Up until a few months ago, I worked in “direct client services” in a non-profit. This is a fancy way of saying we were “on the ground,” engaging with folks who were experiencing homelessness or crushing poverty. It was fulfilling, amazing, inspiring. Except for the small fact that I went home every night feeling like I’d been repeatedly run over by a dump truck.
My job was to do new client intakes. I sat with people, listening to their soul-piercing stories and connecting them with the right services. Oh my, these were beautiful people, kind and open and brave. These were also broken people, their spirits weighed down with trauma, mental illness, addiction or world-weariness. They came seeking various resources – bus tokens, legal services, medical help, food – but their tired eyes all asked for the same thing: a safe harbor amidst the raging waters of their lives.
I showed up for this job brimming with energy. I had been waiting to do this work for my entire life. Throughout years of applications, cover letters, and interviews, I had gushed about my calling for direct service in urban poverty. I’d volunteered in non-profits and served in more behind-the-scenes roles before, but I couldn’t wait to start a full-time job doing my lifework.
Each morning, I’d walk to work full of hope for the day ahead. By the time I arrived, a line of waiting clients would have already curled down the sidewalk, a symbol of the city’s bottomless need. At 9:00 am, I’d see my first new client, whose story would rip apart a piece of that morning’s hope. Then a second rip, and a third, and countless more.
Sometimes clients were so wracked by mental illness that I couldn’t even begin to find a way into their story. Other times, they heaved with gasping sobs so heavy that could have sucked all the air out of the room. And more often than not, we wouldn’t be able to offer clients everything that they needed, so well-justified frustration would boil over into raging anger at the first person they saw. I braced myself against insults I couldn’t have imagined.
A few months after I started, I had dinner with a friend after work. I was busy telling her how much I enjoyed my position when she stopped me. “Really?” she asked. “Because you walked in here looking like a refugee from war.” True, when I’d look in the mirror at the end of the day, I saw a pair of weary, bloodshot eyes, often red from crying in the bathroom between client meetings. I’d often end up at the gym after work without any recollection of having walked there. I couldn’t sleep at night; when I did, I’d wake up gasping, feeling like every story and angry outburst was pressing down on my chest like an anvil.
But this was my lifework! This was where I was supposed to be. Even though I got out of bed more reluctantly and heavily each morning, I kept showing up convinced that I just needed one tweak to find my place. I talked with my supervisors, I signed up for training workshops, I did everything I knew to find my stride in my calling. But I was baffled to keep finding myself in the bathroom sobbing nearly every afternoon.
I’ve talked before about things that drain our wells faster than we can fill them. Sometimes, it’s easy to find these leaks and plug them. Sometimes, these leaks are in hidden the very last place you would think to look.
I was clinging so hard to the idea of my “calling” I couldn’t see the massive leak this job had punctured in my energy and joy. I wasn’t willing to process the possibility that I might have been wrong, that the gritty reality of this work was more than I could emotionally process at that time in my life. Every time I floated the idea, it looked too much like failure, so I kicked it right back out. Instead, I charged forward while the leak drained and drained until I hit rock bottom and I had no choice but to face the music: I had to find a different type of work. This nearly destroyed me, but when I finally let go, I was freed to find work that filled me instead of draining me.
Looking for the leak is terrifying. Sometimes, it’s in the most familiar parts of our lives, the ones we’d never consider changing. Sometimes, it’s found in long-held dreams, dreams formed before we really understood ourselves but that we don’t want to let go. Finding the leak means that we have to patch the leak, which might rock our worlds as we know them. But sooner or later, we have to face the leak before it bleeds us dry.
Today, I am facing my leaks, considering the parts of my life that are draining me of joy. Some of these leaks are scary; patching them will require courage. But I am reminding myself of the feeling of that slow, surprising leak and the healing that came from patching it.