In the relative chaos of the past two years, my job has been mercifully stable. I work for a Silicon Valley tech company, and I honestly feel lucky to be here. The company was founded with a mission I care about. The people I work with are smart and diverse and awesome, and I can be myself while I do my job — more or less. I get paid well enough, and there’s room for me to grow as much as I want professionally. And, perhaps most importantly, my job supported me through the pandemic without forcing me to risk my health when it wasn’t needed. Really lucky, I am.
Recently I rolled out of bed and logged into work to find that 15% of the company had been laid off. We’d been told that we were a profitable company, and our last several quarters had met the financial plan. Then we were told that we had missed two straight quarters and market forces indicated we would have to shift our plans a bit. They were taking this measure now, and had no plans to take any further steps. If a meeting hadn’t popped up on our calendars, we were safe.
The fun thing about surviving trauma is that you never feel safe. The mark it leaves is indelible; some small part of you is hyper-aware of the ubiquity of danger, so you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it does, or even when you just think it does, the shock of it rings through you and resonates with all of your past shocks.
Suddenly, I remember the time I panicked about losing an earlier job. I remember getting the call that my sister was dying. I remember walking out of an ex-boyfriend’s house with no idea where I would go. Being mugged at gunpoint. Being disowned by my mother.
None of these are related, or even equivalent, to the shock of losing coworkers, but I feel them all over again just the same. My nervous system is ready to throw the world-blanking panic right at me, echoes of every time the world’s dropped out from under me over the years. It’s an overwhelming feeling, but one that I have been feeling more and more over the past several years. We’re a society on the cusp of great change and almost everything in the news feels like a series of dominoes falling, accelerating towards an uncertain, but certainly-bad, end.
My reaction to the news alternated in waves of scrutinizing every word in every meeting after the layoffs, then realizing that so much was out of my control all I could do was ride things out as best I could. The impulse to make sense of what was happening carried me through meeting after meeting, figuring out the best way to ask a question that would deliver some nugget, some clue in the answer. I told the person I would miss the most exactly how much she had influenced me in just a few years. I listened as older hands than I talked about the previous layoffs they had survived at this company. I absorbed. I speculated. I waited.
And, some part of me watched my brain riding the waves of grief and acceptance, knowing that the panic I felt, on some level, was just an echo of some really bad shit that happened a long time ago. Part of me was able to make sure I lived my life day by day, managing the stuff I had to do and shelving the stuff I didn’t have the cycles for. Part of me recognized that the aftershocks would continue for days, maybe weeks, and accepted each mood as it was.
That’s the benefit of experience. I know, even in the remembering of those other traumas, that I’ve lived through worse and came through it changed but intact. I know that life itself is a shapeshifter, and that I’ve been fairly different people through my teens and 20s…and 30s…and 40s…
And some part of me knows that I’ll have to face bigger, more chaotic changes yet sometime in the future. Those shocks will inevitably change me, so who I am at 50 might be a still-different version of the me here and now, at 42. I may be in a different field, in a different place, chasing different priorities. It’s impossible to know.
Knowing that life is a series of changes, not just as theory, but through living it, has prepared me somewhat for what comes next. I feel more settled about how little control I have over the world around me, and more accepting of the possibility of upheaval. I may very well lose my job early next year, and of course the thought of that scares me. But it no longer feels like the end of the world.
Even the end of the world doesn’t feel like the end of my life. If I can imagine a vastly different life at 50, I can imagine a vastly different world too. One way or another, what comes next won’t be the same as what came before. Either we will drastically change our society to live sustainably, or we’ll ride this doomed train until the wheels fall off. Either way, great change is coming.
And when it does, I hope I can remember every other seismic change in my life as preparation for the next shock. Yes, I have been through some traumatizing times, but I know I’ve come through them with the ability to piece my life back together, find a little bit of happiness. There’s a little bit of hope that, in some distant urban wasteland, there’s a version of me that has done that too, cultivated joy in a place that needs it. I can use the upheaval of now to practice the art of changing gracefully. My reaction to what comes, and how I grow through it, is about the only thing I can control.