. I probably really looked like a ‘mouse’ at that point. My throat felt tight. I could feel tears welling up inside of me, but I refused to let them grow. This man who knew nothing about me, my struggles, or my life just told me to stop being a meek, fragile, little mouse. To SPEAK UP and TELL PEOPLE what I WANT. I think I responded with alright thanks, or something dumb like that because I just wanted our conversation to end, but this statement had really struck a nerve within me.
Years of struggling with anxiety and depression already under my belt…feeling my creativity and artistic motivation drifting away over time due to poor self-esteem, negative self-talk, and convincing myself that my work would never be good enough. After going to college and struggling my whole way for 7 years. Finally graduating with 2 degrees, and reaching this accomplishment that I thought for years might never happen. I had overcome so much, and here I stood. This man used 4 words that made me feel so, so very small.
Thanks for the advice, dude. Life-changing!
Although it wasn’t what I wanted to hear at the time, I reflect on it now and realize that it lit a fire within me that I refuse to let burn out.
My first panic attack happened when I was in the eighth grade, 13 years old. I was in the middle of giving a speech telling my classmates ‘about myself’ and my heart began beating so fast that I couldn’t breathe, talk, or finish the dumb speech. I blacked out. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was going to take a drastically different path than I had expected.
I didn’t really know the meaning of anxiety at the time…I definitely had never heard of a panic attack. I was just a kid that grew up with a simple life in a middle-class family. Honestly, I didn’t know the meaning of struggle and I was very privileged in my upbringing, but that one day changed so much for me. I feel like my brain was fried and completely altered that day.
I could timeline my anxiety ups and downs for hours, but I guess what I am really getting at is…I changed! I struggled endlessly, but I overcame so many obstacles. Years of cognitive behavioral therapy, a variety of medications, doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, etc. I am 28 and I no longer have panic attacks, at least not the way I did in my teenage and young adult years. But yes, anxiety and depression have ridden on my back like evil little friends for the majority of my life.
For me, depression and anxiety stole my voice. I have gotten it back in a sense, but my low confidence and self-esteem have been an ongoing issue in every phase of my life. School. Family. Social relationships. Romantic relationships. Jobs. My passions. My art. My life goals. I know that I am not alone in this struggle, but it doesn’t make it any less exhausting.
I have 2 degrees in psychology and studio art, and I have been serving tables at a bbq joint for almost 4 years now. No, serving bbq was not my calling nor my goal in life. I thought that I wanted to be a graphic designer, art therapist, mental health counselor, art teacher, among many other things. I have changed my mind more times than I can count.
After the pandemic hit and I was living in quarantine I tried to explore a variety of new options. Researching, reading articles, online classes. I wanted to absorb as much information as possible. UX design, UI design, web design, marketing. I was reading up on anything and everything. But I am one of the many ‘can’t get a foot in the door’ folks of my generation.
I have applied to hundreds of jobs over the last 5 years, and I have gotten seemingly nowhere. However, a few weeks ago I got an opportunity for a phone interview for an entry-level marketing job. The job ad said they were looking for a creative individual, marketing experience preferred but not required. I thought that I completely failed the phone interview. I convinced myself immediately that I sounded dumb on the phone and that I wouldn’t get another interview. A few days later I had an invitation in my email for an in-person interview.
Last week I went to that interview and I was beyond nervous, but I was excited. I will hear back next week, and so I am waiting impatiently and anxiously. But for the first time in a while, I feel really hopeful. I feel more confident in my skills and the potential of starting a career feels so close I can almost taste it. I crave it. My desire to get out of the service industry and find more fulfilling work is so strong, it is pulsing through my veins. I think that my interviewer could sense my desire and excitement.
Maybe I don’t have all of the experience in the world, but what I lack in experience I will make up for in my drive to succeed. In my desire to prove to myself, and to everyone around me that I AM NOT A MOUSE.
Hopefully, it works out. But if not, I will keep trying. I will keep learning until I am where I want to be. I am not a mouse. I never was a mouse. I will tell people what I want. I will tell people what I am capable of, and no one else will determine that for me.
And if you have ever felt so small, I hope all of these things for you as well.