Just over a year ago, I quit my full-time job. During the 10 years leading up to that moment, I always put work first and myself second: I spent countless nights at my desk until the lights went out. I’d work through lunch all the way until 6 p.m. before realizing that I hadn’t eaten, taken a sip of water or had a bathroom break. My goal was to reach the top of a lifestyle magazine’s masthead as editor-in-chief. I kept telling myself that sacrificing my time, energy (and ultimately, my mental health) would eventually be worth it.
But I was losing steam and when the magazine I worked for unceremoniously shut down, the dream completely lost its lustre. I felt utterly helpless and out of control of my own career. As I waited to find out what team I would be transferred to, I started having daily panic attacks at my desk. I realized that I couldn’t Self-Care Sunday my way out of this rut. One day a week spent doing face masks while watching The Office was nice, but it wasn’t a sustainable way to keep going.
I went to visit my doctor, who put me on stress leave. I bought a subscription to the Calm app and started meditating daily, and scheduled appointments with therapists and life coaches. I suddenly had time and space to ask myself some important questions—mainly, why was I prioritizing the chase for my dream job over taking care of myself?
Vesna Antwan, a Montreal-based life coach, had the same feelings when she quit her corporate gig at 45. She pointed out to me that this is how internalized capitalism works: We tie our worth to our productivity. A child of immigrant parents, Antwan emphasizes that racialized women especially are often taught to work through any unhappiness that comes with work. “Women are not encouraged to rest or slow down, and we often feel guilty when we do. We forget that we are worthy solely based on our existence,” she says.
After being forced to slow down, I made two lists: One for what I did not want out of my job and one for what I wanted the most out of it. The main takeaway was that I wanted freedom from the corporate 9-to-5 structure, which meant going freelance made the most sense. I was terrified of giving up consistent paycheques and benefits, but decided my mental health was worth it. I quit my job at the end of January 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The idea of isolating solo made me feel even more uncertain about my future. I decided to give up my beloved one-bedroom apartment in Toronto and move two hours away to rent out my parents’ basement, leaving my friends and favourite cafes behind. Like so many others who left the city around the same time, I couldn’t really afford the rent anymore anyway—or the overall cost of living. Saying goodbye to the first apartment I ever had all to myself was bittersweet. I moved in at 22, right after landing my corporate gig, and I shed some tears over all the fond memories while packing. But I was excited to start over somewhere new, leaving my Uber bills behind, and I didn’t look back when I left for the last time.
Once I settled in, I tried to lean into my new, flexible schedule: I started sleeping in until 10 and drinking my coffee before checking emails. I traded meetings for strolls around the backyard checking on the flowers. I had obtained the number one thing on my list of needs, but any time I wasn’t working, I felt like I was failing. In speaking to other freelancer friends, I realized I was far from alone. It turns out doing nothing takes practice. I’ve started meditating again, focusing on gratitude to help steer myself back into the present moment so that I can actually enjoy the life I’ve created.
I had a ton of privilege in that I was able to quit: I’m single, I don’t have kids and I have supportive parents. In reality, most folks aren’t able to just walk away from full-time employment. That’s why, Antwan says, small, daily intentional practices are so crucial to our emotional health. She coaches her clients to establish what she calls a “wellbeing quadrant.” Draw four squares on a piece of paper: One for emotional needs, one for creative, one for intellectual and one for physical. In each of those squares, write out three or four acts (calling a friend, reading a book, dancing) that fulfill you. Keep it somewhere visible and try to do at least one of those things each day.
I used to put so much stock in annual performance reviews, waiting on my bosses’ approval before celebrating my major achievements. Now, I’ve set a new benchmark for success: How I show up for myself. “In an Instagram world, we’re often looking to others to give us external validation, but it’s so important to give it to ourselves,” says Antwan. Every few months, she journals about her own recent accomplishments, from going for walks and having impromptu dance parties to spending phone-free time with her child. I still wake up feeling anxious all the time (honestly, who doesn’t these days?), but taking my anti-depressant meds, sitting in the sunshine for a half hour, belly-laughing with my best friend—those are all things I try to celebrate now.