07/14/2012 08:02 am ET Updated Sep 13, 2012

My Pitiful Days of Yore

I graduated with my MFA in creative writing during what seemed like the height of the recession. At the time I figured I would take any crappy desk job and work there until I found something more fulfilling. I simply needed to pay my bills. I didn't have unreasonable expectations. I was not some Pollyanna who thought my degree in creative writing was going to bring me mounds of riches. But I did assume that because I was an accomplished, highly educated person, I would soon find an interesting and challenging job that was at least somewhat related to what I had studied for seven years. I would have been pleased to work in social services, writing, or education in any capacity. All I really wanted was to make some kind of positive difference in the world.

But that didn't happen. I had to take a mindless job at a company whose mission and philosophy made me feel spiritually ill. And no matter how many jobs I applied to, I could not get out. Those two years felt eternal. When I thought of Sisyphus rolling that giant rock in the infernal heat, I was able to empathize in ways I never imagined. Instead of a rock, though, I had a cheap calculator. Sometimes I would look wistfully out the window and think of how I failed all of my childhood dreams. If you would've told chubby 12-year old Erika that she would be doing simple math all day to make a living, she would've likely bitten your finger.

I know, I know, these are middle-class "first world problems." Why am I complaining if I had food and shelter? My parents are working class, so, believe me, I know how bratty this sounds. But my unhappiness was severe and it was even affecting my health.

For a person with integrity and an overactive imagination, sitting still in a sterile environment performing mindless tasks for a mission you don't respect can be emotionally and physically painful. Not only that, there was a period in which the work was so slow that I had almost nothing do. And though I did ask for more tasks, I didn't want to let on how slow it was because I didn't want to get canned. A girl's gotta eat, after all. And because I couldn't listen to music, read, or write anything on the office computer, I would spend up to seven hours pretending to work. For those of you who have experienced this, you know this feels like psychological torture. I'm not exaggerating. They might as well have played the Meow Mix song over and over again until the end of time.

During meetings in which words like "synergy" were used, my soul would barf. When I (frequently) over heard conversations about the Kardashians in the lunchroom, I shuddered. When women talked about "scooping" their bagels and eating only apples for lunch, I wanted to feed them sticks of butter. Sometimes the snobbier young women looked disgusted when I heated up my Mexican food in the microwave. ("Oh my gawd, I can't believe she's eating beans again.") When I would say hello to people in the hall, they'd ignored me. It was just like junior high. I was, once again, the weird girl with the smelly food.

After especially bad days, I would walk glumly to the store and get a six-pack of beer. Sometimes it was bourbon. I frequently cried as I walked home, alarming all the passersby. Some evenings, I would cram my face with half a frozen pizza in quiet despair. And some mornings, I dry heaved in my bathroom or gagged as I approached my building. My body was clearly telling me something.

Everything else in my life was fine, so the main source of my frustration was obviously work. Most weekends I was happy, but on Sunday evenings, I would become quiet and tense. There were times that I thought, "God, did I piss you off? Did I ruin my karma because I once stole a girl's Giga Pets in 1997?

But of course, this phase of my life eventually ended. The only thing that's certain in life is change, after all.

I learned a great deal, of course, but essentially, the experience only emphasized what I already knew: I'm simply not equipped for that kind of work. I need to use my very cultivated brain for a good cause. I'm a hippy on the inside. I have literally hugged trees. I believe in love, peace, kindness, compassion, and art-- all kinds of crap that will guarantee you a life of poverty. But I can live with that. I'm grateful that I now have fulfilling work and that my integrity is no longer compromised. This is the happiest I've been in years.

Every once and awhile, though, when I see the building I worked in looming over the city, I remember my homie Sisyphus pushing that stupid rock up the impossible hill. I raise my beer to him.