Around six weeks before the day I lost my job as founding editor of the fashion magazine I had been running for ten years, I received a sign that maybe it was time to move on.
This came during a period of weeks when there were a great many meetings on the magazine’s future, part of an ongoing effort to adapt in the face of the altered media landscape. Even the most successful publications were going through it. But mine was not, at the moment, one of those successful publications. After leading a particularly charmed early life, during which we’d found an enthusiastic audience, surpassed profitability plans, and been widely imitated in the market, we’d hit a rough patch. Business had stalled, the pressure was on, and I secretly feared the formula we’d created — once so innovative — was being rendered obsolete. I more secretly feared I was fresh out of tricks.
During this time, a strange thing started to happen. As soon as I made my way into the building each morning, I’d lose my balance and start walking unsteadily, like a bad drunk. Then, as I sat at my computer trying to get my bearings, my vision would blur and eventually go double. After a couple of days of this, my doctor sent me for an MRI — as one might when a patient is exhibiting classic signs of a brain tumor — but, happily, this turned up nothing. Meanwhile, the episodes kept coming.
Then, one Sunday afternoon, my legs suddenly went wobbly. When I stood up, they gave out from underneath me. I was seeing double and began to speak incoherently. My arms were flailing. I didn’t know what was happening, and I was terrified.
The paramedics who came for me said I was having an anxiety attack, but it felt like something far worse (a stroke? I didn’t know then that the symptoms of acute anxiety attacks often mimic those of strokes). And of course the first thing I thought was, I hoped this didn’t screw me up for the big meeting I had on Monday.
In the days that followed this incident, I thought hard about the message my body was sending me. Already I was plagued daily by migraines that I was convinced were stress-induced, so believing that the brain could exercise such powerful control over a person’s physical self was no leap for me. And if this recent episode was any indication of that, I was not looking forward to what might come next. Still, an intense reluctance to abandon ship, coupled with an equally strong fear of the unknown, made me feel powerless to take the necessary next step.
Then one September day, the decision was made for me. When I rode the elevator up to the company’s executive floor for a meeting that my boss had put on the books late the previous afternoon, I was editor of a magazine. As I rode the elevator back down less than 30 minutes later, I was not. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been fired.
Though while that day had many, many low points as certain hard realities set in — I was not just unemployed, but unemployed with a skill set that was no longer in great demand — I felt a distinct lightness. I wasn’t feeling all that warmly disposed to my erstwhile bosses (does anyone, the day they’re bounced?), but I was acutely aware they’d done me a favor.
They say that sometimes we don’t truly realize what we are oppressed by until we are no longer oppressed by it. Before I even started packing up the first box, it was clear this was the case with me. I thought of things I no longer had to deal with — Friday sales memos, a particular under-performing staffer, petty beefs with rival editors — and felt a wave of relief that overwhelmed my sadness.
But it was more than that, too. I have heard tales of editors who took to bed and stayed in their pajamas for months after getting fired because their identities were so tied to their positions that they couldn’t imagine they, or anybody else, would respect themselves in the absence of it. On me, it seemed to have worked the other way around: I was a writer and sometime editor when I got the job, hired precisely because I did not fit the mold. The position itself all but dropped from the sky, after the company’s editorial director played a hunch and called me in for a meeting on the strength of a chat we’d had at an industry party. His idea — a magazine about shopping — clicked with me instantly. I realized this was the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come around more than once in a lifetime and ran with it. How could I do anything but?
And yet editing the magazine, even in its most successful moments, never gratified me the way writing had. As the years passed, the gap between me and my previous self — the one who’d built an identity around being a writer — only widened. When a writer I respected a great deal had mentioned that I should get back to doing some writing, I was struck by the very real belief that I had nothing to say. Once, I’d been an engaged and engaging person who derived real satisfaction from her writing. That person was gone. I became someone who spent her days plotting strategy with corporate consultants and consumer marketing folks — something I neither excelled at nor enjoyed. I barely recognized the person I’d been in those first meetings with my employers-to-be, and I liked her.
When I got cut loose, the old me reappeared almost immediately, as if she’d just been waiting for the right moment to make her entrance. Right away, the world was interesting and full of great possibility, and I once again felt like a moving piece in it. It was, in a small but real way, a miracle.
I started writing again: I decided to launch a blog about style for women in their 40s and beyond, because there isn’t a whole lot out there for people like us. The response has been fantastic. I have never felt more connected to my audience or more fulfilled by my work and am crazy about my readers, an intensely loyal, funny, and smart crew who are grateful to have found a space meant just for them, and who always keep me on my toes.
My life exists today at a completely different speed. I sit down every morning with my coffee and my computer and look out at the sun that was hidden from me for 20 years in the canyons of midtown. The dog and I take many and varied long walks. I write at the café around the corner a lot; I know everyone who works there and some of the other regulars, and we’ll chat if we see each other on the street. It’s a different way of living in the city than I’ve ever experienced, and while I do sometimes acutely miss the company of an office full of engaging co-workers, I have not once wished I could go back.
I will never earn nearly what I did in my old job. (Right now I make roughly the same amount as my old expense account.) But from the very moment I was named editor, I was aware that the gig would some day drop out of my life just as mercurially as it had popped in, so I saved and invested, and that turned out to be a smart move. As a single woman in her 40s with no interest in partnering up just to be partnered, that invested income represents a security I might not otherwise be able to claim.
It’s true that I paid a high price for that security — in stress, in disconnectedness — but I don’t regret having taken the job, ever. Most of the time I would go so far as to say that I’d probably do it all over again; there was so much that was exciting and exhilarating and fun about creating a magazine from the ground up. But next time around, I’d sharpen my internal radar and never let my working self veer too far from the person I am. I would take more deep breaths than I used to. And when it was time for me to go, I’d be the one who made the choice.