Letting Go

I loved journalism and still do. But I wanted my life back

Gracie, purr motor going full throttle, parked her zaftig body by my pillow. Chloe, my older cat, had already nipped my toes. Twice.

"OK, OK. OK. I'm awake."

I sat up and blinked at the clock: 9:45 a.m. "Great, girls, I'm late again." It was a Tuesday in January. And a deadline day. I forgot to set the alarm. Again. This was happening way too much. And this was not like me. I usually had no problem getting out of bed at 6:30 or 7. Thankfully, my cats make wake-up calls.

Not worrying about when I got up or when I made it to work set off a different alarm: I had really stopped caring about my job. I had always cared. I was often told that I cared too much. For me, routinely ignoring the clock signaled that my time was up.

My story is a familiar one these days: I no longer work full time. Unlike others, the decision was my choice.  

In April, I left The Charlotte Observer, my workplace of twenty years. I lasted through four rounds of buyouts and layoffs in less than twelve months. Each was more painful than the last. There were raise and salary freezes and dramatic changes to our 401(k) and pension plans. I watched as the newspaper collectively lost hundreds of years of experience.

In these economic times, you easily could substitute the name of a bank, a car manufacturer, or a retailer for the Observer.

I've wanted to be a journalist since I learned to read. Get paid for being nosy? Know a lot about a little bit of everything? Tell stories? Sign me up. I also think Watergate and Lou Grant get some credit. I came to work at the Observer when I was twenty-four as a page designer and copy editor. In the last ten years, I was the editor and main writer of the Style section and the editor of Eye and UCity magazines.

People always asked why I stayed in one place for so long. Every time I got the itch to leave, something at the paper or in the city would change and I would want to hang around to see how it would turn out.   

I got to do what I loved, and about 95 percent of the time, it didn't feel like work. Until this past year.  

As the economic dark cloud moved over the newspaper industry, I often caught myself holding my breath, wondering what was going to happen next. Cautious friends at the paper advised: stay off the radar. Hunker down. Suck it up. Lower your too-high standards. Be grateful that you have a job. I'm not the kind of person who does those things easily. Never have been. Never will be. But I tried. In September, I vowed to help shape the future of journalism and to fight the good fight. But as time wore on, I watched my friends and coworkers — and myself — develop a bunker mentality.  

Breathe in. Hunker down. Breathe out. Lower standards. Breathe in. Grateful for job.

Breathe out.

Breathe  in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Holding.Holding.Holding.

Last fall, I watched President Barack Obama's campaign with keen interest. I knew he was the president who I had been waiting for: one who could reach across racial and cultural divides and unite this country and move it forward. As a journalist with a professional code of ethics, I could not campaign for Obama. No bumper stickers, no voter registration drives, no public donations.  

Then I saw Milk. The story of Harvey Milk's crusade stirred my soul. For a few years, I had felt my do-gooder heart outgrowing my journalist heart. I gained more satisfaction from working with nonprofits than from my day job in a struggling industry. During the holidays, the "what ifs" percolated in my brain.  

I took the day off to watch the inauguration on TV. A bicycle wreck a few weeks earlier put the whammy on my secret plan to take the train to DC for the day. Instead, I sat on my couch with a box of tissues, my BlackBerry, and my laptop. Watching the ceremony and people waving flags on the Mall, I felt something inside begin to slide into place.  

At the end of January, we learned that yet another round of layoffs and cutbacks was coming. Every department faced cuts, we were told. Everything was on the table. On February 5, I decided that I couldn't hold my breath any longer. I raised my hand to be considered for a layoff.   

In the worst economy since the Great Depression, I wanted to be unemployed. Several people questioned my sanity. A few coworkers who are also dear friends wouldn't talk to me for a few days. But there were plenty of people who knew that I was sane and applauded me for taking control and doing what was right for me. The angry ones soon came around.  

Editors at the Observer, people I truly admire and respect, tried to get me to stay. "Are you sure?" they asked repeatedly. I was sure. Once I made the decision, I never doubted it.  

Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause. Breathe in. Pause. Breath out.  

So what's life like now?  

The stress that had snaked through my body uncoils a little more every day.  A loved one told me that the tension was gone from my voice. Another says that my laugh is fuller and more heartfelt. I have dreams again at night instead of being in an Ambien sleep state. I move through my day deliberately, alert and with purpose instead of being in a Xanax-induced fugue state. Those meds were on top of antidepressants, which I am tapering off of by my doctor's guidelines. My blood pressure is lower than it has been in years.  I am fortunate that I can take this time. Most people can't. I know that I am blessed and don't take it for granted. I started working part-time jobs when I was fourteen. I've been working full time since the day I left college at age twenty-one. I've never had more than two weeks off straight in my professional career. I'm forty-five. You do the math.  This is my time to breathe, to think, and to enjoy a sunny day. And that's exactly what I'm doing. I wrote this from a rooftop patio with my feet up, admiring the skyline of the city I call home. Birds were chirping, and rush hour was nearly over.  

Breathe in. Smile. Breathe out. Smile. Breathe in. Smile. Breathe a sigh of relief.  

I haven't given up on journalism.  I volunteer as a contributing editor with the crew at CLT Blog (cltblog.com). I'm sort of a cross between an adviser and a house mom. I spent last fall getting to know founders Justin Ruckman, Matt Tyndall, and Justin Ritchie, who have old-school journalism values with new-media chops.   

Along with Ruckman, I organize monthly meetings of local bloggers and freelance journalists. I am also mentoring three young writers.

This fall, I will launch From the Hip Communications, a company that works with nonprofits and small businesses on program development and media strategies.  

And if you stop by Amelie's French Bakery after dark, you might see me, since I'm one of the night managers. It's a part-time job that plays to my strengths as a leader and an entrepreneur. Did I mention the pastries and chocolate?

Some people think my calendar is worse now than when I was working full time. It may be, but I control what's on the calendar, and everything on it is something I choose.   

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Crystal Dempsey worked at The Charlotte Observer for twenty-one years. She left in April. Her blog: crystaldempsey.com. Twitter: @crystaldempsey

Categories: First Person, Opinion, The Buzz