From Workaholic to Social Activist: A New Dream Story
I didn’t plan to become a workaholic. It just kind of happened.
In 2002, when I started my first “real” job at a software company after securing a B.A. in computer science from Baylor University at age 28, I viewed my job as a means to an end. The “end” being earning enough money so that my family could be financially stable. I wasn’t overly passionate about what I was doing (we created selling solutions for DIY retailers and building supplies manufacturers), but it was interesting enough. The company required a minimum of 45 billable hours per week, so I worked through my lunch hour so I could still leave at 5 p.m. and get home to my husband and 5-year-old daughter, Rebecka.
Family came first.
Within six months, I was ready for a change. I had learned everything I could learn in my limited entry-level role, and was hoping for a job in the software engineering department. Instead, I became the company’s first product manager. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I thought it sounded more interesting than what I was doing. In this role, I gained responsibility and received frequent promotions and salary adjustments—mostly because I’m a people pleaser. I did what people asked me to do, and I did it well. I started working longer hours, and soon, my priorities changed.
Work came first.
In 2005, my husband and I decided we had sufficient funds to buy a bigger house. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? We doubled the size of our home overnight and threw a big housewarming party for our friends. At the end of the night when most people had left, I was sitting on the couch with a free-spirited colleague from New Zealand. “Congratulations!” he said. “You have achieved the American Dream. You have this great big house and no time to spend in it.”
It hit me in my core.
He was right! What was I doing? While I didn’t change my ways immediately, I think of this as the turning point in my recovery from workaholism and the accompanying consumerism. I stumbled across simple living/voluntary simplicity in my search for productivity strategies (so I could keep up with my increasingly demanding workload). I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which led me to Leo Babauta and zen habits.
It was like a whole new world.
By the time our little family moved from the South to the Midwest in 2008, I recycled, carried reusable grocery bags, and consumed less. I had also started thinking about how to make time for things that matter—and working less. But I was still a vice president at a company with the tagline “Sell Easier, Sell More.” I had a hard time reconciling my newfound values with my work. It made me sad to think about it, but with the recession going on and my husband being in a temporary teaching position at a college four hours away, I didn’t really have a choice but to keep at it.
Around the same time, Rebecka started expressing feelings of sadness and lost a lot of weight. By the summer of 2010, she was taking an antidepressant as first-line treatment in conjunction with therapy. She was hospitalized eight times the following school year as a result of unimaginable side effects of the medication. These side effects were treated by the medical establishment as real symptoms, resulting in even more medication. I knew I had to make a choice between my dysfunctional career and our family’s health.
I chose family.
In the summer of 2011, I quit my job of nine years, leaving my six-digit salary behind. Around the same time, my husband and I asked Rebecka’s doctor to withdraw all psychotropic medications. We also all moved to the small college town where my husband had secured a tenure-track position doing what he loves: molding young minds. This—and a lot of mental health skillbuilding—allowed our family to heal.
Exiting the corporate world has allowed me to pursue a number of activities and passions that I never had time for before. Since 2011, I have completed a health coaching certificate, joined the school district’s wellness committee, advocated for social and emotional learning and mindfulness in our schools, created a holistic health online directory for our town, and started teaching Swedish to a group of wonderful Swedish descendants. While I now work at Luther College, managing the website, I have negotiated a flexible work arrangement, which allows me to spend time on my number one passion: writing.
I have recently published a book, Her Lost Year: A Story of Hope and a Vision for Optimizing Children’s Mental Health, which details our journey through psychiatry hell and back and explores alternative approaches to improving kids’ mental health. More than ever, I am convinced that if we are to live happy, healthy lives, we must fundamentally change the way we live in this world. This is why I’m so excited about the work of the Center for a New American Dream and other organizations such as Transition Towns that are working hard to make this a reality.
I didn’t plan to become an activist and community organizer. It just kind of happened. Because I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than working to optimize children’s mental health. And that requires social change.
In a big way.
Tabita Green is a writer, speaker, and community organizer. Her popular blog explores the intersection of simple living, health, and social change. She is the author of Her Lost Year: A Story of Hope and a Vision for Optimizing Mental Health.