That’s what Casey called it earlier this year at a meeting with support staff when I announced my pending retirement. At the time she was referring to my attitude and demeanor at work, the way I walked and smiled more easily, my face starting to look less like a roadmap as the stress lines began to fade. Decades of cumulative work stress had secretly built an invisible burden that finally became too big to manage, a burden not so invisible after all.
It all started the weekend before Thanksgiving with an unexpected visit to the Emergency Room. Waking in the middle of the night with nausea and chest pain, by the time my husband drove me to the ER hours later I was experiencing every textbook symptom of a heart attack. Nitroglycerin didn’t stop the pain, it took something in an IV to do that. A battery of cardio tests, all of which I aced, and thirty hours in the hospital later I was handed a diagnosis of “acute chest pain” and released if I promised to follow up with my doctor. Residual chest pain, muscle spasms in the upper left section of my back and extreme fatigue made sure I didn’t return to the office the following week. Instead I worked from home, meeting deadlines and making progress on projects, wondering what was wrong with me.
At the follow up appointment my doctor asked me a bazillion questions, most of them about my job. He didn’t just want a job title or summary, he wanted details. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t focused more on my physical symptoms. He reviewed my test results, consulted his notes, then said, “You didn’t have a heart attack, but I can assure you that’s where you are headed if you don’t seriously reduce the scope and hours of your job.”
He explained that my symptoms were specifically stress related and helped me understand the difference between the arteries that were constricting blood flow in my situation versus the arteries that constrict blood flow when there is coronary disease. Having held positions of significant responsibility and stress for decades, I asked him the obvious question. “Why am I experiencing these symptoms now after all these year?” “You aren’t going to like my answer,” he said, “but your body can’t physiologically handle the multi-scope and demands of your job. You aren’t 40 anymore.”
Translation – I was too old to do my job like I used to and headed down heart attack avenue if I didn’t make a change.
I spent some time researching Dr. Internet learning about variant angina and coronary artery spasm diagnosis. This type of angina and CAS are often misdiagnosed as a panic attack or gastro problem. Thankfully my doc knows his stuff, and what I have is treatable with a change in lifestyle. God had given me a wake-up call and I had a choice to make.
Retirement was a big decision. I had been in the work force non-stop for 45 years. I enjoyed my job and liked the people I worked with. The job was a good fit and I was blessed to have respect and friendship in the workplace. Oh, and the paycheck. There was that. The thought of leaving the stress behind was enticing, particularly given the motivation from my doc. I knew I would stay in touch with my friends. But leaving my source of income and paid benefits was scary. It felt weird to think I’d be taking money out of my retirement fund instead of putting it in. Did I have enough? Was my retirement budget realistic? My husband and I had talked about it of course, and had been careful to plan for it. Eventually. I didn’t feel old enough to be retired. But health comes first. We talked, considered and prayed for two months. Then I decided to DO IT.
Once the decision was made I was astonished at how I felt. The stress started to roll off me, the leftover chest pain and back spasms ceased. I hadn’t realized how much I had been affected by the stress of my job. Some people – my husband comes to mind – never have work stress. But I’m not like that. Not even close. And now I was so ready to make the change I surprised myself.
The hardest part was cleaning out my office, 16 years of accumulated stuff – files, coffee cups, desk accessories, pictures. My collection of Queen items gifted over the years. The easy part was wearing jeans whenever I wanted – what were they going to do, fire me? The awkward part was knowing my friends were happy for me but sad that we wouldn’t be seeing each other daily. They didn’t like the “R” word.
So here I am. Except for a little part-time project work I’m in full-blown “R” and loving every moment. Doing the things I love to do and amazed at how easy the transition was for me, a certified poor transitioner. Starting to write more and excited about having my blog posts land in your inboxes.
Drunk with Freedom. That pretty much covers it.