I’ve never experienced a bad break-up (unless you count the time I stopped drinking soda in middle school), and I don’t like to let friendships end poorly, if I can help it.
I bug far-away pals with memories of our youth, laughing at the time we danced so intensely during the drive home from school that a stranger got out of his car at a stoplight and began to approach us. The light graciously changed before we found out his intentions. I text former high school teachers when I’m home to see if I can bring them greasy food during their microscopic lunch periods. I try to let brides I’m no longer close with know how beautiful I thought they looked in the Facebook version of their wedding day.
None of this changes much of my day-to-day, but it’s refreshing to connect with someone who has known a different version of myself as we reassure one another that we continue to care for the person they have become.
So this past Thursday, when my time with the family business I had served for eight months post-graduation ended on negative terms, I was, naturally, engulfed in a wave of convoluted emotions.
Foremost, I was proud of the complicated decision I had made. I won’t narrate the details of the situation, but essentially, I was accused and reprimanded for a mistake I did not make. My grown boss chose to bully, degrade and blame me instead of consider that the discrepancy could have been made on his end. He made it a question of my character and stripped me of whatever self-respect I had maintained at my postgraduate, low-wage job. I was no longer crying in the stockroom, as per usual, but was now enraged that my job’s highest level of authority handled this with the lowest level of diplomacy and professionalism. I walked away because I could not subject myself to a manager that expected me to perform big while treating me small.
Alternately, I was ashamed. I have worked 12 different jobs since I turned 16 and this is the first one that did not end amicably. I thought I did everything right. I frequently arrived before the store opened, always dressed professionally and performed every task that was asked of me. Some customers required hours of consecutive care, which I gave with a smile and without complaint. I covered shifts when family obligations and weekend invitations called co-workers away. I wasn’t perfect, but I cared–about the job, about the family, about the friends I’d made there. It’s impossible to not wonder what I could have done differently, what part of me wasn’t ‘enough’ for the man who had called me eight months earlier and asked if I would come and work for him in a ‘nurturing environment.’
Perhaps surprisingly, I was, and still am, painfully sad. The man who laid the straw that broke the camel’s back is also a man who gave me his recipe for chili, helped me understand the brain of whatever boy was vexing me at the time and once spent an hour talking me through the financial obligations I had to consider when deciding my asking salary for future jobs. I had seen him with his grandchildren, felt his heartbreak over his dying dog and listened in the breakroom as he called his elderly mother on speakerphone almost daily. I bonded with his son over weird dance moves, a love of coffee and anecdotes from our trips to France. His niece helped me pick out first-date outfits and fed me nachos when my funds and fridge were low on stock. It was not a job void of compassion. They offered stories of their pasts, and I dreams of my future. I’m confident we spent more time getting to know each other than we did selling shoes, which made walking away even harder. I was closing the door to something I could never come back to, something I had learned to love for what it was.
Lastly, I felt free. Every step away from this chapter of my life has offered me new perspective on the ways it affected me. There’s something inherently difficult about being outside of the family on the inside of a family business. You’re thrown in the midst of drama that exists in no other workplace, where cousins and uncles intercede for each other in ways they are not obligated to stand up for employees. You are on the side of conflict that does not have the reassurance of unconditional love. There is obvious, painful bias that affected my self-esteem and kept me constantly confused as to where I fit in.
None of it was purposeful, and I’m confident there was a certain level of adoptive love shown toward me at times. But it’s different when it’s family, and that was clear. Walking away has helped me understand that I am more than enough; I just can’t count on other, broken people (like myself) to determine that value.
I regret nothing. The hours I spent holed up in that little shoebox of a store taught me countless physical and emotional life lessons, resiliency being the most important, rivaled by the knowledge that you can have immense love and compassion for a person you know you’re better off saying goodbye to.
I’ve never had a bad break-up, but I can imagine what it feels like: disappointment that things ended differently than you wanted them to, heartbreak that that relationship will never be the same, and eventual reassurance that only better things lie in wait.
I’ve felt more like myself in the past four days than I have in the three quarters of a year since my college graduation. I know I still have some time before I’m healed, but it sure is good to have me back.