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This year on International Women’s Day, I told my boss that I would leave my job in July.
I am resigning without another job lined up. I have no idea what I will do next professionally. And I don’t know what to do with my newfound freedom. The truth is, I am feeling so exhausted, cynical, and numb after two years of pandemic that I cannot think straight about my future right now.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of my career in hospital pharmacy. I have been working as a senior manager at a metropolitan public hospital for the past decade. Before and during this time, I worked in different roles in different places—on the frontline, medication safety, project management, and directorship at a regional hospital. Every day, I cherish the opportunities to be able to do good, make a difference, and support other people in my professional role.
However, since the beginning of my career, I have always had this soft voice whispering in my head, “Bonnie, you will not retire as a pharmacist. Never.”
My accidental career
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” ~ Lewis Carroll
When I was a kid, I always loved reading—Chinese folklore tales, biblical stories, and old English classics. My young heart lived and breathed art, history, and literature. I wanted to become a writer after winning the school’s writing competition at the age of eight. I dreamt of having my own bookshop, looking exactly like the Shop Around the Corner that Meg Ryan’s character owned in the movie “You’ve Got Mail.”
In my junior high years, I enjoyed learning art history so much that I aspired to become a curator at The Louvre or V&A Museum. I had some big dreams back then—and it’s clear that a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Maths) was not my calling.
Everything changed when my family and I moved to Australia in the early 90s. As we settled into our new home country, I was told by many people that my English would never be as good as fellow Australians. That I would not be able to achieve good enough results to get into university if I chose to do arts subjects. That studying to become a licensed professional would be the only way for Asian immigrants to “survive” in the Australian society.
In the Chinese culture, a person’s professional and financial status is a key symbol of success. Not just for the individual, but also for our family and relatives. What we do for work has the power to make or break the “reputation” of the family name. Many of us are raised with the expectation that we must study hard, achieve academic excellence, and make a living in elite professions such as medicines, law, accounting, or finance. Many parents discourage their children from pursuing a career in art or creative industries because they are perceived to “make no money and contribute nothing to the economy.” It is deeply rooted in our culture that children, and even in adulthood, are to obey our parents and must not bring shame to the family.
Desperately wanting to make my parents proud, I suppressed my love and desire for a life in art and words. I hypnotised myself into the world of physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science during my senior high years. I took on my family’s suggestion to study pharmacy, because it was “a nice and appropriate career for girls” and I would make an excellent pharmacist with my “photographic memory to remember all the medication names.”
I convinced myself that it was the right decision, as long as I listened to my family, worked hard, and did whatever it took to become successful.
Maitri: the turning point
“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” ~ Jack Kornfield
On the surface, I ticked many boxes for “success”: became a senior manager in my 10th year as a pharmacist, achieved professional accolades, bought my own apartment at the age of 30, travelled often, and ate out in fancy cafes and restaurants every week.
But deep down, I felt inadequate, empty, and unloved. To fill the void, I set my eyes on the next pay raise, chased the next promotion, and said yes to every project. My inner compulsion to work hard became so overpowering that I prioritised work over everything else—rest, self-care, hobbies, and social life. My professional identity became my entirety. I did not know who I was without my job, income, or credentials.
Like a rat running on a wheel, I was stuck in this “sprint-burnout-forced break-feel behind” cycle every few years. I blamed myself for lacking the stamina and resilience to push on. My “solution” was to read lots and lots of self-help books, hoping one day something would “click” in me, and I would live happily ever after.
In late 2015, my health plummeted to the rock bottom.
For months, I had this dull, throbbing pain radiating from my back to all over the body. I lived on a diet of coffee and vegetable soup because any solid food would trigger severe nausea, reflux, and/or bloating. I was too weak to exercise. I often broke down into tears when I drove home after work. I could only sleep for about four hours a day, as tinnitus pierced through both of my ears, while my brain ruminated all night long.
It was then that I finally admitted that I could not keep carrying on like this and I needed help.
For the next six years, I embarked on a journey of recovery, reflection, and reset, with the support from medical doctors, a psychologist, and professional coaches. I was prescribed medications to manage my health issues. I incorporated suitable self-care practices into my daily routine one by one. I threw out many self-help books, and instead dove into the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, Alain de Botton, Deepak Chopra, and many others.
Scrolling through my phone the other day, I found a picture that I took in my psychologist’s office in August 2017. She drew on the white board a five-month timeline outlining the steps from resignation to sabbatical. But I was not ready to walk away from my job back then—not until I practised maitri (loving-kindness, or unconditional friendship with oneself) for the following five years.
Over time, I have learned to:
Rest my body, feel my heart, and rest my soul.
Accept myself as I am, warts and all, with love and compassion.
Believe that I am enough, and I have enough.
Let go of unhealthy beliefs, habits, and relationships.
Stop the relentless pursuit of perfection, achievement, and recognition.
Connect with other people in a genuine and authentic way.
Find my voice and speak up about my thoughts and feelings.
Approach life with the beginner’s mind.
Allow myself to play and have fun.
Maitri shows me the path of becoming myself. My true and unapologetic self. All the things that I used to perceive as disadvantages—my gender, ethnicity, hard of hearing, introversion, and chronic health issues—have become the lived experience that I am now proud of.
“True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
The last 20 years felt like a bumpy joy ride on this road trip called Life.
I blindly followed what I had been told. I had no clue about where I wanted to go and what direction I was heading. Sometimes, I focused on the road ahead so hard that I missed the signs or ran out of fuel. Sometimes, I got so distracted by other drivers, flashlights, and noises around me that I drove into the ditch or bumped into other cars.
Despite all the bruises and scars, I have always kept an open mind and enjoyed some jolly good time, too. I crossed paths with many kind, wonderful people, of whom many have become lifelong friends and allies. Together, we laugh, scream, and support each other’s hopes and dreams, as we continue to move forward in our own journeys.
Starting out in a profession that was not my preference is, in fact, a blessing in disguise. It has taught me knowledge, skills, and a worldview that I would not have acquired otherwise. And thanks to maitri, I finally feel safe and confident enough to take a pit stop.
Where I am right now is exactly where I need to be. Everything is right on time.