I should be used to that word by now. After all, life is a dizzying array of exits. We say goodbye to childhood pals when they move, mom and dad when we set off for college and beloved grandparents and devoted pets when they pass. We reluctantly leave comfort zones, old boyfriends and girlfriends, cities we love, friends we've outgrown and years gone by. And we say good riddance to unhealthy habits, tired trends, bad jobs and worse bosses.
But regardless of the experience or the preparation, it never gets easier. Whether it's your first or your hundredth goodbye, a stale relationship or a lackluster work life, whether you're thrilled or sad to depart, it's often tougher than it seems. It's difficult because, most likely, it started (and perhaps ended) well. At one point or another, it was promising; there was hope, for a better life, for something beautiful. Usually, there were good times, lessons learned and dreams fulfilled. And, then, somewhere, somehow it changed. It's complicated because, if you're like me, you associate yourself with that role. Too often, we define ourselves by our jobs in this world: "I work at X," "I'm so and so's mother, ____'s wife." But when those relationships have expired, matured or evaporated, what's left?
I had been talking about it for years, planning it for months yet, still, when it happened, it was jarring. It was time to leave Us Weekly. At seven years, it was longer than any romantic relationship I've had, almost double my stint at college and two-thirds of my New York experience. I sacrificed weddings, holidays, birthdays and personal relationships, and compromised being witness to loved ones' lives, and living my own, for my profession. But, I received much in return. With the extra hours, long nights and exhausting weekends came a wealth of experience, knowledge and confidence, not to mention some invaluable friendships.
And while I made a conscious effort to stay out of the scene, remain grounded and maintain my non-industry-based relationships, to some extent, I got caught up in it all. I became used to the clout and the VIP treatment. No longer did I wait in lines, eat at average restaurants or pay for designer duds. I was offered coveted tickets, went to sought-after events and made to feel like I was part of the "in" crowd. Until, I wasn't.
No sooner had my key card expired than the attention waned. People who I considered friends and mentors, individuals I assumed would be there for me, vanished. When "Natalie from Us Weekly" became just Natalie, to many, including myself during particularly low moments, it wasn't enough. I wasn't enough. If I could no longer get them in the magazine, provide scoop, be their ally, source of information or gateway to the goods, if they no longer had to suck up to me to get into parties or out of assignments, I was, apparently, not worth the effort. My value had a number and it was up.
When I went from 500 to two emails a day, my phone no longer rang, the expense account dried up and people forgot my address and my name, the days were quiet, really quiet. I alternated from waking with a smile, elated to be free from the stress, pressure and drama, liberated from the absence of favor requests, excited about no appointments or deadlines, only my whims (Morning yoga or afternoon Pilates? Volunteer or veg?), and not wanting to wake, dreading the endlessly isolating day ahead, laying in bed feeling sorry for myself.
To be clear, I made the conscious decision, after working 24/7 for the better part of a decade and saving money, to take some considerable time off. I could have pounded the pavement and most likely secured some sort of job but I opted not to. I realize I'm extremely fortunate to be able to make that choice and count my blessings. But that doesn't mean I didn't struggle with a bit of an identity crisis, as I imagine anyone who lost or left their job, went through a breakup or loss of a loved one, or experienced an empty nest would grapple with too.
When you become one with your profession or your label, when you've allowed it to define you and your place in this world, it's a mighty far fall when it's no longer there to provide you purpose, excuses or a false sense of self. The question is, for a career-driven, relationship seeking, check-the-box society like ours, who are we at the end of the day without our qualifiers?
I'm happy to reveal that after months of stillness, self-discovery, tough questions and, yes, plenty of sleep and pity parties, I've come to find what remains is what I knew all along. Without the job, sans the title, I'm still the same girl: full of hope, driven to succeed and a believer in goodness, it was just clouded temporarily by the noise of the industry, allure of the freebies and opinions of others. Sometimes, it seems, you need the exits. For it's there that you rediscover all you were meant to be.
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