Saturday, March 15, 2008

I'm Stressed

Lately I’ve been extremely stressed. This term is overused in our world so I try to avoid saying it. I don’t like feeling unoriginal. People claim to be stressed simply by the mere fact of being expected to do their jobs. Something goes wrong at work, employee #1 is asked to correct it. “I’m stressed!” employee #1 squeals. That’s like a fireman being alarmed by the fact that he is being called to put out a fire. That’s the job requirement. It is an expected occurrence. Why so stressed? You get my point. People abuse the phrase, so I try to abstain from uttering those frantic words. Most importantly, I try to refrain from feeling it. I workout, I breathe slowly, I attend the occasional yoga class. I enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings after work.

But this time, I can’t resist the avowal: “I am stressed.” Everything seems to be converging. I have a book coming out in about a month. And I find out about an executive level position – a dream job - that I’ve been wanting for quite some time. You guessed it. In about a month. Add to that, I have kids that are growing up (makes me sad), needing to do lots of activities like karate and baseball (how to get them there with all this other stuff going on?! Oh yes, my husband generally takes care of that), a husband to at least pay some attention to, a house to clean (hubby takes the lead here, but I have some annoying particularities about how it’s done, so I do those things myself), a mom who’s recovering from a miserable year of finding out she had lung cancer and battling her way back to health (we hope) and friends to call back or just call (I need my friends! I can’t stop talking to them just because I have a lot to do. What will happen when I really need them? What if they need me right now but they are too depressed to reach out for help?) And this is my last year in my 30’s. I just turned 39. Already the anxiety over 40 is seeping in. Will I have enough time to do all the things I want to do? Life is short, after all. This is keenly felt at the approximate mid-point. Especially if your mother has just faced a life threatening illness.

It’s the perfect storm, a confluence of circumstance. Sometimes I feel like I might go crazy. My brain is never still. The thoughts feel like they could leap from my head, crack my skull, ooze through my ears, burn my eyeballs, scorch my hair follicles. My churning mind is hot and in motion constantly, creating friction in my body. I chew my lip, I pick my fingers, my body racing to keep up with my exploding cranium.

The job thing is particularly unnerving. Because I am the only internal candidate, my entire existence at work is a test. Every meeting, every memo, every comment must be pitch perfect, to impress the powers that be. An external candidate doesn’t face that kind of demanding interrogating reconnaissance. He just comes in, does a few one-hour interviews. And they decide. My entire ten-hour workday for the last few months has been a giant interview. After a presentation I gave the other day, I asked one of the senior executives in the company why he’d attended as his presence was not required. “I wanted to see you in action,” he responded. Again? You see me in action all the time. You’ve seen me in action for the last nine years that I’ve been at this company. Are you going to go to Mr. External Candidate’s place of employ and watch him present to a roomful of people? I think not. You’ll trust him when he says he’s poised, influential, a leader. I have to prove it again and again. It is really getting to be more than a girl can take.

Alas, my competitive nature keeps me in the game. I can’t throw in the towel. I’ve come this far. It just wouldn’t be me to say: “You know what? Not now. I’ve got a lot going on. I’ve got a book coming out. Give that job to someone else! I’ll take the next high level position that just happens to be perfect for me." (This would be about the time of the next solar eclipse, or when pigs fly, or when it’s a cold day in a hell – choose your ‘its going to be a very long time’ metaphor. They all fit the bill.)

Nonetheless, the other day while I was driving to work at 6:45 – I have a lot to do if I want to get this job – a fleeting, earnest thought entered my mind. Maybe I should pass on the position. Just let them pick someone else. For once in your life, Jen, would it be so bad to not try to win? And really, I wouldn’t be losing if I passed on the position. I’d get to keep my current job and it’s a great one. I like the people I spend my days with, I enjoy about 75% of the content (which is a pretty high percentage I’d venture), and I am paid quite well. This unfamiliar thought made me shudder. Not keep trying? Not keep pushing? Not keep moving up, up, up? If I stop moving, mightn’t I die? It has always felt that way.

I forced myself to consider this as a real option because even without the pressure of this pending job, I’ve got a lot to be anxious about. The book will surely cause some controversy. I’m going to have to face angry gymnastics coaches, riled up gymnasts defending their sport, hard hitting interviewers who want to know if I made any of it up, like so many memoirists these days. I could take it easy on myself, for once. Continue in my current role, while contending with the launch of the book, the struggle to sit down and write another, and sending my youngest off to school for the first time. C’mon, Jen, just chill.

I sat with that idea for all of twenty seconds. It didn’t feel right in my head, so distant from my standard approach. I felt a little cockeyed as I veered the corner onto Sansome Street, where my office building resides. I coughed as if I'd just taken a shot of whiskey, exorcising the concession speech from my body. I shook the doubt from my mind as I remembered just how much I can take. At only 11 years old, I endured the pressure of competing in my first national gymnastics competition. At 16, I braved competing in the World Championships despite the fact that I was scared shitless: performing on the world’s stage with a national team coach that seemingly hated me and an entire universe of athletes that were WAY better than me. At 17, I fought back from a supposed career ending injury – a broken femur – to win the title of US National Gymnastics Champion. There were times when I was competing that the nerves seemed to overtake my body, lodge in my throat, choke my airway. And somehow, I always pulled it together. Shaking legs, blurry vision from near tears brought on by nerves, hallucinations of disastrous performances. These conditions prompted poise. All the chaos inside somehow forced me to get it together. It’s not that I didn’t feel miserable anxiety. I just learned to harness it to motivate me. I was known as a girl who didn’t choke.

By the time I pulled into the parking lot at work, two minutes after my “take it easy, Jen” chat with myself, I’d resolved to go for it. Of course. There’s just no other way for me. I’d be denying who I am if I didn’t embrace the fantastic manic chaos of striving. And if I don’t get the job, I’ll rest for a moment. Then I’ll brush myself off, go do the required interviews and press tour for my book, and dive headlong into another challenge. I’ve got 40 years left, if I’m lucky. I’ve got a lot to do.

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