It has been a year since I quit my job.
I need more than a moment to let that sink in. I know the past seven months have been pretty intense for everyone, but things were already weird for me before the pandemic.
A year. The date snuck up on me as I was glancing over my calendar wondering what the week might hold. Looking at the date, I felt the kind of shock I always do at the steady passing of time. I know what a second feels like. I know how many hours there are in a day, so why am I always surprised to find time has carried me so far out to sea?
I don’t put on make-up in the morning anymore (does anyone now?) but I diligently applied a fresh face for years. I remember myself - Last Year’s Me - going through my morning routine one last time. I painted my lips, I swiped pink blush across my cheeks, saving one tiny dab for my nose. I wanted to look more alive than I felt. I rolled my hair into long flowing waves and looked myself dead in the eye in the mirror. On my last day I wore a tight blue blazer dress with gold buttons and I walked my twenty minute commute in black heels. I was unwavering. I was resolute. But I was nervous. Walking into the film studio each morning had started to feel a lot like wading through cooling warm wax. There was just...so...much...resistance. As you get older jobs start to feel a whole lot like long-term relationships, and this one was coming to a difficult end.
If we’re running with that analogy, my career started with a lot of little “flings”. At 16 I worked a weekend job as a waitress in a high-end country hotel. Each Saturday my dad would drive me down a long gravel road and, as a fresh-faced teenager eager to please, I would spring out of the car ready to fold napkins and carry trays of elevated full-English breakfasts (I still can’t stomach the thought of black pudding). My uniform was the colour of buttercups and I had a little blue apron with pockets, inside of which I kept a notepad and pen. They would knock against my legs all day.
My next job was working at a jewellery counter in a big department store on a Sunday. At 18 you would have found me there struggling to fix my best “customer service” smile at the forefront of a dirty Smirnoff Ice hangover that was threatening to rear its ugly head. Three years later, as a seasoned and worldly university graduate and proud custodian of a First Class Honours degree, I made my debut in the full-time working world as a Queen. Yep. Queen. It sounds about right, right? Right. Only I was actually a children’s entertainer masquerading as royalty in a big Central London toyshop. Being a Queen was fun but ironically it paid very little, so I also had to moonlight as an usher at a West End theatre down the road. THAT was a great job but, again, not exactly a money spinner. In that exhaustive era of my life I worked 14 hours a day and survived almost exclusively off boiled eggs and cuppa soups. I also had a very quick stint as an Estate Agent that we don’t speak of because it was the one and only time I shut myself in a cupboard and wailed like a banshee heralding the death of my soul as I sacrificed it up to the corporate gods in exchange for money to pay my East London rent. I quit after a week and had to plead with the theatre to give me my job back, even if it meant another season of sachet soups and crying down the phone to my bank as I begged for an overdraft extension.
Finally, I got my first “proper job” in theatre marketing at 23 years old. I wrote reviews for London theatre shows to bolster an ecommerce website that sold event tickets. It just about fell on the exciting side of boring, so I was momentarily satisfied (the word “ecommerce” would usually be enough to send me to sleep, so thanks for sticking with me this long. I promise it gets juicer).
I liked my first “real” job enough to stay for over three years, although I knew in my heart it was never really for me. I have always been a creative and frustratingly free spirit, but for a while I enjoyed earning a decent living and pretending that I might just be able to thrive in the corporate grind. My reviews were over embellished and so was I; I bought bold pink suits and colourful ring binders, treating them as much like a costume as I had my crown in the toy store. What I really wanted was to be a television presenter, so when I decided to move to Canada on a whim I thought I might have some sort of stab at it, having cut myself free from the limits of expectation and the kind of bloodline hierarchical shit that seems to get you places in England. When I told my British boss I was leaving he got teary, which was very unlike him. Usually rather stoic, on my last day he brought me flowers and prosecco and sent me off with a £1,000 bonus for my hard work. It was a pretty stark contrast in send-offs at the end of my last job, where my most recent boss didn’t even sign my leaving card. There wasn’t too much love lost there, which made for a strange exit.
I was 26 when I started my first and last Canadian job. I came across the listing almost immediately after arriving in Toronto. I found myself in front of a camera auditioning to be a YouTube host and, by some divine plot twist, I got it. It was mine. Having trained in traditional media, a “YouTuber” wasn’t something I had ever thought of being, but suddenly that was what I was. I was thrilled to finally be on camera, which is where I felt I belonged. I don’t mean that in a vain way; I’ve never felt like the kind of hot babe usually thrust in front of a camera... but I knew that my soul comes alive when I have a story to tell. I know my strengths well enough now to comfortably be able to say I am an excellent presenter. I am. I don’t even feel embarrassed saying that out loud anymore because I think it is important that we own what we are good at. Humility is a trick to keep a woman in her “place”. I am good on camera. That's a fact. And finally, after years of jobs that weren’t quite it, I felt in alignment with my career. The honeymoon period was fun while it lasted.
The year before I moved to Canada, my sister's (now ex) husband had told me that if I was ever going to make it on TV, I would have done it already. I was 25 at the time, and he was in his 40s. My older self would have told him firmly and sternly to fuck off, but in my mid 20s the comment struck me deep in the gut. I was already paranoid that I might never “make it” in the way I had dreamed about, and to hear someone else vocalize one of my biggest fears so casually over Sunday lunch was deeply disheartening. But instead of being crushed, I kept on living. It wasn’t like I was about to turn around and beg to be an Estate Agent again, so I carried on as I was. Less than two years later I was the face of a YouTube channel with over a million subscribers and growing. I thought about reminding him of his disparaging comments one Christmas when I was back in England for the holidays. What stopped me was the thought of his guitar in the corner of a room in his home, and the band he practiced with at the weekend while my sister took care of their kids. I realized that maybe I wasn’t the only person at the dinner table to have been discouraged. I wanted to tell him that he could also do whatever he put his mind to. I wanted to tell him to quit his corporate job and be free to make music because it is never too late to follow your passion, but I spared him my idealism because mocking me for being a dreamer continues to be a beloved family pastime. “Oh, Bex”, they would (and still) say with exasperation.
My family were happy for me when I got my last job, even though they didn’t really understand how YouTube could support a person, let alone a whole business. I remember telling them it was my “dream” job, although that wasn’t quite true; my dream job was to be a breakfast TV host like Loraine Kelly, but if I squinted hard enough, being a pop-culture YouTuber was almost like that. Don’t we all see what we want to see at the beginning of a relationship? What I really meant in my gushing to my family was that I felt like I was finally “on track”, or as on track as I had ever been. I might only have had a compass, but I definitely felt like I was headed in the right direction.
Things started out swimmingly. Fabulously. Glisteningly. That isn’t a real word, but it turns out it wasn’t a real feeling either. My vanity was indulged by the idea of my job. I thought that we looked good together, but looks are an ailing part of attraction; they’ll get you there, but they won’t keep you there. After a while, I realized that we weren’t such a good fit after all. It happens. It needn’t be a drama. It is rare to find the synergy you need to make a long-term relationship work, especially a business one. I would have moved on sooner, but as I began to question my working relationship, my actual relationship ended. I had been with my ex for six years and we had moved to Canada together, so when it was over I felt the foundations of the life I had built overseas start to crumble. On top of that, a routine pap test had come back with worrying results; my cervix had decided to take centre stage and play the starring role in a cancer scare drama. Luckily, it wasn’t quite that serious. Yet. But I did have pre-cancerous cells that needed to be shaved off with something that looked a lot like a tiny salami slicer. Suffice to say, things were unstable and I knew better than to fight a war on three fronts. This blog isn’t intended to be a full dissection of why I disliked my job; it is intended as a discussion of what it was like to move on, so I’ll just give you the cliff-notes attached to my exit: I was unhappy for a number of reasons but largely because I didn't gel with my employer. I wanted to quit in mid-2018 but the problem was that I had absolutely zero money (break-ups are expensive when you have to find and furnish a new apartment all by yourself), and my wage didn’t allow for a whole lot of disposable income after my living costs. What I did have spare I mostly spent on trying to get out of the house and do something or buy something to break the spell of my post-break-up misery. I also didn’t really know what I wanted to do next, so drinking wine with my friends seemed like as good an investment as any, although come the end of the month I would find myself poor and in pretty much exactly the same place I started out. I was frustrated and stuck and, to make matters more complicated, I began dating one of my co-workers who was also frustrated and stuck, which didn’t provide the best backdrop to our budding romance. Worse still, The Channel was involved in a publicized lawsuit that added a very un-fun layer of intensity and instability that we all could have lived without. Especially those of us on the receiving end of hour cuts.
Millions of people saw me on their phone, laptop and TV screens. The job had become part of my identity, but it wasn’t the real version of myself that I saw when I looked in the mirror. The longer I stayed, the more heavily I was associated with something I no longer wanted to be aligned with. I knew that I had to make moves, I could feel the adrenaline building in my body, but I still wasn’t sure what to do next. By this point, rather than finding the indecision crippling, I called upon all of the bad-ass-bitchery I had found in myself while surviving my break-up and brief brush with cancer. I focused on doing little things like building my website and my own personal social media presence.
In the early days of my arrival in Toronto I had found a little writing gig reviewing local restaurants with a professional blog, the Toronto Guardian, which I maintained throughout my time at The Channel as a side hobby and I am SO glad that I did. It is never advisable to put all of your eggs in one basket and having a connection to another industry outside of my workplace made me feel less vulnerable when things started to go to shit. My epicurean hobbies complimented the direction I wanted to take on my own social media, and writing for the TG gave me an introduction to a lot of PR companies in the city. From the beginning I had spent my days working for the channel and my nights networking at great restaurants, and I soon started being invited as a trusted social media influencer (I used to hate that title, but I own it now). My hobbies started becoming a side hustle. I saved every single dollar I could, thankful that my extra-curricular activities meant I rarely had to pay to fund a social life as I was being given so many opportunities in the city for free. I juggled my growing Instagram presence with my job, and as the discomfort of the daytimes got worse, I planned to find a way to leave The Channel by the beginning of 2020. I wasn’t totally sure what I would do next, but I thought I would give freelance life a try while clearing my head and deciding what might be a better long term fit. I didn’t make it that long; by the summer of last year things became unbearable for me and I knew I had to go sooner rather than later. My colleague-turned-new-boyfriend had left the business in the Spring to move on to bigger and better things, as had my closest friend at The Channel, so I found myself even more lonely and miserable. The walls felt like they were closing in, so I decided to bring my plan forwards by three months despite not being quite ready to go solo. What I have learned is that no one is ever “ready”when it comes to big life changes, you just sort of have to trust yourself and take the plunge. I knew no matter what happened next I could survive, even if that meant a little initial discomfort. Once you have entertained the thought of freedom there is no going back, so I handed in my notice.
My last few weeks were strained and awkward. I did my best to hold my head high even though I knew I was taking the last steps over a burning bridge. When I returned home after a strange last day, my friends and boyfriend threw me a wild party. They were THRILLED I was finally out of a situation I wasn’t happy in. They had brought me a disposable golden crown which I wore all night long and I was still finding confetti hidden in nooks and crannies for weeks. While those few moments tasted like victory and love from the right people, I knew that the coming months were going to be an uphill battle. I had left without a job to go to and I lived alone. That was the reality. If I wanted to stay in my humble but well-loved basement apartment, I would need to find a way to make money. Quickly.
Within days I had found a three week-long freelance opportunity running the social media for a city-wide cocktail festival. It wasn’t enough to solve my problem, but it bought me extra time. At the event I was introduced to scores of people in the food and drink industry and I diligently kept their cards, emailing them a courteous follow-up message the next day. Before I left my job I had been waking up at 5am every day to spend two hours building media kits and lists of contacts, readying myself for freedom. When it came, I realized how sketchy my plan was. I didn’t really know what to do with all of my free time, other than obsessively refresh my email hoping for work to find me. I looked at my personal YouTube channel and mulled over the prospect of trying to do what I knew, but I couldn’t bear it. I was glad to have a little platform of my own, but I wanted to use the space to create things I cared about; zany little skits and videos of my adventures. I knew what it took to make money on YouTube, but I didn’t want to use my channel as a machine to churn out viral content. I had a brief but successful dalliance in creating Harry Potter videos, but I found the need to pigeon-hole myself to meet the favour of the algorithm boring and exhausting. I knew deep in my heart that a career as a YouTuber wasn’t for me, even on my own terms. It was time to stop squinting and open my eyes. The problem was, I still couldn’t see the big picture.
Uncertainly doesn’t pay the bills so, whimsically, I applied for a job as an Ice Queen at a winter festival in the city. I got it easily and I found myself greatly amused by the irony that once again I was back on a throne wearing a crown, nearly ten years after my first abdication. This one was silver, spiky and fierce in a way that I aspired to be in real life. I sat for 8-hour stints on the throne of an outdoor ice palace with painted blue lips and glossy white hair, cringing at the thought of my former colleagues recognizing me if they happened to come to the festival. I stressed over what they would think of my much anticipated “next step” if they knew this was what I was doing now. Then I realized I was obsessing over appearances, when in reality I was being paid well-over 50% more than I had been in my old job, and instead of grinding it out to research, script and film two lengthy videos in a day, all I had to do now was sit on my royal ass and wave regally at passers by. I was going to be fine. I wouldn’t call it blind faith, I would call it self respect. I was slowly getting it back. Silver. Spiky. Fierce.
Shortly after I had taken the job as a Queen, offers started coming in from the emails I had sent months ago. A watched pot never boils, and it turns out a refreshed inbox doesn’t deliver either. The second I took my eye off my mail app for a few hours, it started giving me what I needed. By the New Year I felt confident registering myself as a social media business and I started working with a few food and alcohol brands. It was slow-going and a little patchy, so I also found myself a part-time writing job to see me through dry-spells. Around that time, my boyfriend moved in, cutting my rent costs in half, which meant I was firmly able to make ends meet again and so I allowed myself the grace of not stressing (too much) if I wasn’t always securing deals. I was still being invited to restaurants and drinks events, which was invaluable for maintaining my social life without having a whole lot in the bank, but I found it difficult to balance when to say yes to a gifted experience as I worried it would devalue the advertising deals I HAD managed to make. Learning my value on the fly meant I didn’t always get it right, but by March I was getting there slowly but surely.
And then COVID hit...
All of a sudden the little business I had so proudly built for myself over the past few months was knocked sideways. At first, nobody knew what to do with their money other than hold on to it. Deals I had in the pipeline fell through immediately. My boyfriend found himself out of work too and all I had was my little part-time writing gig, which I clung to desperately. Once again, I had to get resourceful. I looked at my bar cart, which was full of promotional bottles I had been given over the past year. Without the promise of sponsorship, I started making cocktail videos with the products I had. I mostly did it because I felt like I had to do SOMETHING. After a month or so they started getting some great attention, which coincided with the pivot of marketing budgets across the world. It seemed that people were more keen than ever to invest in social media because people were more active online than ever. Slowly, the money started trickling back in and I was able to give up the little writing job, finding my small business was just earning me a full-time living.
I hit a milestone around August / September. With a month to spare, I out-earned what I had brought in at my job last year. I didn’t earn a whole lot in the first-place (despite the channel being pretty big, I never made over $40,000 CAD before tax a year), but it still felt good to know that even though I had quit with very little clue as to what I was going to do next, what I was doing now was more valuable to me. And it really IS more valuable to me; not only has every hour I have spent since leaving been an hour invested in growing my own business, rather than somebody else’s, I have also found myself with far more free time to do things that I want to do. Despite COVID, I have managed to go on more trips this year than last (albeit local adventures like camping or renting an AirBnB with my “pod” in wine country), and while I wasn’t always offered paid work, my focus and attention on my social media platform meant I have been offered some really great vacation experiences for “free” in exchange for coverage. My new ethos is that it is okay to work for “free” if it is in exchange for something I want of a reasonably equivalent value to my rates. I still have a lot to learn, but my life is infinitely freer and more glorious now that I only have to answer to myself, even if it is still a little bit unstable.
I have also found the time to start writing a book. REALLY start writing. I had been dabbling for over a year, but the freedom of my new work set-up has allowed me at least a day a week to sit down and get it out. Some days are easier than others. I feel incredibly frustrated if, on the day I put aside for creativity, I am not in the right headspace, but I am getting there. I am trying to give myself grace and understand that I am still learning. I took a whole week off from my little business in the summer to work on my book in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I found the most beautiful B&B to haul up in and I made some decent headway. I can’t run-away every week, nor can I afford to live in a hotel room (yet!) so now I spend most of my writing days in the cupboard under the stairs. No, really! It’s quiet there and I like having my own private space where I don’t get cell reception or a wifi connection. Sometimes I just have to switch off. It is important for my mental health.
Mental health is still a kicker and something I actively take the time to work on, be it with trips to the gym or walks before I sit down at my desk in the morning. The great thing about working for yourself is that, if you aren’t feeling so great, you can take a ten minute break without having to “clock out” or answer questions. I answer to me, and while I can be tough on myself, I am learning to work to the beat of my energy bursts, rather than a fixed schedule.
Notably, I am spending less. It turns out that depression, or whatever I was feeling in my last job, was actually costing me money. Before I quit my job, I used to feel a void and I tried to fill it with buying little treats for myself to make me feel better about my situation. I bought a coffee and a cookie each day just so I could leave my desk. I would walk through the mall on the way home after work and buy something small like a new lipstick, a cheap dress from H&M, or even dinner from the food court, too far in a funk to have the energy to cook. It wasn’t a lot, but it added up. I don’t do that these days. Working for myself means that I no longer walk by shops on a commute, so am not tempted to make impulse purchases to improve my mood. I also always have the time and resources to make my own lunch each day. COVID was certainly a factor in curbing spending for me, but I have not only out-earned myself this year, I have out-saved myself too. Establishing my own business means I am constantly saving for a rainy day. It might well come, but if and when it does, I am in a survivable position...although by now I think that anything economic is survivable if you aren’t afraid to adapt.
But, it isn’t all sunshine and roses for me and my mental health, even now. Yes, I quit, but the biggest hurdle I still haven’t quite overcome is the emotional one. It still hurts to think about my old job. Like with a romantic relationship, the end of a working relationship can also be traumatic. Sometimes it can take months, if not years to really move on from something that was once an ingrained part of your daily life. I hoped I could walk away and that suddenly all of the negative emotions I had towards my past circumstances would evaporate, but they didn’t. There are a few factors but as you might have gathered, it wasn’t a clean break. Despite having a very positive relationship with all of the other professionals I have worked with over the years, there were no well-wishes from my former employer. In fact, rather the opposite. There is a lot that I would like to say to elaborate on that but frankly I feel too afraid to share my story, which is the most debilitating thing because I am, and have always been, a storyteller. My theatre degree was born from a love of story-telling, the art of shaping a story is what led me to train in journalism and what drives me to keep writing my book today. I have spoken about my life freely and publicly ever since I allowed my classmates to read my diary on the school bus when I was 14. I wasn’t ashamed. Stories can be more than words too; I have used my social media platforms to visually disclose the most sensitive part of myself - the long and deep scar on my stomach - because it comes with a story of survival that I find empowering. I love reading and watching other people’s stories too. I am energized by interesting narratives, especially when they own and overcome an uncomfortable truth. But there are several big uncomfortable truths that I am sitting on and trying, but failing, to swallow. I am perfectly torn between the desperate need to unburden myself, and my instinct to protect myself… and that inner conflict keeps me trapped in a cycle of anger towards the past and cloudy confusion towards the future. I don’t feel like I am “over” my old job and I feel resentful towards the way things ended. My boyfriend can’t protect or distract me from that negative energy either because he shares a lot of the same feelings towards our former workplace as I do. We have talked about how we wished we had met in other circumstances, but we know we can’t change our history. Things are better for him now, after a few grim jobless COVID days, he has started a fantastic new role in a cool company and is far better at compartmentalizing the past than I am. He can focus on being excited for what is next in his career, while I still feel stuck. I am trying to move on with my life with the happiness and joy that I deserve but I can’t stop carrying the weight of anger around with me. I don’t feel that way about my ex-boyfriend, because we wish each other well. I do still have the occasional bout of anxiety that my near-brush with cervical cancer will turn into something bigger, but at least I am now well versed in the steps that would come next to deal with it. I don’t know what comes next here. I have always been an optimist, and I know that one day the tension in my chest will all be a memory. But right now, I am still living it. It has been a year, and I am STILL living it.
I look around in all of the ways my life has changed in the past year. I am so proud of myself for being so resourceful. I am proud that I not only was able to support myself this year, but actually earn more than I did the year before in my old job. AND I have written the best part of a book. Despite COVID, my first year in business has been filled with great opportunities. I feel freer and more worthy than ever. If this was year one, I hope year two will be just as good to me, if not better. I might still not totally know what I am doing or where I am going, but I am getting a lot closer, and at least I have the space to think.
As to the darker side of things; I would once have told you that light always wins, but now I realize that you can’t recognize joy without pain. I listened to Elizabeth Day’s “How To Fail” podcast in quarantine earlier this year and she interviewed Google alumni Mo Gowdat, who eloquently surmised that our problem as humans is that we seem to have the expectation that all of our experiences will be good. I realize now that that is unrealistic. I’ll embrace the good days, but I will also accept the bad as part and parcel of life. I can’t change what happened in the past. I can, however, own the pain I feel and use it to guide me to whatever I do next. If diamonds are made from charcoal, then I have a feeling that my future will be bright. I might just need a year.