Nuking my life and starting over: Part I
As I consider a huge life change moving to Canada, I think about the last time I blew up my entire life and where it led me.
Since May 2022 when Roe v Wade was struck down, I’ve had singular focus on one goal: trying to leave the US. I had to explain this week to several different people what “I’m built different” meant, as I reflected on all the people I know who have pledged to leave the US in recent years but never went. I’m torn between realizing I’m not special, just have luck and some circumstances on my side, against the backdrop of how quickly and seriously I sprung into action. I can’t unravel what’s luck and what is worth being proud of, but oh well.
Immediately after it became real though, I felt a sense of awestruck forboding at the amount of work, and money it would take to make this happen. I need to paint, install floors, and get new windows for my 2600 sq ft house so that I can rent it out, probably blowing twenty thousand dollars on that overnight. When I get to Canada, I’ll be on a work permit in a country where I don’t know a soul. Stupid nagging thoughts intrude, like “how does recycling work in Canada?”. There is no sense of logic or priority governing which intrusive thoughts intrude, or when. It is a disordered cyclone of teeming worry.
Thanks for reading JTK’s Substack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
To make myself feel better, though, I keep returning to the last time I blew up my life, and where it took me. (Content warning, death, mental health, its a heavy read but a happy ending fwiw)
10 years ago, in 2013, I was pretty lost. I cycled between school, trying to take care of my dad after his health began failing in 2010 (he would pass in 2015), and trying to figure out what to do with my life. Eventually that led me to nannying in Haymarket, a hoity-toity exurb of DC.
The family I nannied for were former military, but progressive, and at first I had high hopes we’d get along. The two kids I watched were funny and wonderful and I quickly became known as the fun one around the neighborhood. Watching the kids for a week while the parents were out of town, I coordinated a massive water balloon fight for all the neighborhood kids. I’d buy prizes from Five Below to encourage good behavior for the younger kid, who struggled with managing emotions.
Sadly, I soon realized I would not be able to deal with the parents. “Sleeping with the enemy” level of household coordination was required, down to cans in the pantry all being organized with labels lined up and facing forward. Every load of laundry needed the detergent cartridge pulled out and washed, to prevent mold. The mother, a civil engineer, seemed to have misplaced energy from not working that went into hovering and micromanaging me out of boredom, despite me being “the best nanny they’d had”.
The bigger issue was the dad, who had some fancy job with FEMA and was prone to explosive temper. It was clear the youngest kid picked up on his outbursts and his temper and moods were similar. It felt futile to try to deal with the son’s behavior while the dad was modeling that same temper back to the kid.
More irking were the contradictory demands. The dad was raised “traditionally”, and the mom conveyed to me that he wanted dinners that took a long time to cook. I asked what the difference was if the meal was good, how long it took to cook? She was adamant that even if he couldn’t tell the difference, and liked my dinners already, he wanted home-cooked meals that took a long time to make. The utter pointlessness of it was too much for me.
I turned in a written resignation, which the mom sort of laughed at like it was presumptuous for domestic help to do, but whatever. They pretended to be nice after yelling at me in the immediate aftermath of me telling them I was quitting, and on one of my last days took me to Subway as a “goodbye” dinner with both boys.
I told the mom that I planned to move to DC and get a security clearance, get into government work. As someone with no money I put two and two together that it might protect me to have one, might let me make a living. Although she wasn’t outwardly rude in response I could definitely tell she was incredulous, that me some random nanny would make it into her and her husbands world.
One long, broke year later in 2014, I would get my Secret clearance. I still made a pittance but saw a path out. Look at me now, incredulous Nanny Mom. That wasn’t so hard, was it? I thought of writing to the kids I nannied many times. Then with the clearance, I thought of writing back and dropping that information just to be spiteful to the skeptical parents. I eventually deemed the idea too petty and thought it better for the kids to forget me. I never wrote.
It was in 2014 that a few important things happened:
I began recruiting, and saw that my 35k salary was ridiculously low once I had access to seeing the salary for positions and listed prior salaries of candidates
I began my first of three cursed apartment rental experiences, this one was a house in West Baltimore where we discovered a pest problem was due to a massive hole from inside the building to plumb outside, big enough for a raccoon to walk through. The landlord threatened to sell the place when we complained
I had my first education allowance at a job, and spent the whole thing. I went to do ITIL Foundation and Intermediate certifications with a bunch of network engineers from Ft. Meade. I went in expecting to maybe not pass. I wound up getting 95%+ grades on both exams. I wound up wondering if there was actually more for me out there
In 2015, I made my first disastrous foray into startup world. I felt hideously out of place. I’d never used a Mac computer before or worked in a cult of personality. The Series B startup was led by a 20-something man named Rami, who ignored me in favor of a male recruiter hired at the same time.
(He’d later be ousted from the startup with rumors of him hiring and laying off a rotation of administrative assistants with the goal of hooking up with them. The startup brought in a female CEO for, among other things, reputation rehab after quietly pushing him out years afterward. Shortly after, it was sold off to another company and the CEOs unprofessionalism was effectively laundered away. Years later, I’d see him on Twitter yapping about feminism.)
I started noticing that the other recruiter wasn’t doing anything around the same time I noticed that I was being left out of meetings, conversations, and emails.
After one conversation with the CEO (who was overinvolved in hiring and slowed it considerably, he’d hijack salary negotiations and change agreed-upon budgets and candidates would walk) I recommended a higher salary band, and the room froze in awkward discomfort at my disagreement with the CEO’s choice. I immediately realized I’d misstepped and pulled back, after, no longer voicing any dissent, realizing that dialogue was not wanted.
Even so, the damage was done. When a personal friend of the CEO who left the startup to be on a reality TV show/competition didn’t win, she wanted a recruiting job back and I was unceremoniously laid off. When I returned to the office at their request to “close out” paperwork, the CEO was on the phone from SF begging me to remove the negative Glassdoor review I’d left after the debacle.
Shattered as I was by a first layoff, even I realized how ridiculous both he and the entire experience had been. In response to the bad review, I answered “isn’t there no way of knowing who leaves reviews? I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about”. I walked out smirking while he hung awkwardly on the phone, and the friend/former reality TV contestant apologized under her breath for the silliness of the encounter.
Although normally a layoff would have shattered me, the more distance I got from the startup and the more absurd I found the whole thing. I had moved from West Baltimore to an apartment in Bailey’s Crossroads, the Washington Monument visible from the high-rise complex.
Before even getting furniture, I was driven by one all-consuming thought: I could finally have a pet. And so Bark Obama came home.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I’d moved from Baltimore to DC for the startup, and now here I was with DC rent and an apartment with barely any furniture and a dog to care for.
I took it in stride though, as well as I could. Compared to when I was free-falling as an unqualified nanny and had to scrap my way up from $11/hr admin to $13/hr recruiter to $15/hr recruiter, I had a lot going for me: the security clearance, two technical certifications. Although ITIL wasn’t hard, it proved I was no dummy, not one of those recruiters who shied away from technical knowledge. I was most of the way through studying for a PMP cert too, and craftily worded the brief resume to emphasize the trajectory, that I was making moves. The brief startup stint was quietly omitted from the work history.
I quickly found a remote job at another government contracting firm. I was pulled off of IT-based recruiting and thrown onto staffing the Obama administration’s flagship environmental effort through the Department of Energy, the EERE program. I studied fuel cells and wind power. I liked it less than dealing with tech people.
Quickly, I realized my boss was not who I truly answered to, but instead the EERE program manager, Faith, ruled almost all of us, including the small contracting firm’s CEO. Faith had been on the project prior to this firm winning it from a competing company. After our win, a smear campaign had been run around the “incumbents” or current EERE contractors, who wanted nothing to do with us, even though Faith had commanded we were to hire all of them. Our budget was unimpressive, adding to our woes.
I painstakingly tried building relationships with the incumbents, but was met with a mix of hostility, unresponsiveness, and skepticism. I spoke up telling Faith that the climate among these incumbents seemed poor and that we should begin looking at external candidates since it seemed we would lose many of the incumbents. Faith did not appreciate this perspective, and again it became clear: I had spoken up when no one wanted me to. This woman had no interest in hearing some random twenty-something-year-old girl’s hot take on her program. The fact that I was right was irrelevant. (We wound up hiring many of my non-incumbent candidates, even though I wasted an enormous amount of time doing what Faith wanted).
My schedule, to accommodate Faith, was insane. She would be unavailable by cell while in the Department of Energy (DoE) stronghold for her entire working day, so staffing updates would occur in rambling two-hour sessions with Faith from 5-7 pm or later. After my misstep speaking against Faith’s recommended strategy for staffing, I tried to correct, to diligently follow her every wish and get past her clear dislike. To no avail.
It quickly went past simple dislike. Faith was so busy with the new program that it was clear she was not getting through all of her email. She would frequently say in email chains with my boss or the CEO that I had not updated her on candidates, or not sent her resumes. After several polite, private reminders that I HAD sent things, it was clear she either intended or didn’t care about how bad she was making me look. I began forwarding emails to the entire chain of people, each time she’d say I hadn’t sent her something. The forward would dutifully contain the timestamp, showing I had indeed emailed Faith when I said I had. The move likely seemed passive-aggressive, but I was at my wits end.
On September 20th 2015 I was babysitting a friends Great Dane in Shirlington, near Alexandria. Bark and her dogs, Major and Minor, were splayed out on the parquet floor. I received the call I’d known was coming for years, that my dad was dead.
My dad’s death, even though entirely expected was catastrophic for me. I think maybe because of the pain of trying to take care of him for years and years, seeing that all that effort and misery meant nothing in the end. Something about the futility of it. It was somehow entirely predictable, obvious, banal, and the most excruciating and astonishing pain I’d ever felt.
The only other recruiter at my work left for maternity leave shortly before my dad’s death, so the week he died there was still only me to run the EERE recruiting effort. I set something like 70 meetings the very day after he died. Our company was flying out to Colorado to the headquarters of the company and wanted to have “intro” meetings with 70 personnel. So yeah, I set literally 70 meetings.
I got something like three days of bereavement leave and that was it. It is hard to remember that time. I fell apart so badly that I was neither eating nor sleeping and my cognition felt slow and feeble as a result. It was bad enough that I inquired about disability leave with HR, for more or less a “mental health crisis”. I told them I wanted to try to work through it though, and not to share it with anyone while I deliberated.
They shared it with people against my will, and then laid me off. It was surreally illegal. Because my mental state was already trash and we had one of those binding arbitration clauses, I didn’t spend long thinking about suing or anything else, despite the fact that it was clearly illegal af.
Fall turned into winter. Instead of bouncing back, I deteriorated futher. Months stretched by. I got another position, but was barely holding it together through panic attacks to do the job. When not working, I laid on my floor and watched Dexter for a repeated blur of weeks or maybe even months. I took up chain smoking (ew).
After long enough feeling like that, I hit a low point that I’d never thought I’d see: I didn’t see the point to living if the level of pain was just going to continue on like that. I had always felt like my survival instinct could surpass anything that hit me. It was important to learn, for me, how life is like dominos. How enough things in a row and anyone, no matter how resilient, can reach lows they’d never imagine.
You may wonder why I’m telling anyone this. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel ashamed if you have no sense of shame to begin with. People SHOULD talk about these things more, I don’t care what anyone thinks of me for saying it. It also was a singular, one-time event. I responded how I responded. The crushing layoff(s) back to back followed by a death mixed with my depression disability status being leaked to coworkers against my will, it was too much stacked on top of each other. Even for a strong person.
But something about reaching that low, considering ending things - I didn’t take any action. The thought alone (“ideation”, they call it) was enough of a wake-up call that it snapped something inside me back into place. I had always had a voracious appetite for life, I had always believed in myself above all else. Even having the thought was shocking and alarming enough to me that it jolted back some type of internal balance.
I have written in in a journal from that time period, “If you’re going to go crazy, may as well do it right”. So that’s exactly what I did.
First, I resigned from my job. I had nothing else lined up. I walked away from my security clearance.
Second, I became obsessed with the idea of catahoula leopard dogs. I spent hours online looking at them, and eventually flew to Louisiana to rescue one. And that’s how Dani girl came home. She was named both for my dad (Dan) and the book Danny Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl, about a dad’s relationship with their kid.
With nothing to do all day for the first time in my life I was in a sort of suspended, half-comatose state, but Dani at least got me on some sort of schedule. That was the first foothold in the long path to walk out of the hole I was in.
I spent most all of my days at dog parks with Bark and Dani. I hiked, willingly, for the first time in my life - I felt better, somehow, outside.
Then I became obsessed with the idea of leaving DC.
Then I became obsessed with the idea of leaving recruiting altogether.
My family, who I’d told about my dark thoughts thought I was losing my mind. I was, I knew, but I knew what I was doing, I swatted the concern away like a pesky insect. I knew it might look, outwardly, like madness, but with Dani breathing life back into my days and the series of random obsessions that I allowed to consume me, I had a purpose once again. I slowly turned back into a human being. Could eat. Could sleep.
But if my family thought my return to the world of sanity meant I would abandon my new obsessions, they were completely wrong.
The twin preoccupations of leaving DC and leaving recruiting consumed me. I looked at programs for cybersecurity, networking, programming. I looked at schools, bootcamps, and certifications. I looked at towns, cities, and states. What seemed outwardly like a complete mental breakdown and entirely rambling thinking was actually profoundly clear, and organized, just with the convoluted inner logic of a dream, the pragmatism ordered around axis invisible and incomprehensible to anyone else.
I don’t remember how I landed on software engineering, but it was one rapidfire random decision after another. Each stupidly bold decision I made felt entirely perfect and preordained the moment I made it. Yes, of COURSE software engineering. Yes, of COURSE Raleigh, North Carolina. No matter that I had no qualifications for the field, nor any ties to the region.
My choices were completely stupid, but somehow also good? It was an intoxicating, unhinged mix of letting myself be ruled by inner desires for once instead of the “right” or “smart” thing to do, and reaction at having been brought so low and chewed up by DC and the jobs I’d had there and people I’d lost there. I entered some kind of frenetic fabulousness and was driven forward by relentless hunger and spark.
I made my entrance to bootcamp world about as smoothly as I’d make my exit from it: I began by failing so spectacularly at the Grace Hopper entrance exam that the rejection didn’t even have platitudes like “try to apply again after studying some more!”.
At the less-good bootcamp I did get into, I nearly flunked the first unit of bootcamp and finished very much in the middle of the pack of those who graduated. I bombed interviews, absolutely flailed in the face of Fibonacci code challenges, stammered through recruiter calls, stumbled through phone screens. I got poor enough that I even took a recruiting contract for a month or so there.
But I prevailed.
I can’t say I would wish for any of what happened, but I can’t truly regret most of it either: would I be here? Six figures within two years of working as a programmer. Lead in three. Bought my own house at 29. Finished the software engineering degree. Bought a beautiful home. To the surprise of myself and everyone else, fell madly in love with North Carolina. To the surprise of myself and everyone else, became a pretty damn good software engineer. Became an avid hiker. Got into better shape than I’d been since high school. Had patents issued for my work.
So as I sit here now, thinking of all the risk and turmoil and work involved with blowing up my life once again and leaving for another country, maybe it isn’t so crazy to be left with hope. That entire horrible year, 2015, cut deep, but now what am I left to think but, “I’ve done more with less”, faced with this new challenge?
Even though it was the messiest, saddest, and in some ways most pathetic point in my life it is what I am proudest of, without a doubt. That manic, foolish girl who said “if I’m going to go crazy, I’m going to do it right so fuck all y’all in DC I’m moving to North Carolina and becoming a software engineer”. The version before the success came, with no guarantee it would, who was willing to roll the dice anyway.
If you’ve made it this far thanks for reading, and I raise my glass tonight to all of us brave enough to nuke our lives and give starting over a try. We’ll see if I have one more trick up my sleeve and can make it work this time with Canada <3
Thanks for reading JTK’s Substack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.