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The Outsider

5 years ago, at the age of 27, I made the decision to undergo a complete change. I went from ‘bartending’ (amongst other things) and working nights in a smoke filled strip club, to working days in a smoke free state of the art insurance office. This was not an easy adjustment to say the least. I went from being comfortable (wearing shorts, wife beaters, socks and sneakers – or less) to feeling terribly uncomfortable (wearing suites and dresses). I went from slinging suds and full of confidence cracking jokes to perfect strangers, to someone who was shy, timid, nervous and fearful.

This decision was not as smooth or simple as I had hoped. In fact, if I had the foresight to know the level of anxiety such a transition could produce, I would have reconsidered the entire idea all together. I never anticipated what an outsider I would feel like from the minute I set foot in an office. (and still do)

I find it amazing how much society, and we ourselves, identify who we are by what we do for a living. I was a bartender. I was NOT an office professional. Crossing over from one identity to another drowned me in a pool of uncertainty. So to avoid any more internal panic attacks, I carefully placed myself on the outside of a pre-existing inner office water cooler clique, which was unlike any other atmosphere I had experienced.

The only job interview I ever had in my whole life was to bend down in front of a bar manager to pick up a napkin off the floor, so he could decide if my ass, was acceptable to serve his patrons.

The first big adjustment to working in an office was waking up in the morning. When I was bartending, I used to sleep all day. All damn day. I stayed up all night, I mean, the party didn’t start until after the bar closed some nights. Waking up at 6:30am, rather than going to bed at 6:30am, was unbearable. Since my body had a different internal clock than the rest of the standard work force, the first clue that I was an outsider surfaced when I showed up at the office still blinking my blood shot eyeballs while everyone else in the office looked refreshed, alert, perky and alive.

Another hint I didn’t exactly fit-in the office environment, was the simple task of what to wear and “how to” wear professional clothes. I walked around the office stuffed in fabrics that forced me to move robotically, while others seemed to glide effortlessly throughout the day. Suites, skirts and slacks were not exactly part of my bar wardrobe. Putting on these new clothes, made me feel like I was playing dressing up in someone else’s attire, and trying to live someone else’s life. (I still feel like a phony in those clothes).

The next big shocker was the drive into work. Driving, for me, was a traumatic endeavor during the morning bustle. It’s hard to envision rush hour traffic, when you are so used to driving home at 3:00 am. At 3:00am, the only other cars on the road are truckers or cops. Driving on the NJ Turnpike first thing in the morning was a horrifying experience. I had no idea how many people were up and driving on the road at that ungodly hour. The pressure of lane changes, and the assholes that only drove 65mph in the left lane, filled me with anxiety before I even made it into the office. I would show up on raw nerves.

Once I did make it into the office, I was faced with another treacherous task I did not know how to handle. When you work in a bar there are no dead-lines or computers, there are no faxes, or files. There are only shot glasses and beer mugs or directions to the bathroom. You can only imagine the overwhelming terror I felt, when I was asked to send my first fax. Talk about feeling like an outsider, I was humiliated. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. I didn’t know which way the paper faced; did the paper go up or down? Did the paper go in a tray, or did I have to lift the lid of the machine? I didn’t know if I had to dial a “1” before the fax number? I certainly did not want to ask anyone, because then they would know I didn’t belong here.

I stood over that fax machine for a good ten minuets sweating and contemplating, when a nice lady came by and saw the trepidation on my face. She gently took the paper from my hands and quietly showed me what to do with out making a big deal. I was puzzled by the fact that she didn’t laugh out loud or start to protest to the other employees that I didn’t belong there. I was sure she would have announced to everyone there was a fraud in the building.

When it came to typing, not only had I never typed a professional letter, I had never typed anything ever. Overwhelmed with so many keys, letters, numbers and F1-12 choices, I could only type with my index finger on my right hand. I had to search for every single letter on the keyboard. I would scream inside my head, after becoming totally frustrated, “I KNOW THERE IS A FREEKING X ON THIS KEYBOARD SOMEWHERE AROUND HERE!!” It took me practically took me an hour to type a single sentence and even with spell check the words were still incorrect.

Typing, as difficult as that was on its own, also involves grammar. This was (and still very much is) yet another obstacle, yet another skill, that separated me from the other employees. Grammar was more like speaking in the Chinese language to me. Colon? What the hell is a colon? When do you use a colon? Why do you use a colon? Isn’t that a body part? I wouldn’t dare ask anyone other than my father, (who also worked there and begged my boss to give me a job to try and save my life) for fear of making a complete ass out of myself.

During the first six months of my office employment, after being shipped to yet another department within the company, my father trained me hands on. He did not accomplish a single thing for himself in the office. His whole job was reduced to answering all of my questions or making up his own questions which he would quiz me on all day. I went with my father out to visit his clients. I took home insurance policies to read and study. I went out and bought a computer. The office manager gave me a disk to use at home to learn how to type. The fact that I had a computer afforded me the opportunity to send home all of the different insurance carrier’s websites to study as well.

Although I was learning a lot, and challenging myself, there was still a difficult hurdle to make it through the “career changing process.” I was not able to communicate at all, on any level, to anyone. Just thinking about having to talk to someone intimidated me. When I heard the other women talking, I thought of witty things I could say to say to join the conversation, but instead of talking with them, I doubted my ability to say what I was thinking clearly. I was so uneasy; I thought if I spoke out loud I would trip over the words before they came out of my mouth. Rather than take a chance, I played it safe. I kept my mouth shut, and as a result, I remained isolated.

I never wanted to get up from my desk to walk to the bathroom; I thought everyone was watching me. (That’s probably some ego issue I should one day consider looking at). I was convinced everyone was talking about me. I was so insecure and struggling with the tough adaptation to this new world. Of course, the paranoia of every one looking at me, or talking about me, was mostly in my own head. I was feeling so uncomfortable in my own skin; I kept myself an outsider by not being a part of anything office related.

I would go home at night and cry about how hard this was, thought about how no one liked me. I would try to practice typing, or read about specific insurance coverage’s but I would get so frustrated if I didn’t get it, or understand things right away. When I felt like giving up, I stayed up all night and thought of ways to call out of work. I even bought a medical dictionary so I could look up good excuses to use. I worried that I had made a terrible mistake. I had to convince myself, if I was ever going to make it in an office; I was making things harder than they had to be. I forced myself to put down my pity-pot and do the best I could no matter what the final outcome.

It was another six months in to the office world, a full year from starting date, when I was acclimated to the traffic, the clothes, the fax and copy machine. I was even using up to three fingers while typing on the keyboard, when I finally got up the courage to go and eat lunch with one of the other women of the office. Guess what? Lunch wasn’t totally terrible!! In fact, it was fun!!

I went to lunch with a woman because she thought I was funny. For the first time in a year in the office I felt like I could be myself around someone. This first interaction, as trivial as it may seem, was the catalyst in my finding a comfort zone within the confines of the office. Just having that one person to relate to was a sigh of relief, and made waking up in the morning, and going into work that much easier. Eventually I was able to say, “Good Morning,” to people in the office if they made eye contact with me.

I never thought back then, I have would be gainfully employed at the same company for over five years now.

But 5 years later…. after all my hard work, all of the changes I have made, and all my growth….being out of the office for over a week, away from all the people I am right back to feeling just like that awkward outsider. I don’t know why? But, I am really nervous to go back to work. I guess still don’t think of myself as a professional. Or it’s the personal guilt I still harbor. I still don’t see myself as some business woman. I still don’t feel like I fit in. Yet, I would NEVER want to go back to that OTHER life. I have worked too hard to become who I am… (who ever THIS is, because I am still UNSURE) ….I am going back to work in the morning. It is only for one day (Friday) and then I will have the whole weekend to spend in the world where I am most comfortable. (Here, on my blog, where I am one click away from friends).

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  • Hang in there. Does it count that I was the principal of a school and decided very quickly not to do it anymore? I’m at home thinking about the next thing to do. Something completely different. And I have thought of the job you describe…

  • Meleah

    DONT EVEN GO THERE… NOT EVEN FOR A VISIT. DO NOT GO DOWN THAT ROAD..

    (I would never want someone else have to go through the road I went down)

    but… wow… why did you quit? what was IT that you suddenly didn’t want to do anymore?

  • Hey Melz,

    I just got caught up on what’s going on in your world. I can relate to the 5 year thing. I left LA 4 1/2 years ago for Atlanta and here I still am. I’ve been in sales and event planning (hospitality) since I arrived. Interesting choice coming from the music LA scene. Anyway, as I try to stay connected to what’s up with you through your blog, (which I love to read) I thought about the teachings we learned at Cascade and the other tools out there for our well being and wondered, have you watched, The Secret?

  • Meleah

    HOLLY! I love you! I miss you! when are you coming to NYC? soon right? hahahah I will be all over THAT!

    ps….. is there a 5 year ITCH? that makes you evaluate? or need to change / evolve? no one sent me a memo… please advise…

  • Meleah,
    After a LOT of years, I decided that just because I was good at something didn’t mean I had to do it. Being good at is doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for you. Plus — and it’s a big one — I was having severe anxiety attacks and female gut type issues that had to be taken care of. Blood pressure. Weak, huh?

    Life is meant to be explored. I gave at that office. I need to find another one!

  • Meleah

    Kelly, That is what I am going thru… stress that makes me sick, mentally, emotionally, ect… I wish I had the resources and TIME to find where I belong.. Thanks for being so open and honest! You are AWESOME!

  • FV

    Life can be hard, its full of s**t and often throws a curve ball when least expected. You have managed to keep some of your sanity Mel. Damn life…. how about a canoe trip when you get healthy! there is a canoe renting place over in Princeton, a little less stress can add more years to your life. and by the way Mel, the water at the D&R canal is very shallow so there is a good chance of not drowning 🙂

    FV

    🙂

  • FV

    Can I sing the Oscar Mayer bologna song again???

    hahahaha

    FV

  • Mel, this post is like poetry to me, truly. You are so honest and vulnerable and your angst at being the outsider is something every one on this planet can relate it. I feel like an outsider in my life, with people. No one at work or on the outside can detect this; I exude confidence and a sense of belonging, but always underneath is that sotto voce, scratchy mantra of “You don’t belong here. You don’t belong anywhere.”
    You have come so far …..overcome so many obastacles and wolfed down challenges. How brave you are…

  • Well I was a front desk receptionist, with very little college, up and quit after I was pregnant with #2, started a daycare, quit, now the longest job I have had is a stay at home mom! going on 5 years !

  • So much to say here. First, stick with this book you’re doing. You’ve got some very real stories to tell and if you can tie it all together, you’re going to have something very special here. Just my hunch, take it for what it’s worth.

    Also, the outsider thing is something I felt also when I got my first big job with a big, evil nationally known TV station. I stuck with it and got another job that I feel at peace with. Even so, I still have no clue what I’m doing either. I think our passions are in writing and until we are published or produced we’ll keep feeling like this.

    Also, anxiety seems to be the order of the day. I went to the ER thinking I was dying. Actually my long distance girlfriend shoved me into the car and dorve me off, I tried to tough it out. Dumb move, glad she was there or who knows what.

    As for commutes, would you belive that while I’m in CT and my job is in southern CT, it takes me longer to get there than my coworkers from Jersey!?!? No kidding, people from Jersey get to my job faster than I do. I was almost ready to move there. Odd!

  • Don’t you just hate it when anxiety and intimidation take over your personality???? Been there…and it made me feel so pathetic and weak. I guess it happens to all of us when we feel we are “out of our element”.

  • I love change!
    I initiate it often. I upset the status quo. I move the goal posts.

    But, right now. I am so comfortable, I don’t want to.
    Well, not much anyway..

    I too, decided not to go back to teaching two years ago and have been writing my book. Disappearing up my bottom, to be more specific…

    There were a few reasons…too many to mention…
    but I know I did the right thing.

    You have too, darling…
    and you will feel right back at home when you return from your sick bed.
    We are our own worst enemies, aren’t we…

    xx

  • Mereb, I’m so happy Random highlighted this post.

    I think what you did in changing careers was amazingly courageous, and I am even more impressed that you hung in there that for that entire first year. It is so obvious through your blog what a special person you are. I’m so glad that the people you work with are now able to see how fortunate they are to have you around.

    Just be yourself, Meleah, you’ll attract the cool and fun people you’d rather hang out with anyway. 😉

  • Meleah

    Aww… HollyGL! THANK YOU

    I was shocked, and happy, and a million other emotions when Random highlighted this post! It was hard to write. But I am GLAD I DID IT!

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