Less than two months ago, I left the working world. Today, I’m a grad student in a foreign country. If you’d asked me two years ago, when I was working in a Frank Gehry-designed office on Sunset Blvd, I would have laughed at the mention of grad school. Really, give up this paycheck when I’m on a roll, tearing through the glass ceiling? Since then I took it down notch by notch. First, a stint in London, supported by my fiancée. Then a year in Toronto working at an agency, living in a high-rise, and traveling around the world to friends’ weddings as a bridesmaid. But deep down, I was feeling lonely, and as time passed, I realized I hadn’t used my talents for years and years. Something had stood in my way …
As an undergraduate, I suffered from mysterious abdominal pains that were at odds with my hunger to learn and excel. Only to the professors with whom I was very comfortable could I divulge my reasons for bolting out of class mid-exam in a cold sweat. The pains really began in high school, after track team pasta loads—I therefore attributed my stomach problems to nerves. Eight years later, I was diagnosed with celiac sprue, an auto-immune disease in which the digestive tract reacts violently to wheat gluten. I remember being frustrated at my ignorance of something so simple—I could have done so much if only I’d not eaten any bread! My academics, my social life, my own self-esteem—all had been plagued by this disease. I was determined to make up for lost time—I was to be a fierce career-woman!
So for nearly a decade I worked my way up the corporate ladder, and seemingly enjoyed myself in the meantime. I had fabulous friends, jet set vacations, a personal trainer, and a loving family. Stress, however, was eating away at me. I was considering abandoning ship, when serendipity happened. My last year in Los Angeles, I met my future fiancée, at work, of course! I loved his commitment to ideas, to being an auto-didact. Like me, he struggled with the futility of earning a good living. What joy did our paychecks really bring? We were far from family and a real community, and we were surrounded by status symbols of false lifestyles. Peers strove to attain more “things” to hide the discontent with their minds alone. We were tired of the outward excesses and innate emptiness of the young professional life. So, on a whim, we both applied to a small graduate school in Switzerland. After eight months of paperwork, visas, permits, and explanations, we left for Europe.
Four suitcases were all that accompanied us. We left an aloe vera plant—his first gift to me. A guitar—to a young and eager friend. My designer wardrobe went to consignment. But there was something else too massive to fit in my suitcase—others’ expectations of me. I knew in my heart that I was trading in the vision of a wedding and a home for something much more real to me.
All things I thought I was giving up, I hardly miss these days. The time I used to spend in gym classes, I now spend walking to class with friends, in daily awe of nature. And the hours spent prepping for work projects, I read my textbooks with uncommon glee. Before Switzerland, I could hardly go for a week without a deep tissue massage; these days, it’s not an option, and therefore the pain doesn’t exist. Each month in LA, I’d have a luxurious facial. Today, I look in the mirror and shrug, knowing my fiancée is blind to the imperfections of the low-maintenance me. After my celiac diagnosis, I would obsess about eating loads of vegetables every day. I was a serious health -nut, and wouldn’t dream of eating a piece of salami. My food pyramid these days is a fine balance of full-fat cappuccino, cheese (both made from cows I see roaming in the mountains outside my window), and Nutella. While I previously enjoyed being lavish with gifts and entertaining, I now bring a bottle of Italian table wine to class dinners. The modesty of life here is the charm.
I’ve realized that the less I have, the more I can give back. My fiancée and my family can enjoy the real me: the girlishly-enthusiastic bookworm, the avid linguist, the contrarian debater, and the dependable Skyper. I gave up a selfish lifestyle that was driven by compensation—to become someone my sisters and my future children can respect and emulate. Plus, without a job, I have the time to both challenge my professors as peers while encouraging and teaching my younger classmates.
This decision to leave a career in my wake had seemed so daunting, but so very exciting! Really, in retrospect, it was the easiest, most rational decision of my life. And it’s not the adventure in life these days—it’s the peace.