Recovering from a Life of Under-Earning
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Recovering from a Life of Under-Earning

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This post was originally published on March 16, 2015.

I moved to New York when I was 25 with vague ambitions to fulfill my dreams. Like every actor/singer I knew, my dreams were big, and NYC was the only city big enough to hold them.

But, like most people in their 20’s, I fucked around for a few years. I drank, I hooked up and I got sick after drinking too much. But the thing I was best at was being broke. I still don’t know how I managed to stay drunk and pay rent back then, but I was happier than I had ever been. Who cared that I would borrow money from a friend so I could afford to get the train home and grab a slice of pizza the night before payday? I had a futon-sized bedroom in an old tenement in Harlem two blocks from 125th Street, and was surrounded by vitality and inspiration and other creative people pursuing their dreams.

The thing was, I wasn’t really going after my dreams. I was dreaming them, but ignoring them at the same time. Friends would tell me about auditions, encourage me to get headshots, tell me I was talented, but I was in a state of arrested development. My fears—of failure, of success, of my potential, of being told I was too fat—were as permanent and immutable as the gritty city and its steel skyscrapers.

Like other artists, my employment was a patchwork of part-time, flexible gigs that left enough breathing room to audition if I wanted to. I babysat, I was a receptionist, I bartended and I temped for a huge music business conglomerate (where I met my future husband). But I did not audition.

By 2001, the flexibility of five jobs was losing its luster, and I began interviewing for jobs that had more stability and predictability. I felt too old to be picking someone else’s toddler’s shit out of the bathtub and hoping I would be paid on time for my freelance office job.

Then came 9/11. I was babysitting in Soho and watched two planes fly impossibly low overhead, then crash into the Twin Towers, just out of arm’s reach. I watched the towers disintegrate—and felt my inner world implode.

It was in the months following 9/11, with the ash still in my lungs, my sleep disturbed by night terrors and PTSD having settled insidiously in my cells, that I decided to take a full-time job with the music company. It had benefits. It had stability. I told myself it was a means to an end—it would allow me to not worry about money while I pursued my creative goals in my down time. The predictability, I thought, would be a balm for my anxiety, and a Band-Aid for my biggest fear: the unknown.

I hated it. I hated the cubicles and the conference calls and the spreadsheets and the “let’s circle backs” and the “put a pin in its” and the climate of fear and the fake laughing at the boss’s horrible jokes and the rayon outfits from Ross Dress for Less I was surrounded by. I even hated the music so much that I stopped listening to music altogether. I hated the commuting, I hated the hours. The emails, the hovering and the micro-managing. More than anything, I hated how miserable everyone else was, and all their complaining about everything from the last meeting to how horribly we were being treated to the weather. I was miserable surrounded by misery.

In all that time, I received one promotion, and zero raises. I left with boxes of CDs of mediocre bands, workout t-shirts from the back of a promo guy’s closet and useless band stickers—the sum total of 13 years of dedicated, underpaid, unappreciated service to a corporation that didn’t even know I existed.

Why did I stay so long at a job I hated? I asked myself that question every day, year after year, as my head hit the sides of the glass box of middle management; I could see out, but I couldn’t get out.

Over time, my misery manifested itself in a progression of disordered food behaviors that included daily binges at my desk and nightly ice cream/donut/cheeseburger deluxe numbing in front of a Real Housewives of Anywhere marathon, and I found my way into a recovery program for food addiction. I heard other people talk about their lives expanding in ways they never thought possible. They talked about how their Higher Power was doing for them what they couldn’t do for themselves. I was desperate and out of ideas in every area of my life, so I gave myself completely to the care of my fellow addicts and, bit by bit, I put the food down, and I started to feel better.

By this time, I understood that I had been suffering from PTSD all those years since 9/11. I never received any counseling or help with the symptoms because, like a lot of PTSD sufferers, I didn’t think what I experienced that day warranted real help. My survivor’s remorse was nothing compared to the first respondents and families whose lives were torn apart when the towers collapsed. So now I focused on my recovery, and even though I believe I was destined from birth to latch onto something to manage my feelings, I also saw my bingeing as a symptom. The feelings I was trying not to feel were too big for me, and the food made them easier to bear.

In recovery, I found myself building the creative life I had always imagined having—with an agent, auditions, bookings, rehearsals and performances—but I still spent my days at the same desk, doing the same spreadsheets, numb and depressed, desperate for change. And meanwhile, I was living paycheck to paycheck, paying bills late, avoiding creditors’ calls and buying things I didn’t need.

Then one day in a meeting, someone shared about the “career program.” When I approached her later, she told me about Underearners Anonymous (UA), a place where people who are stuck creatively and professionally meet to encourage each other and talk honestly about their spending, their earning, their under-earning and their debts and bills and splurges and fears. People who, like me, allowed themselves to stay in miserable work situations because they didn’t think they deserved better.

I felt at home. I was inspired by the stories of career transformations, and the sharing about dollars and cents and bad credit and late payments. I both identified and qualified.

Then I quit my job.

It didn’t quite happen the way I thought it would; there were no guns blazing, no fireworks. I didn’t walk out the door backwards, flipping everyone off yelling “See ya, sukkahs!” Instead, it was sane, respectful and professional. And it happened in my Higher Power’s time.

I had a baby. I took my paid leave. I used all my vacation time. Then I found out my daughter had some (albeit minor) health problems that required physical therapy seven times a day, and I suddenly couldn’t return to my job. So I resigned.

Now I’m building a creative life one day at a time. I don’t have a book deal, or a mansion in the Palisades or a beautiful guest house office with views of the Pacific—yet. Sometimes the changes we seek happen quickly and sometimes slowly, but no matter what we still have to work for them.

And the maturity I have gained through my recovery has taught me to be grateful, even for the things that hurt me. The bingeing protected me from feelings I wasn’t ready for, and the job taught me about responsibility, accountability and suiting up, showing up and shutting up. It also taught me what it feels like when something just isn’t working for me.

I’m still under-earning. I still have debt and delinquent accounts. But I also have a kid who gets to have a happy mom. I’m living a creative life and I have faith that, one day at a time, I am going somewhere.

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About Author

Halina Newberry Grant has written for Cosmo, The Next Family, The Hairpin and The Huffington Post, among others. She lives in Culver City, CA with her husband, daughters and dog, Mr. Manfred.