I've been sitting contemplating in disbelief this past week.
I don't know what to say or write well enough to explain all my feelings.
I'm broke.... Yes I'm flat broke as in I owe no one else any large sums of money!
This is the first time I've been able to say this in 14 years - since taking out school, car, and credit card loans starting age 18. Now I'm 32... Where has life gone?
I'm stoked! This has been the biggest longgg goal I've had. It's a bit numblingly unreal.
Maybe I'm writing this blog piece now to be cathartic. I'm so ready to move on.
I'll apologize here now for those that read on; I'm about to take you along for a bit on a journey to my darker places this last year or so :
This has been the toughest year, perhaps thee toughest year I've ever had. After years of night shift nursing I felt burned out on my job and absolutely stuck in a bad situation without any light in sight.
I'd burned out 2 years ago after racing my bike in a bid to be a "real" athlete (turning 30 call it a midlife crisis?! I'd somehow managed to establish/challenge 3 endurance world records on a bicycle in a one year period - including going from the lowest to the highest point in the lower 48 and a day on the world's longest bicycle climb in Hawaii).
I feared adrenal/chronic fatigue now. Is that real? I'd stopped sleeping it felt like - reporting to work on time at 3 am every night for long hospital shifts had became a double edged sword with my ongoing athletic feats -I could never get to sleep at 6pm to get enough sleep before the alarm rang @ 2:30 AM again. I gave it up; I stopped biking cold turkey and attempted to find a way just to rest back to normal somehow. It all felt too late. I felt like I couldn't fight it anymore (but I had to - can't quit I have 60 grand of almost impossible to discharge debt still cosigned to my remaining aging grandparents).
My hospital coworkers and I often survived on 2-4 hours of sleep a night while working through many ongoing 12 hour shifts. Sometimes I'd informally poll the nurses and doctors surrounding me and not a single person successfully had more than 3 hours of sleep between shifts - this was our norm. I tried to sleep, it just didn't work. I'd sit in my bed early looking at the ceiling trying. Even worse - I'd go to bed early then wake up at midnight before my 2:30 AM alarm went off sitting with anxiety waiting for my shift to start. My body somehow learned to survive on the 4 hour or less plan and I would awaken anyway - even exhausted on my days off. I had nearly continuous migraine head aches from low sleep nearly every day. It had slowly become normal. All I wanted was good sleep, but somehow my confused body rhythms & adrenaline would kick in a good spike waking me at all times of night and I'd feel like I hadn't slept at all.
At a lowest point I couldn't recall sleeping at all for 5 consecutive nights - I tried the whole time. I called off sick from a couple coming shifts and my supervisor was upset when I told him honestly I haven't slept at all I can't.
I'd tried it all -white noise, yoga, meditation, supplements, black out curtains, benadryl, melatonin. It all helped in the beginning, but now after 4 years of this, my body was so confused in combination with the fatigue from my cycling feats, I'd virtually stopped sleeping. I needed a break from this schedule desperately!
I went to my manager and told him I wasn't doing well. I was already only working the minimum number of shifts allowed and it wasn't working. I needed to work any other schedule in existence or have a break somehow, or even a leave of absence to sleep for a few months. I went beyond to his boss too. Eventually I went as high up as I could having sit down meetings with every manager outside the hospital CEO asking for any possible theoretical other hours than my current schedule - even straight nights would be an improvement over arriving at 3am (I'd done those for years prior to this and while tough I'd never felt this bad). Some tried to empathize, but to paraphrase shortly in the end I was told to "take it or leave it, these are the hours we have for your position." It stung of a similar conversation familiarity I'd had years prior in AZ. Off the record, one manager honestly did respond, "Oh no- You know I'd rather shoot myself than work on those hours, that's a reason I took my job."
I didn't want to leave my job in the community of Bishop that I'd made my home, but I needed a change or an out. I started eyeing my debts - If I could pay them off I could quit and walk. I cut the $7,500 zero interest credit card I'd maxed to fund the pinnacle of my racing the previous year among countless other costs. I doubled the scheduled payments + any occasional extra earnings and paid 20 grand off that year. It was a start.
I'd virtually quit biking, though I didn't want to let it go. My "training" was half ass. I really wasn't up to putting in steady hours anymore in hindsight. I felt guilty even doing it now. My ego and self confidence were still strong though wanting to believe. I'd wanted to be an athlete more than anything else since I was a kid. I'd put so much of my self image here. Maybe I could? I competed ironically for a hospital sponsored team in the local triathlon and managed to do one of the sprint loops on the biking section at a course record equivalent pace (2nd to an amazing Swiss athlete though on the same day) helping win the event for my team. Hmmm?!
My ego told me to try at least a little anyway; a few weeks later showing up at one major ultra race that season in Oregon. It was soon clear to me on the bike I had lost something- I wasn't the same rider - unprepared & exhausted - no degree of stubborn could get me past that! This race was supposed to be harder than the others I'd done before - The next step, possibly the "hardest" of the type in 48 hour races, but it seems like every race in ultra is touted as the "hardest" something or another (I will say Race Across Oregon has one of the more legitimate claims). I didn't want to be out there anymore; not like this. Biking is tough enough already - this would only be suffering (fittingly the race high day time temperatures also hit 109° F). I tried fighting against my pride throwing up 3 times during the race for the first time ever on my bike near the back of the race. On my knees throwing up in an emotionally crushing moment at 10 pm that night, I quit and walked away from the race with a DNF (did not finish) less than half way through- also a first time. I really wasn't ready mentally or physically. I'd really got my butt kicked. I was done - biking combined with the word "race" and particularly "ultra" was seemingly way too expensive too. I can't do all this and pay these bills while working crazy hours. I learned some hard lessons here.
It would be the only race I tried that season (and since).
Something had to change now. I talked with my high-school best friend Jerhet Ask as we carpooled up to a wedding in Oregon a few weekends later. He could tell I was stressed out. Ever Mr. Practical, he told me to, "C'mon, just do the math with me dude!" (with debt), as he played out insistently the entire Dave Ramsey CD seminar during the 10 hour drive. I could do it! It was reassuring talking to a close friend who also had significant loans and worries after finishing grad (dental) school. He became my accountability buddy in the coming months. Thanks for always being there Jerhet!
I calculated out exactly how many debt payments and how long it would take me to pay off the combined final 40K of student debts and the remaining loan on my truck that year. I decided to put all my drive and ambition here. If I'd paid 20k the previous year while still sorta trying to race bikes, I could double down hard core and do this all and be done instead of several more years (or 7 still just making payments). Of all the ambitious obsessive things I've done with my drive over the years, this would be perhaps the most boring, but most useful I'd actually done. I could do one year hardcore. I had vision now. I started paying immediately every pay check off the top at least $500 every time religiously in addition to my regular payments. I was fighting back now!
I felt even more frustrated back home as I watched new nurses or travel recruits hired in to other positions with different hours that year. I'd asked for a department swap or a shift swap, but it felt indefinite waiting at this point and even the flip side of this shift would still be middle of the night in the long run (I was told it was extremely difficult to replace me - in our department specialty of Intensive Care, as of this writing not a single remaining RN from the last 6 years has stayed for 3 AM). It was getting even more difficult to see a long-term future here.
I could quit this nursing job now, but almost any other job is likely going to start me out on nights anyway (my previous employer in AZ had asked for 5 years full time before earning a chance to go to day shifts)? I felt trapped. I also knew if I could somehow last through this last year a few more months, I'd gain significant retirement benefits (now valued equivalent at $42,000 401k value someday) or nothing at all for the last 5 years under the particular peculiar cliff vesting system.
I briefly experimented seeing a psychiatrist locally to help me deal with the stress and another online that set me up trying CBT exercises (cognitive brain therapy) for anxiety/insomnia through the computer on some weird program (I figured if anything could help try it!). I felt willing to try anything and it was free through my benefits why not? Honestly none of it really seemed to help much other than to stoke a doctor's ego about making future "ambitious plans for me what an adventure" .. finally he had a "cool healthy patient to talk to", nice sure... at least it made my Mom feel better. The root problem was too obvious. I really just wanted a break. I soon requested and got a full refund for the extra program option.
Finally I moved onto Ambien prescription sleeping pills after learning many of the nurses around me on this shift for any extended periods of time had eventually turned to this or a couple other prescription medications to survive. The physicians I worked with gladly obliged to write me as many sleeping pill scripts as I could possibly want while vocally stating disdain & some sympathy for the particular routine. I'd stubbornly and cautiously avoided sleeping medications up to this point for 8 years of other various night shifts. It gave me a couple more hours of sleep a night on average to hang on a little bit more, but I felt unsettled taking pills even only for work nights (one of the most common side effects is short term memory loss- particularly unsettling, although several nurses had confided this was the only way they had survived when they had to which had finally convinced me).
No one was happy. I did my research and talked with retired nurses that had done the shift for years or had moved on to different departments. They reported feeling miserable the whole time. This also eased the guilt of thinking it was just me, but made it even more clear I needed to find a change. Interestingly among a rather conservative group of many older nurses the most repeated word used to describe their first thought upon waking up at 2 or 2:30 AM every morning for work was the F-word. Yikes, I got to get out of this! The tumultuous times at the hospital with the nurses forming a union vs the CEO firing many employees and then soon getting fired herself for her particularly ruthless conduct methods made it clear if I needed any other indication to look around.
A 'humorous' cartoon that ran in the local newspaper at the time:
I started applying to other nursing jobs in the area and considering travel nursing jobs if I had to which led me to applying at Mammoth Hospital. I even briefly considered the numbers on selling my truck and living without for a few months if I had to on the extra money.
A few months later I finally got a call from Mammoth Hospital. I'd never worked in a surgery department before, but they were interested in talking to me and all the positions in that area were day shifts..... Okay well let's talk!
Unfortunately they only had per-diem fill in positions available, but we could do this as a trial period and if I was a good fit they promised a full time job by summer. I took the position which was stressful in a new way, but this time I had some hope. I applied all extra money directly to my bills.
I did thankfully receive an offer for a supervisor position at my existing employer during this time that would be day time hours, if I hadn't started the new job I probably would have taken it just for some change (it certainly paid much more than I make now), but it also seemed to be the only job no one wanted with open positions for over a year & nearly always almost exclusively staffed by temporary travel nurses. While a $100K job is pretty rare in Bishop (or in nursing in general), a job that no one I'd been in contact with liked or lasted in didn't seem like a very long-term solution and the new job was already one of the better working environments I'd worked in.
I counted out my debt payments and Ambien - exactly how many possible work nights I'd be willing to do before quitting. I put in the longest time off request I could to at least rest somehow in the meanwhile. A couple more months? I had a plan finally. I told my family and friends - July at the latest, even if I didn't get a full time job, I would be clear or could afford to work as a part time nurse a handful of days a month and local mountain guide through the summer to get by.
I did eventually get the job. It was bittersweet leaving my coworkers after five and a half years (the longest I've been anywhere), but I feel like a person again. It's almost unreal. I don't have migraine headaches constantly. I haven't touched the ambien prescription since I left. I drink one or 2 cups of coffee in a day, or none, unlike the 5+ cups I've watched myself & many other nurses down like freshmen at a red cup party at times to survive. When I quit at NIH I was the longest standing RN in any department remaining on the 3 AM shift continuously (without at least extended absence or time swaps). In a way, perhaps I was the last man standing for a period in time in decades of ingrained culture of "this is just the way it is guys", (Good news!! This particular shift has recently finally officially gone away for good just this last week after a couple decades stay too long in my opinion. If I influenced this decision at all even slightly to the administration I'm very glad for fortunate nurses in the future).
I've spent the last 3 months relaxing and having fun trying to be normal. I'm sleeping normally through the night again. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I actually enjoy my job. While the interactions and interventions were often meaningful, it was impossible to enjoy work while feeling so miserable and surrounded by oft-miserable coworkers. I could never feel settled. I've been on some version of continuous night shifts without option opening from November 2007 up till 3 months ago at my 3rd nursing job. I wouldn't do it again if I knew it would be like this. I never wanted to fast forward time so much. If I didn't have the starting financial obligation I would have likely quit years ago under the stress.
I wrote this note last February when I felt particularly hopeless, but I felt too embarrassed and guilty to share :
Here's some particularly poignant writings on Adrenal Fatigue :
"Once your body can’t keep up with your stress levels, you start to burn out. Your brain is signaling that there is a stress, but your adrenals can’t produce the required amount of cortisol to keep you going, and you start to crash. Now you’re in adrenal burnout and experiencing low cortisol. Your resources to fight the stressor have been depleted.
The simple act of falling asleep actually involves the interaction of multiple neurotransmitters and hormones. In adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels are markedly disturbed, which causes fluctuations in the release of both adrenaline and melatonin; poor sleep is the end result. Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland in the brain, and it's numerous effects include taking us into a state of deep sleep. Its release is inhibited by cortisol and by light. As a result, the flicker of a laptop screen before bed or raised cortisol levels in the evening reduces the release of melatonin. This pattern is often seen in stage two of adrenal fatigue, the resistance phase, where the release of cortisol remains excessively high to cope with perceived demands. Sleep is not good at this stage.
The 'crash' arrives, along with the all-encompassing fatigue, when cortisol levels drop. This marks stage three of adrenal fatigue, the exhaustion phase. Unfortunately, sleep gets no better; cortisol levels cannot maintain blood glucose effectively between meals or during the night, ensuing the release of adrenaline as compensation. While this reaction maintains life and avoids a hypoglycaemic coma, it also activates the sympathetic nervous system, the branch of the nervous system that makes us alert, anxious and wired. Waking at regular times during the night is a reliable sign of compensatory adrenaline spikes. Using herbs such as valerian root in stages of adrenal exhaustion can actually cause unexpected and paradoxical reactions; when the body has registered a definite requirement for adrenaline release, suppressing it with otherwise-gentle herbs like valerian can cause a counter-response and an even larger adrenaline release (this can also occur when the neural conditions are disturbed, although this is beyond the scope of this article). In any case, it is key to remember that the adrenaline is there for a reason – to compensate for a lack of cortisol.
If you continue down this path, chugging caffeine to keep yourself going, skimping on sleep to get your work done, or skipping meals to prevent gaining even more weight, you’re headed for serious burnout. The kind you can no longer ignore. At this point, your adrenals, thyroid and hormones are imbalanced, and even though your doctor may look at you, perplexed, because your blood work came back ok, you know there’s something wrong because you’re not feeling right, you’ve gained weight, maybe have anxiety, and your hormones have gone haywire."
Maybe I really was a walking "adrenaline junky" of sorts after all?
I found my out. What is well rested again? I cleared all my debts and hit my goal. I pushed too far, learned some hard lessons, made big changes, and walked away from a tough crazy sport in my prime when it probably wasn't really appropriate any further at the time. I got a new job. The final payments cleared this week! I've spent the last few days re-evaluating my financial status.
In other words, longer story short, I can also say one of more satisfying possible existing phrases I know how to say-
Got the girl, got the job, got the car!
What's up next now?? ;)
I got an idea or two still.. I might go back to school eventually (this time without debt!). Really, I've been resting.
I paid off $60,000 in personal debts in 2 years.
Thanks for reading
P.S. Thanks most to Paul Rasmussen and Jerhet Ask for being there particularly the last couple years when I've felt down and out at times. Jerhet has been my best friend and always at the most important times always there- even far away. I'm also indebted to Paul forever for everything. I have really lived & loved the little climber house known as the Zoo for better or worse.
Also everyone else who has stuck up and supported me on the way that didn't have to!
P.P.S. How'd I ever get to here exactly anyhow?
I went to the same school as my parents after growing up attending church schools as a Seventh Day Adventist. It was what we did.
I graduated school at age 21 with $81,667 total in loans and personal debts accrued during private christian education as a nurse. I'd spent a year in business school prior to switching to nursing (partially scared of paying off all those school debts with a business degree! Nurse, doctor, teacher, and pastor are traditionally the most common accepted career choices in the SDA upbringing. Accounting was also really exceedingly boring!). I almost exclusively paid for my education with loans and also room and board expenses while living on campus as part of the religious culture. It seemed the normal thing at the time and why not all my friends are going?
This was somewhat worsened by deferring payments for a year and planned graduated repayment plans. I'd also made some bad decisions particularly- actually buying a car on a credit card during college and using it again to pay the differences in exam fees & moving expenses. I sure want to go back and tell myself different sometimes.
A decade later this is all equivalent to half the average medical school education debt in today's 2016 ($170K) or paying triple my after tax starting salary if I had lived at home for 3 years (I thought about this briefly but had a particular horrible interviewing experience at the Placerville hospital). I'm not so sure I'd ever go to private school again knowing this. Those experiences I don't regret, but the aftermath would be a pretty big stretch to call worth it. I certainly wouldn't go through it again the same knowing now. I had no idea as an 18 year old. It's crazy it's all getting even more expensive.
I'd eventually take on an additional of $24,000 in auto and medical debts bringing me up to $105,665 grand total yuck. Then I've tacked on bicycle racing ambitions most recently and been fortunate to explore some extreme sports dreams on the way.. It feels like all I've known is debts though. It took me 8.5 years to pay back averaging $10,000 a year paid in payments before finally getting serious about it the last 2 years. I don't want to know how much interest I paid. Although most were low interest loans, since I had so many I had to take additional private loans at higher rates at up to 5-10%. Some were fortunately re-consolidated later, but I focused payment on the highest interest first otherwise most recently. I honestly took action way too late. Looking at how many years it would take at age 21 to pay back (times hardcore paying) my initial reaction was denial and followed up secondly by how stressful my first year of nursing was by just survival. I avoided working till age 23 chasing my first passions- extreme skiing and my dream job at the time in Yosemite on the Search & Rescue team. Denial is still definitely not the answer.
I'm a bit proud now to actually have more retirement accounts than anything else after having over a dozen loan accounts and credit card accounts combined at one point.
I wanted most to live in a mountain town while I paid it all back applying first in a dozen various mountain states, verses looking for higher pay- though I refused lower paying options like the South East and Utah. It's been a long haul, but I've made it. I had no idea I'd be on various night shifts for such a long time or that it would be so competitive/difficult to switch in my department, though not actually particularly uncommon. Recent coworkers & friends at nearby hospitals report some 5 year wait lists in the ICU for day shift positions. Honestly nursing is such a tough job (particularly ICU is one of em too- the shelf life of many ICU nurses is 5 years), it seems like a bit cruel joke. One of my friends is a great nurse as any I've seen, but after finishing her 4th year of night shifts she confided to me this year she wants to quit nursing now ONLY because the night shifts are killing her and she doesn't see an out or that moving will help anytime soon ahead. I can empathize greatly. It's a disheartening reality for many. I bet many others just want a break for a while like me, but then starting all over again?
I also insisted on putting away a minimum 10% into retirement accounts along the way from the beginning even though I was under initial debt including even this past year. I'm somehow now worth a net worth of $99K on paper mostly in 401k or equivalent retirement accounts and assets - maybe someday (more than my original loans now ironically, but nothing I will see or touch before 65 so maybe I'm not always totally terrible with it all).
My bank account says I now only have $183 to my name. I made it to my 1 year goal with 9 days to spare to pay off the last of my debt this month. I'm excited to finally just move on from the guilty feelings, stress, and growing up.
The biggest secret was relentless immediate almost zealous consistency - on paydays I'd already made an extra online payment out by lunchtime. Yes, the secret is perhaps again obsession tendencies surprise surprise... Also not buying much anything extra, cutting $ to any of my extra hobbies, no significant vacation or long distance travels (it was seemingly difficult to use much time if wanted under recent circumstance), & also temporarily taking a second job during transition. Really, all kind of boring stuff, but true. I also learned to eat simple things like oatmeal, beans & rice, + PB & J, fruit, etc more often... minimal eating out/coffee shop (sometimes I'd go out socially "for drinks" and intentionally leave the wallet and only drink water or only pay with spare pocket change in coins). Really keep it simple- it feels much more doable when you see an end and can really focus on a goal. It took a wake up call for me to see this and a good friend insisting & believing at the right time -he also kept me accountable (Jerhet). That's amazingly powerful stuff here at the end.
Also, never forget this guy. Thanks again to Paul! Always! I know I'm fortunate here. I can't ever really repay living simply at the Zoo the last few years - a both trying & priceless community at times. We are perhaps all kind of weird in our own ways, but we've also belonged here too as a funky tribal family of sorts. It's become my new Yosemite again in a way after giving it up years ago much sooner than I'd wanted to and now also a place of growing up. My heart has been here and you have been my family & home over these years. I'll miss it greatly always when looking back some and moving onward this year. It's been quite a memorable time and tenure. Thank you sincerely Paul.
~ If thy faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small. -Proverbs 24: 10