The Joy of Burnout

So I gave up.

There was only so much disrespect, fear mongering and micromanagement I could take. Once all autonomy and professionalism had been stripped, I was left on a pharmacy assembly line that harbored resentment among coworkers and increased risk of error. Our pharmacy assistant hours had been eliminated, leaving me to work alone for 12 hours a day. I would receive, enter, fill, verify, dispense and counsel prescriptions without an extra set of eyes to check my work. I would forego bathroom and lunch breaks and was hypoglycemic by 3 pm, with half of the day left to go. Not having an assistant also meant I would lift heavy totes, stock shelves and empty garbage pails, leaving me with excruciating back pain. My days were broken down into a series of quotas to maximize profits, with management constantly demanding more flu shots, med checks and professional services be billed. The amount of work that had to be crammed into 12 hours often required an extra hour of volunteering each night, giving my employer the unique classification of being a for-profit company that also moonlighted as a charity. My workplace had been so bastardized that I could hardly recognize it.

So I relayed all of this information to my shrink and he instructed me to take a few weeks off. And just like that, I felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  Before I could celebrate, my anxiety caught up to me. Without work to constantly complain about, what would I do? My toxic work environment had long been the focus of my life, but I could no longer use it as excuse to put off living.  I have the next 3 weeks to test drive the FI-lifestyle. I have ample time and no work obligations to tie me down. I’m guessing the next 3 weeks will guide the trajectory of my life when I escape the rat race for good.

Detoxing

I used some of my sick days to sample a cross section of literature differing from my usual reading fare. I began reading Valley of the Dolls, doubting the relevance a 1966 Sex and the City-esque book would have some 50 years later. I was caught off guard when I saw a little of myself in each of the main characters. I identified with Anne, as naivete and blind faith led her into lackluster relationships. Neely’s lofty career aspirations led her to accept the unreasonable demands placed upon her. Jennifer sought to win the approval of her overly critical mother and used pharmaceuticals pacify her inner turmoil. I devoured the book in a single day and downloaded the movie as a follow-up. Spoiler alert: Neely ends up in a psych ward, Jennifer commits suicide and Anne continues to down “dolls” (read: sedatives) to remain complacent enough to tolerate her husband’s infidelity and her own unfulfilled dreams. It’s crazy to think that after all of this time, I’m still medicating myself to ensure a certain docility in work and relationships.

This book convinced me to come off of my psychotropic meds for good. First, let’s be clear: I don’t have an indication for any of them. An unfortunate series of events precipitated a depressive episode some 3 years ago and I was prescribed Effexor. Instead of reevaluating the need for the drug after the initial storm had passed, I continued taking it prophylactically. I assured myself that a low dose of Effexor (venlafaxine 37.5 mg) was hardly sufficient to have profound impacts on my mood or behavior. Yet if I ever missed a dose, I’d experience dissociation and brain zaps that sent me running back to the medicine cabinet post-haste. Eventually I began experiencing withdrawal even while on Effexor. Perhaps after 3 years, my body was adapting and required a higher dose to maintain the baseline. So while my fear of withdrawal had prevented me from discontinuing Effexor in the past, here I was experiencing withdrawal whilst taking it. I decided that enough was enough and I would come off cold turkey.

The first few weeks were rough. I was weepy and a sappy commercial was enough to induce a flood of tears. My brain zaps made it hard to concentrate or even function, and I spent all day in bed. I avoided driving and was perpetually irritable and averaged 4 hours of sleep per night. Online searches for managing Effexor withdrawal brought up a Medscape article featuring case studies where patients were simply restarted on Effexor to avoid withdrawal or online psychiatry forums where patients shared coping strategies. Since “online psychiatry forum” ranks somewhere in between “magic 8-ball” and “tarot card reader” on the credibility scale, I knew I was on my own with this one. What little research exists states that “venlafaxine-withdrawal symptoms are more likely to be caused by a lack of noradrenergic than of serotonergic action, contrary to the commonly accepted theory.” So easy peasy, right? I just needed to increase the noradrenaline in my brain with an ADHD med like Dexedrine (which I also have a prescription for) to ward off the withdrawal symptoms from Effexor, but I will eventually taper off both. Certainly the Dexedrine bridge, when I get to it, will be wrought with many of it’s own challenges.

So why does any of this matter? I know better than anyone the number of people who stay on their antidepressants indefinitely. Why not subjugate our feelings and continue taking “mother’s little helper” to cope with our ills? Personally, the times in my life when I was most depressed coincided with unhealthy external circumstances. I was either in a relationship where I was being terribly mistreated or I was working a toxic dead end job or I was enduring chronic back pain that required treatment. Medicating away the sadness would prevent me from taking steps to actually correct the situation. Perhaps if I’d continuously taken antidepressants since high school, I’d have been content to work my minimum wage job in a grocery store pharmacy indefinitely. Maybe I’d have settled down with a womanizing cad who’d expect me to support him. Or maybe I’d still be living with excruciating back pain that limited every aspect of my life. Despite the withdrawal, I couldn’t be happier being antidepressant-free. For the first time in a long time, I feel like a participant (vs. observer) in my own life.

Capital in Any Century

My last post was all about saving money because as the saying goes: “it’s not what you earn, but what you keep.” But let’s be honest here, it’s also what you earn. Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on how you choose to look at it), I stumbled into a profession that offered a relatively high starting salary but provided limited earnings growth potential. Pair this with the fact that I’m like, really, truly, over retail pharmacy, one might expect that I’m pretty SOL in the earnings department. Luckily though, I am hoping my investments will provide a portion of my future earnings, assuming I get off my lazy duff and actually invest my savings.

But first, let’s hark back to a simpler time in 3rd year pharmacy school. An personal finance expert named Mike Sullivan had come to give our class a talk about the importance of investing once we were members of the professional class. To drive home the message, he darted his laser pointer around a PowerPoint slide demonstrating the power of compound interest. “If you start saving just $1000 per month for the next 40 years at an interest rate of 8%, by retirement you’ll have amassed a fortune of $3.5 million dollars!  And if the markets average a 12% during the next 40 years, you’ll have well over $10 million dollars!!”

ol-gil

Mike Sullivan, circa 2008

So we all signed up with him, started investing immediately and were well on our way to being decamillionaires by retirement. Oh, no wait, the year was 2008 and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression happened just a few short months later.

I often wonder, late at night, about this so-called wealth adviser with the world’s worst timing. He’d had with such high hopes for the markets on that fateful February 2008 day.  Perhaps I could track him down and meet him for coffee.  We’d reflect on the other investments he’d likely advised over the years: a Miami condo in 2006, Greek bonds in 2010, going all in on gold in 2011.  We’d reminisce about his Bear Stearns and Nortel picks and recall him dismissing Google as just a fad. Mainly I’d ask what he was investing in now and immediately DO THE EXACT OPPOSITE.  Ultimately we’d part ways and he’d retire to his cardboard box under a bridge. Despite all of this, Mike Sullivan taught me something very valuable that day: markets rarely cooperate so I ought to double my savings rate and halve my expected rate of return.

Just for kicks though, let us imagine that I’d started investing in February 2008 as per Mike Sullivan’s suggestion.  What kind of meager return could I have expected given the market turmoil that occurred between then and now?  According to this S&P 500 Return Calculator, I’d have averaged 7.914%.  Oh, Mike, you lovable loser.  Turns out you were pretty much right after all.