CHAPTER 4: Professional Stresses

I need to backtrack just a bit to cover what was transpiring employment-wise while the prior several years of soap opera evolved. Shortly after moving out of home, my employer at the time moved his studio from north-central New Jersey to Manhattan. The new commute was two and a half hours one-way, since I had to drive a half-hour to the nearest train station to catch a two-hour train ride to the city. Worse, I worked an evening shift that started at 5 PM and ended at 1 AM, just in time for me to catch the last train home. And yes, sometimes I missed it and had to spend the night in the train station, or I'd sleep through my stop and had to take a taxi up from Trenton to reach my car. It was unpleasant, to be sure, but it paid well.

When the studio fell on hard times, thankfully I had a backup plan: I'd developed a design for a "very special" special effects camera, one that I could build myself for a tiny fraction of the cost of a commercial unit. And so I built the camera and went into business for myself. I quickly picked up a client who had enough work for me that I could spend two days a week in the studio, and the rest of the time renovating my home. I was about to patent the camera design when the whole special effects photography industry went up in smoke owing to tremendous strides in computer-generated imagery. Work dried up, and I found myself newly-married with no job and no car, as it was just repossessed.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, I trained myself in desktop publishing, and soon found jobs through a temp agency to tide me over until I found steady work. And that's when my personal life went down the tubes. At least having a decent job allowed me to buy a condo, because there was no way I was staying in the house I shared with my ex.

Unfortunately, things just never went right right for very long. My new job turned out to be super-high-stress, as the ranks shrank and my job description grew. And then there was my condo: I'd purchased it unfinished, and suddenly the builder declared bankruptcy. I hired a lawyer to get to the bottom of it, and learned the developer was one of the biggest scam artists in the industry. I got together with other buyers in the same boat, and we pressed charges. The developer slapped some cardboard on the frame—almost literally—and called it done. (The place had no firewalls or sheathing under the siding; how he managed to get COs for the building was merely further proof he was a crook.) Then, right after I moved in, the market tanked, and within a year my condo was worth significantly less than my mortgage. Not to mention that the condo association president was a serious sadistic nutcase on a mission to make everyone's life miserable.

Things finally started to settle into a routine. Not ideal by any means, but at least there weren't any fires to put out. A professional friend at the time then started nagging me. I wasn't seeing anyone, and he wasn't happy about that. But I wasn't into the bar scene; in fact, I wasn't into any social scene, so where was I going to meet anyone? He pressured me into placing a personal ad in the local paper. So, just to shut him up, I wrote one of the most unusual personal ads likely ever published. I just listed all of my "faults": hated kids, hated parties, hated dancing, hated people.

Wouldn't you know it, I got a reply. And she even sent a photo of herself. She was adorable! We had a few differences—she liked birds, I liked cats—but that list of "faults" we shared was longer—far longer even than the one in the personal ad. Plus we both had miserable childhoods. So naturally we started dating. How could I resist? Fast-forward several months, and Laura was living in the condo with me. We had scorching fires in our loins for one another, and often sent each other erotic emails during work...

The first couple of years got a little rocky around the edges: she started having career doubts. She didn't know what she wanted to do, just that she didn't want to stay where she was. I supported her though a spate of job-hopping, but nothing was clicking. One of her stints was doing plant maintenance—as in living plants, like shrubs and flowers—at a huge pharmaceutical campus. I didn't think that was going to last, but I was patient. Ultimately, in a complete turnabout, she went back to her old job. Then she got it in her head that we should marry. I wasn't totally onboard with that, but I also didn't want to lose her. So, marry we did.

Meanwhile, my burgeoning job description was threatening to break my back. I was given the responsibility of re-designing their entire product line, while managing a multi-million-dollar trade show campaign. Oh, and our sales manager quit, so I became acting sales manager as well. I had to organize and host international sales meetings in New Orleans. (If you want to see salesmen at their very worst, send them down there.) I confessed to the owner I was at risk of burnout. That was a mistake, because a few months later I was escorted out of the building with my personal effects in a box.

There I was, once again newlywed and newly unemployed. Worse: it was my turn to be clueless as to what I wanted to do work-wise; all I knew was that I didn't want to do what I was just doing. I couldn't—I didn't have the stamina. I floundered about with some random contract work, but I was going nowhere fast, and I fell into a state of deep depression. It took a while, but my depression eventually began taking its toll on our marriage, and when Laura returned home from work one evening, she greeted me with a request for a divorce.

You know, there's that old phrase, "hitting rock bottom." I'd thought I'd hit rock bottom several times already, and each time I learned that it wasn't the bottom at all, but instead part of a steep slope with no bottom in sight. She found an apartment, moved out, and left me alone to wonder how much more depressed I could get.

Eventually I got a contract job. Not permanent, but not bad. What was bad was that the job was where Laura worked! Flip through your dictionary and find "awkward." Even more awkward: eventually I met someone there. Yes. Susan. Just looking at her set me on fire. But I was too messed up to have the confidence to pursue anything, and besides, the job was about to end. And the divorce still had to be finalized.

My world collapsed. I sat alone in the condo, immobilized, flat broke, pathetic. I was living on mac-and-cheese purchased with maxed-out credit cards. I was literally paying my Visa bills with my MasterCard and vice-versa. I was at the end of my rope. I started researching bankruptcy lawyers. Found one. Made an appointment.

Then a job prospect popped up on one of my last searches. Major pharmaceutical seeking web programmer to create web-based documentation. Shit, I knew webmastering—I was self-taught; the website I built for my last employer earned them a cool million within a year. I spent over an hour on the phone with the fellow who placed the ad, and we talked about the job for only maybe five minutes—that's an excellent sign. Interview: hired. Bankruptcy: cancelled.

My new job was a dream. More than double the salary of my last job, and they matched the four weeks of vacation I'd earned. The campus where I worked had close to seven thousand employees, a large percentage of them very attractive, very intelligent women. The "cafeteria" was really more like a fine restaurant, with al fresco dining on the edge of a lake. I had to pinch myself—several times. But wait—this was the place where my ex was doing plant maintenance! How odd was that?

Then one day, who should I spot walking down the hall my way... Susan! I worked up the nerve to invite her to lunch, and to my utter astonishment, she accepted. The only thing that exceeded her beauty was her intelligence. Spoke five languages fluently. Was 45, looked 25, still got carded at restaurants. But she was also a very unusual person—just how unusual I wouldn't know until we went on vacation together. There we were in Bermuda, one of the most romantic places on the planet, enjoying a resort with an outdoor hot tub next to a bar. Sitting in hot bubbling water, sipping cocktails and staring up at the stars—I mean, come on! But... nothing happened. The whole long weekend. Nothing. In fact, she got upset with me that I watched her get into the hot tub with lustful eyes. Any other woman would love it. WTF.

Turns out Susan was a victim of sexual molestation as a child. And that left her seriously damaged upstairs. Eventually she did consent to having sex—sort of (it felt like necrophilia)—but all that did was make me utterly insatiable, and the more I pursued her, the more she resisted. I made the best of it for as long as I could, but ultimately I didn't have the strength to carry her baggage plus mine. After about a year of incredibly frustrating awkwardness—including a very wealthy father ("I've met Harrison Ford!") waaay over-anxious to see her married off, and a frighteningly resentful stepmother younger than her—I bid her farewell. That was shortly after 9-11. The attack hit me hard enough; losing Susan was gasoline on a dumpster fire.

Consequently I suffered a nervous breakdown. I didn't want to commit suicide, but I wanted to "eradicate" myself as a person. So every photograph I'd taken, every videotape I'd shot, every piece of artwork I'd rendered, every book I'd owned, every model I'd built, everything that mattered to me, all went in the dumpster. I'd stripped myself down to the barest minimum that could survive. I was truly a nobody.

If some of the coincidences seem too much to take, bear in mind they're all absolutely true. My ex did temp where I worked. I did temp where my ex worked. My girlfriend did temp both places while I was at each place. Freaky, huh? Worse than a romcom...

Chapter 3 < TOC > Chapter 5

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