The last year-end recap I wrote was for 2021. In that post I described the tough time I was having after the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic (and all that entailed). I had also been navigating a series of personal setbacks and losses: a degenerative eye condition, the death of a pet, losing my social circle to a cross-country move, and poor mental health. All of which had me feeling roughed-up, but still hopeful for a turnaround in the new year. Unfortunately, things did not improve.
A Quick 2022 Recap
2022, to put it mildly, was not a good year for me. Despite my best efforts to shake it, I was stuck in a negative feedback loop of mental burnout, manic attempts at productivity, and crushing depression. The longer it went on, the more time and energy everything seemed to take, resulting in increasingly longer, but less productive work days.
I grew a really gross beard.
Surprise! Isolation was also a big issue. Outside of virtual work chats, I basically only socialized with Karla and one other couple. It wasn’t enough. I was desperately lonely and my mental health in particular was spiraling out of control. My depression was so intense that as the year went on, it was all I could do to keep it together enough to do my job (and very little else).
This put a huge burden on Karla and our relationship. I became increasingly unavailable to help around the house, care for our pets, or fully engage in our life together. As tensions rose and my health continued to degenerate, we knew something had to change. Karla was in favor of me resigning my job and taking as long as I needed to get healthy again. Then, re-enter the workforce. After all, we’d done something similar once before.
In 2012-2013 we had had a failed move to San Diego, CA that required us to move all the way back to Ohio and re-evaluate our next steps. At that time I realized I needed to spend time upskilling if I wanted my career to progress. I ended up taking a year off work and living with my parents (thank you Mom and Dad!) to do self-guided learning about marketing, storytelling, and blogging.
Taking this time off also ended up being one of the best things I could have done for my mental health. Oh, and I lost around 40 pounds! In the end, that decision resulted in my ability to re-enter the workforce as a more valuable employee. My career progressed and the next seven years went pretty well professionally.
This time around though, I was scared to take such a big risk again. My confidence was low and I wasn’t sure I could make a similar comeback a second time. Especially since this time we only had our limited savings to fund my time off. However, with the encouragement and incredible support of my wife, I made the scary decision in December of 2022 to resign from my job, stop everything else, and focus on getting healthy. Then, and only then, would I once again attempt to upskill and re-enter the workforce.
In the rest of this post I’ll share the story of how that decision has panned out over the course of 2023 and what (I think) is in store for 2024.
2023 Q1: An Extended Exit Ramp
I limped through the first three months of the year. At home I was doing my best to be more present and contribute to household chores again. At work I was slowly handing over the reigns of the content team. I worked on internal documentation, a bit of training, and in general doing what I could to make my exit easier for the company and the team I was leaving behind.
Everyone was very kind to me as I exited. Below you can see the gift package my team sent me. A mug, cat toys, and a book.
Building and managing the content team at Elegant Themes was an awesome experience. The lessons I learned there will be with me forever. I hope the relationships made along the way will too.
Thankfully, so far I’ve been able to maintain contact with my friends and colleagues.
2023 Q2: R&R, Making Friends, and lots of Reading
As a sort of symbolic going away and returning, I went camping to mark the transition from being a full-time employee to being on sabbatical. While fun, I was so exhausted that I didn’t enjoy the trip as much as I otherwise would have. But I’m glad I did it. It was my first time using a tent stove! It got down to 17 degrees Fahrenheit 🥶.
When I got home, my primary focus was rest. Before I could do anything else worthwhile, I needed to recover a sense of myself and a capacity for being productive on a daily basis.
A new daily rhythm took shape. I’d get up in the morning naturally, taking all the time I needed. Then, I’d make coffee and read a book for at least an hour (often two or three). After that, I’d go about my day, but be sure to wrap things up early in the evening so I could cook, wind down with Karla, and go to bed early.
When I wasn’t reading or sleeping, I made an effort to exercise and socialize. I went to BJJ classes, went on lots of walks/hikes, attended new Meetups, began hosting a semi-regular watch party, and of course spent much more time with Karla and our cats instead of by myself in my office.
Slowly things started looking up. To ensure this trend continued, I also began the process of getting a current, formal diagnosis of my mental health. These things can take weeks or even months. Eventually, I was diagnosed with bipolar2, ADHD, and PTSD. What a grab bag of fun! PTSD I had known about, but the other two were new to me. No wonder I had been struggling so much. But the good news was that I could now get proper treatment.
2023 Q3: Preparing to Return to Work
After a full three months of rest, new social experiences, exercise, and dramatically improved mental health treatment, I was starting to feel “normal” again. I wasn’t ready to go back to work, but I was ready to start making plans.
During 2022 I had begun regularly using generative AI to test its viability as a tool for creating professional-quality content, with a focus on blog post copy and editorial images. I was convinced that in a few years the technology would be central to everyone’s work. Little did I know how quickly AI would improve!
Whatever time I thought I had to learn this technology and stay ahead of the curve, was gone. Had never existed. And now everything in my professional field was in flux. Multiple colleagues from over the years told me that writing jobs were drying up. Some content creators had already been replaced by AI tools and workflows that made their jobs superfluous. I needed a plan.
I came up with three plans. A short term, mid term, and long term plan.
In the short term I would begin earning money again through contract work: content creation, content strategy/coaching, and digital transformation.
In the mid term, I decided I should get another full-time job or long-term contract in either content, marketing, or community related work. Ideally with an emphasis on strategy.
In the long term, my plan includes a pivot and a departure.
In 2023 I began the long term project of “data gardening” which is the ongoing cultivation of the value of information I create, curate, or otherwise own. This is the pivot.
I plan to use everything I’ve learned about content, marketing, and community to turn my own website into a passive income generator. The source of value will be data in the form of content (blog posts, courses, etc.). Ideally, this will one day become either my primary source of income or one that at least reliably covers all of my essential expenses.
Now for the departure. In 2023 I also became a Humanist Celebrant. This is a secular clergy person who writes and performs non-religious rituals and ceremonies as a service. This profession, for now, is aspirational. It can take a long time to gain enough visibility and connections to sustain a service business based on local community and relationships. However, I’m starting now and seeing where things go.
If you want to learn more about Humanism and why someone might want to do this line of work, check out my blog post series An Introduction to Humanism.
2023 Q4: Back to Work and a Surprise Wedding
By the end of Q3 and the beginning of Q4, it became apparent that I needed to start generating income again. So I started by reaching out to past employers and clients for contract work. With limited success.
Note: a word of advice to others, fall/winter is the worst time to look for jobs. Everyone is busy with end of year tasks, holidays, vacations, etc.
It was a bit nerve-wracking to go months with very little traction on the job front. Thankfully, I got enough work to start generating a helpful amount of income.
Then something entirely unexpected happened. I got a celebrant client!
Two of Karla and I’s best friends announced that they intended to elope together before the end of the year. And they wanted me to write and perform the ceremony!
The only catch was that we found out a few days before leaving to visit my wife’s family in Arizona. Which meant if I left the ceremony writing until I got back, we’d only have a couple days before their wedding date on December 30th. So I wrote the ceremony on my phone while traveling!
When I got back we met at their place, reviewed the ceremony, made a second draft, and rehearsed what we would do on the day.
I’m happy to report: it was amazing! Two days before the new year, a small group of friends gathered in their apartment and we had a beautiful, intimate ceremony. Then we partied!
I wish I had some photos to share at this time but they’re still in the editing process. I plan to write a separate post about my first ceremony as soon as possible. I’ll definitely include photos in that (if I have their permission).
Odds and Ends from Throughout the Year
Not all notable moments fit neatly into a narrative. Here are some other moments and milestones from my life in 2023.
We welcomed a new member to the family. Meet Merlin!
I continued to carve and whittle.
I visited Mt. Rainier with my parents who visited from Ohio.
We also visited the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum. If you’re not aware of it, it’s amazing.
I baked. A LOT.
Karla and I began going to a weekly trivia night at a pizza place nearby. Over months the group we play with has solidified around four couples. With individuals dropping in or out based on availability.
Trivia has been a fun weekly ritual for us and an essential part of our social life this year. The group of friends we’ve made has, as friend groups do, grown close enough to do stuff outside of trivia. Dinner parties, game nights, birthday celebrations, and more. Feels like a major milestone in getting settled out here.
I made a commitment to not drink alcohol for at least a year. This was a decision I made as part of my mental (and physical!) health plan. Close to half a year in and I’m really enjoying it. But as someone who genuinely likes the taste of both beer and whiskey, sometimes you just need to scratch that itch. Thankfully, non-alcoholic beers are surprisingly good!
Karla and I, with our group of new friends, participated in the annual Issaquah Turkey Trot 5k. Afterwards, we hosted a Friendsgiving party at our place. This was fun and fulfilling on so many levels.
Finally, at the end of the year, Karla and I joined her family at the Grand Canyon for a mini Christmas vacation.
Reflecting Back on 2023
I’m happy to report that I have not felt this good mentally and emotionally in several years. New medication, regular therapy, and lifestyle changes have made a huge difference.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in 2023. Having a formal diagnosis of bipolar2 and ADHD have helped me learn about why I think and feel the way I do. It’s also allowed me to develop new routines, rituals, and best practices designed specifically to help me adapt my lifestyle and work habits to these conditions.
Taking extended time off also helped me gain clarity in many areas: health (of course), worldview, personal relationships, community, and more. Thanks in large part to all of the time I was able to dedicate to rest, reading, and cultivating new relationships.
The topic I spent perhaps the most time learning, thinking, and talking about was community. I’ve been an advocate of community my entire life. In my personal life I’ve participated in and organized community groups and events for as long as I can remember. As a professional, I have helped to build online and in-person community for 7+ years.
I never get tired of learning more about the underlying principles, strategies, and tactics of building authentic and rewarding communities. Or experiencing the enrichment of being part of one.
That’s why establishing a friend group here in Washington is one of two things I’m most proud of and thankful for this year. The other being the incredible love and support Karla showed me before, during, and after my sabbatical. I know it’s cliche, but I really would be lost without her.
Thanks to everything that happened this last year, I feel better equipped to maintain my mental and emotional health than I have in a very long time.
Looking Ahead: What’s in Store for 2024?
As of this writing, at the tail end of January 2024, I’m still zeroing in on my next steps professionally. I’ve had one celebrant client but very little interest otherwise. Currently, I’m writing for a few clients on a freelance basis (while that’s still a thing).
Most significantly, I’ll be starting a 3-month trial period in February with a new company I hope to call home (professionally speaking) for at least a few years to come. I don’t want to make any announcements yet though.
In my personal life my hope is that I’m able to maintain work-life balance. Enabling me to participate fully in my life at home and my relationship with Karla.
I also know that regular social activity will be a big part of my health moving forward. Which is why I want to strengthen the bonds of my new friend group as well as branch out to meet new people.
I’m also blogging here on my personal site more than ever before. I hope I’m able to keep that up. If you’d like to follow along as I create new content, join my newsletter below.