Fleeing toxicity

By Caitlin Kelly

I took on a freelance project in August that, while hardly ideal, sounded like it might be worth doing.

I was willing to try.

It was a lot of hard work for not-enough money.

It was also, though, a lot of hard work with editors whose skills proved deeply disappointing.

Last week I ditched it.

I rarely walk away from regular paid work; like every full-time freelancer (or anyone running a business), I know how difficult it can be replace one client with another or, more realistically, with three or four.

But I finally hit breaking point when I spoke up for myself (not a quick decision) — and in reply was smacked down like a puppy who’d peed the rug.

By someone barely one-third my age and with two years’ experience.

Done.

Anyone who grew up in a family where their feelings were routinely ignored, let alone one with some seriously nasty behavior patterns, knows that it can a lifelong challenge to parse what’s “normal”, (especially indifference to respecting you), and what isn’t.

To determine if it’s “just you” feeling shitty about that relationship all the time, or maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason for that, and you need to get away now.

To know when to stand up for yourself — sick to death of cringing and genuflecting to people whose treatment of you is miserable, but whose payments cover stuff like your groceries and health insurance.

And to know when to simply say, enough toxic bullshit.

Throughout my life, I’ve marked these pivotal moments with a piece of jewelry, a talisman to signify, with beauty and grace and a tangible memory of taking the best possible care of myself, the important transition away from a soul-sucking situation and a movement towards freedom, re-definition and independence.

It’s scary.

It’s not easy.

I don’t bolt quickly, easily or without much deliberation and self-doubt.

The first was the decision to end my first marriage, at least in its then-iteration, (deeply lonely, adulterous on his part), while I was 100 percent reliant on his income.

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I was alone in Thailand, on  Ko Phi Phi, a remote island when I decided. I bought a coral and turquoise and silver ring for about $20 and brought it home to remind me of my resolution. My husband, of course, didn’t like its style. Within six months, the marriage was over.

The second was putting my alcoholic mother into a nursing home. Our relationship had been tumultuous for decades. The experience was emotionally brutal for reasons too tedious to detail here.

I found, in a craft shop on Granville Island in Vancouver, a small sterling silver heart that looked like a stone that had washed up on some beach or river shore, pitted and rutted, battered — but intact.

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It symbolized exactly how I felt; I wear it on a long piece of cord.

The third was this one, to shed a client I’d had doubts about from start.

So I found this gorgeous small lock at a Christmas market in New York’s Bryant Park, a Turkish design. It consumed almost exactly the paltry sum I’ll earn from my last piece of work for them.

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Open the lock.

Go.

Freedom feels good.

Talismans remind me to chase it, cherish it and never relinquish it so easily again.