*When I read about he death of, Mita Diran, a young copywriter at Y&R Jakarta, I couldn't do anything but write. This story was published on, The 3% Conference, website December 20, 2013
When I made it into what I like to call the big world of advertising after graduating from Miami Ad School, I did everything I could to be on my game. Part of me “being on my game” was about putting in the hours. There were plenty of nights when my partner and I would sleep at our desk, under our desk and in different conference rooms. In a sick way, there was a certain pride that came with being seen in the same clothes I had on the day before, and being asked, “Did you go home?” Early on, I found myself replying back with a lively, “Nope” as if me sacrificing my time and my health was something to be applauded. However two years in, my body and mind started to see nothing celebratory about this type of behavior.
To give context, while at Miami Ad, working all the time is how we got down. On any given semester, I remember handling six projects at one time for school while working full-time. When I wasn’t drinking coffee to stay up, there was beer. Adding to my workaholic grind outs, I internalized the fact that as a woman, especially as a Black woman, the good ole “Black Tax” mindset lived and breathed through me: I had to work harder than everyone else if I wanted to get half the attention. This mindset, for better or worse, has been with me since I took my first job as a retail associate when I was 15-years old, and this mindset became intensified and more pathological when I stepped into my big girl shoes in the ad world.
Plus, I’d heard about the famed nights where our ECD at the time would kill all the work the night before the client presentation and make the team work all night to see if they could come up with something better. In short, I was attempting to prepare myself for the expected long hours by staying ready.
Overworking was normalized for me and I didn’t get a grasp of the words, “Work/Life Balance” until after I ended up in the hospital a few times.
Sure, when I was first hired the director of HR mentioned work/life balance at least quarterly in emails. Yet when it came to the actual practice, I only saw married creatives or those who knew that our bonuses were chump change in comparison to CEOs of the brands we were working on, attempting to achieve some sort of balance. Super single with a sparsely furnished apartment, and almost all of my friends working at the agency, “Work/Life Balance” was something I thought I didn’t meet the criteria for.
My first visit to the hospital happened when I slept for over 26 hours after traveling for an activation and not sleep sufficiently for about a week. When I awakened from my Rip Van Winkle-esque drift my body was weak, shaking uncontrollably, and I was completely disoriented. I made it to the kitchen by sheer will. While I’m no doctor, the vicious convulsions were a sign that I needed two things: water and sugar. As I stopped to take a breath at the sink, it hit me that there was no way my hands were strong enough or stable enough to grab my water jug out the refrigerator, so I turned on the kitchen faucet and drank from it. Once the shaking calmed down, I walked over to the phone to see that I had over 50 missed calls and a slew of voicemails, all from my mother and family members. At that moment I had no idea how long I’d been asleep. I grabbed the phone and immediately called my mother who sounded like she’d been crying. I explained to her what happened and she told me to hang up the phone and get to the hospital.
Fast-forward to me laying in a room in emergency at Northwestern in Chicago with an IV in one arm and a doctor staring back at me like he wanted to hug and pinch me at the same time. The insides of my ears were wet with tears from them sliding down each side of my face. I remember each nurse and nurse's aide coming in giving me mini lectures on taking care of myself and how I was too young to be in the hospital from working.
However, poor historic memory, ambition, and a hard head landed me in the hospital again. The year after my first incident, I was walking to work on a beautiful fall morning. Right at the corner of Michigan Ave. and Wacker a sharp pain shot up my left arm and I gasped for air. My brain went into panic mode but I couldn’t run. I thought to myself, “GET UPSTAIRS AND GET AN ASPIRIN…NOW.” (Oh, and I don’t take medication.) I took a deep breath and coughed for about a good 30 seconds. My steps became slow and deliberate. I clinched my left arm as tightly as I could to my body and shifted the entire weight of my backpack to my right arm. When I finally made it to the elevator, which felt like it couldn’t get up to the 29th floor fast enough, I just remember praying. I was only 29-years old and having symptoms of a heart attack. I quietly walked up to the reception desk and asked Sandy for an aspirin. Sandy looked back at me with the concerned momma face, opened her top drawer and gave me two aspirins. I slowly walked to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, popped the aspirin in my mouth, and cupped my hands to get some water to wash them down. Fighting back tears, I braced myself on the granite sink top and said, “Please God, why do I keep doing this to myself?”
In short, I ended up back at Northwestern in emergency. This time, I feel asleep in one of the waiting rooms, waiting to have some test run. When I woke up, I looked around the room and everyone had to be over 65. One of the women across the room looked at me and said, “Baby, what are you doing in here?” Still in a bit of a fog, I replied, “I don’t know.” My right arm was hurting from falling asleep on the catheter place in my arm for an IV drip. Another older white-haired woman sitting next to me, tilted her head, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “I don’t know what you doin’ but whatever it is, you need to stop. It’s not that serious. You have no business being in here.” I replied, in tears, “Yes, ma’am.” The room fell silent and I heard the sound of my own weeping reverberating through the room. The white-haired woman sitting next to me placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “You’ll be okay” and I believed her. After shedding a few more tears I got up and started opening up the bottles of liquid charcoal mixture we all had to drink for the test. I had tests run on me that day for everything from a pulmonary embolism to heart disease to everything in between. What came out in the wash: I was extremely stressed out, too stressed for my age, consuming too much alcohol and coffee and not drinking enough water, nor was I getting enough sleep. I was sent home and told to do noting but take care of myself for at least a week.
That doctor's directive sent me into an internal frenzy. At that moment, my mind somehow blocked out the fact that I’d just been in the emergency room from around 9:45am to about 4pm. Was the lighting-like pain that shot through my arm and chest on a beautiful fall day not enough for me to NOT think about my job? How about the surreal gathering of seasoned white-haired women in the waiting room who showered me with sage wisdom and gentle warning? Nope, none of it seemed to have stuck because at that moment the only thing I could think about was not being about to come through for my projects. Yes, I had a problem and it was bigger than what I thought. I’d slipped off into a counterfactual abyss, thinking my life no longer had value unless I was providing value at the gig. Coming to this conclusion hurt more than all the sharp pains and needles sticks in my veins.
Foolishly, I returned back to my office to pick up my computer where I ran into a colleague who’d been wondering where I was all day. I told her what happened and she shot me one of the dirtiest looks. Soon after, one of the owners of the agency politely walked up to me and told me if she saw me in the office at any point during the week, I would be fired. Not so foolishly, I accepted a ride home from the colleague who dry snitched on me and endured her no-kid-gloves, Account Director-style berating the entire ride home. One thing she said to me in the car continues to stick with me to this day, “Raz, I’m over 40-years old and I have never had a chest pain. Don’t take this so seriously. You need your life because we aren’t saving anyone’s with what we do.”
That statement stuck with me because I take what I do as a writer seriously. One of the main reasons why I became a copywriter was because I wanted to change people’s lives with advertising. The project I was working on at the time was all about empowering women of color -- yes, while selling a product -- but the overall message for me was life-altering if women really believed in it. Still to this day, I feel like what we do can change lives for the better, but I will never go to the extremes I once did for this profession.
When I read about Mita Diran, a part of me hurt so bad because I’ve been there. A lot of us have been there and a lot of us are still there. I cried because I know the script that plays in our head as women in this business. I cried because I wish I could’ve been there to tell her, there’s always tomorrow, take her out for a nice dinner and tell her not to come back to work until she was properly rested. I cried because I wish I could tell her that she’s more valuable than any campaign she could ever create.