I fully abandoned my career a few years ago.

You know those jobs that seem sooo great because they help people and save animals? You might not make any money, and maybe you’re not treated the best, but OMG you’re doing such fulfilling work! I had those jobs. They destroyed me.

It’s not what you think. Yes, as the executive director of an animal rights organization, opening my emails each morning to find pictures of abused puppies was hard. Sure, training college students, doctors, and police officers about preventing sexual assault wasn’t the most uplifting experience. But the enormity of the distressing issues my work focused on didn’t hold a candle to how the people doing these jobs and running these organizations treated each other. I mean, my pregnant coworker was scolded for asking to work from home the day they were removing asbestos from our women’s rights organization’s office.

“What you’re looking for can’t be found in large groups of people. You’re looking for love, belonging, kinship, and to feel safe,” my friend Kara recently told me.

I still want to help people and save animals, but I haven’t found any of the above while doing that, and I don’t have energy left to keep looking. Even worse, I’ve felt obligated to stay in places that give me, and my colleagues, the opposite.

I teach psychology and in the lesson on coping, our textbook lists giving up as a “destructive” coping mechanism. I ask my class to think about times when giving up might serve us. What about that unhealthy relationship that we keep pursuing because we have spent so much time trying to make it work? What about that car that is costing us more to repair than if we got a new one? We call this the sunk cost fallacy: the more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it.

I’m one of those “bless your heart” people. I’ve invested my entire adult life in extremely low-paying, psychologically taxing work everyone thinks is so noble, but no person in their right mind would turn into a career. I’ve worked extensively in domestic and sexual violence prevention. I’ve also worked in animal rights. These are fields that often fashion themselves as “movements”; more than a field of work, these are large groups creating social change.

Historically, when people found out what I did, responses generally came in two forms: 1) “Oh wow! You’re a saint. I could never do that,” and 2) “Awesome. I would love to do that, but I need to make a living.” Yeah, me too. So a few years ago, I was finally done. These movements had finally shattered me and I walked away. Kara’s comment came at a time, recently, when I was questioning having left. I often do. Doubt and regret define me.

I’m an expert in these issues. I’m extremely passionate about them. I’ve also been highly disappointed, even betrayed, by the organizations and individuals addressing them. Since moving to LA for this work in 2012, I’ve had a series of horrible, traumatic jobs that include a colleague getting spanked, another getting fired for requesting a disability accommodation, a framed picture of a woman’s butt in a thong suddenly showing up in my boss’s office, a publisher putting out a book Kara and I  created without our names on it, and much more. It’s the career equivalent of hooking up with the perfect person, moving in together, and then ten years later finding a box of photos of their torture victims in the basement…or becoming one of the victims.

Everyone asks what happened in each one of these situations. The answer is NOTHING. No matter how many of us reported these experiences, nothing ever changed.

Everyone can have a shitty experience at their job, I know. Yet these “social justice” organizations sell themselves on their compassion and caring. Other places like say, film studios or investment firms, don’t usually do that. Unfortunately, what I’ve learned is that even in these small, “caring,” movements, it’s still a fame game. Abuse runs rampant, unchecked. Power wins. Regarding these worlds and this work, my colleague Abby once said, “We are all against abuse until we aren’t because we like or respect or need the person in power to like us.”

So here I am. I don’t want to keep going. I don’t want to keep trying. I’m at that point in life that feels like you’re five years too late. With every failure, you fade a little more until soon you’ll be translucent. Unseen. Absent. And, as my friend’s comment points out, it just doesn’t feel good to be a part of these groups. It feels terrible. But you don’t give up in this work, in these worlds. Women need you. Animals need you. You’re obligated to participate, to show up. But if you’re suffering, how can you do any good? And if the very places you’re expected to show up are exploitative, why do I feel so guilty about walking away? It’s predictable now; every few months, I’ll end up going down a rabbit hole of doubt and despair. A 2 a.m. spiral, researching graduate programs I wish I would have done instead. A 4 a.m. internet search for the articles I’ve written about sexual assault prevention to prove to myself I’ve made even the smallest mark.

It’s never enough. Don’t give up! Keep going, even if you’re about to fall off the side of the cliff.

I don’t know, man. I think maybe there is a point at which it is enough and it’s okay to walk away. Maybe this is like AP bio. Well, given my experience, maybe this is like AP bio but if the teacher also sexually harassed me. I took every honors course I could in high school, but when it came to the last one, AP bio, I just wasn’t happy. It didn’t feel right. This was the first time that I gave up. I switched to creative writing instead. I didn’t hate bio, but creative writing was more personal. It was more me. It gave me what I needed and if I hadn’t given up AP bio I probably wouldn’t be writing this today.

Kara’s comment, for the first time, provided me permission to disengage, from these movements and, heck, even spaces like social media. I want to do this work. I want to continue fighting for animal rights and preventing sexual and domestic violence. Honestly, it felt devastating when I first left the movements…and it still does. I ended my career by leaving. But I can’t do good work when I’m getting in trouble for taking a sick day. I can’t help women when I’m being told to ignore inappropriate behavior by male colleagues because “we need them on our side.” I can’t help animals when my boss is yelling “Dumb Hollywood blonde!” at a driver. It’s absolutely exhausting.

I’ve raked myself over the coals long enough. I’ve drained every ounce of energy trying to stay in this work, but I found those pictures in the basement and everyone turned away when I showed them. These movements don’t offer the love, belonging, kinship, and safety that Kara observed me longing. Heck, they don’t even provide a living wage.

I’m beginning to realize that the work doesn’t have to stop just because I’m no longer willing to do it in these unhealthy spaces. My expertise, and the need for it, doesn’t just disappear because I’ve changed locations. I’ve taken it with me into the classroom. I take it with me wherever I go. There is potential beyond despair. I can address the issues, I can serve those who suffer, without my movement membership card. If I had kept traveling down that same road rutted with potholes, I’d never have seen other avenues up ahead. They haven’t all come into focus, and maybe I got a flat in the process, but in giving up, I’m patching that tire and pressing the accelerator. I’m not sure which road I’ll take, but I look forward to the journey.

Maybe it’s in giving up that I’m moving forward.   

Ashley Maier

Ashley Maier is a psychology professor in Los Angeles. She spends her days reading student papers and, occasionally, doing some writing of her own.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Yes! I also abandoned my career in public ed., and I feel the same way as you do. This is such a rich article, Ashley. I quit.
    I saw a piece of art once that had a girl on a sailboat, sailing away. It also had the words, “I am glad to leave this place forever” across the top. I burst into tears upon seeing it because when you break it down, “I am glad.” True. “To leave.” True “This place.” TRUE. “Forever.” TRUE! it feels right, but altogether, it is a crushing statement. Quitting is both. Divorcing oneself from anything or anyone is miserable. But when you find the torture porn in the basement, as you so cleverly put it, you’ve got to get the f out.
    Peace!

  2. This is a wonderful piece of writing! I’m one of those Sally Sunshine do-gooders and one day I had just had it, too. Like Lucy, I left public education. I quit other endeavors and projects and organizations for the exact same reasons! That day I realized I didn’t want to see one more abuse of power or one more “leader” who hid a sociopath personality behind charm and lies, I also decided that my rescue pups and day to day kindnesses and small generosities were enough. I refuse to believe the culture of these “service” organizations has always been like this; but, these issues are widespread and so common it’s astounding. Bravo for writing this.

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