I quit high school when I was 15 years old.
Due to my worsening depression and anxiety, and the prospect of changing schools for the 10th time and being held back a year, I left the grounds one day and never returned. A neighborhood grocery store said they had work for me, so it was little trouble for me to get a job.
We left Minnesota shortly after that and headed for Texas, where my dad would have a job in yet another bakery. I helped him in the back for a while, but there was a chance someone would find out I should have been in school, and I didn’t want my dad to get in hot water.
I started looking for jobs — and the fast-food places would take anyone — so I answered an ad in the newspaper that said Burger King was hiring.
At 16, I was schlepping hamburgers and fries, and suggestive-selling milkshakes in the drive-thru at a very high-volume store in Midland, Texas. The pace at which they expected you to work was frantic, but I was young and had a lot of energy. I also had easy access to as much Coca-Cola and greasy carbs as I wanted, so I worked the 10-hour days and mandatory overtime without complaint.
Even if I was making $2.33 an hour, all that overtime always ensured that I had a big check after two weeks, but because my dad’s MS got bad again and he struggled to work, I gave everything I made to my family, except for $20, in case I needed to take a bus. I never whined, because in all the years my dad and mom worked their asses off, even when they were ill, they never once complained and they gave my brother and me everything they could.
We eventually left Texas and headed back to Louisiana. In Baton Rouge, I was a server at a Pizza Hut, and when we went back to Bunkie, also in Louisiana, I sold pizza again.
We moved around a lot, finding jobs for my dad until his health would give out, and we would go somewhere else. That was the pattern of my young life, but it was my life, and I didn’t know anything else.
From there, we headed to Tucson, Arizona, and I found myself at Burger King for a few years again. For someone without a high school diploma, fast food was about the only job I could get. I was also good at it and worked my way up to assistant manager before long.
All my time at BK, I worked countless hours, and when the bosses chose me to help open a new store, they put me on salary so they could push me to work longer hours without earning overtime.
By then, I had a wife and a family, but I rarely saw them because I was working so much. My life was the restaurant, and even when my mental health kept getting worse, I worked harder so I could support the people waiting for me at home.
After some marital trouble and a split, I took a break from food and worked as a manager in the furniture rental industry. But a combination of separation from my kids, my worsening mental illness, a penchant for collecting high-capacity firearms, and copious amounts of drugs and alcohol caused me to crash and burn in the most public of ways.
I headed back to Tucson and my marriage and grabbed the only job that would have me. For the next year, I worked at Little Caesars Pizza as an assistant manager, and again after we moved to Gallup, New Mexico. From there, we moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and I scored a high-paying (for fast food) manager gig at Taco Bell.
The hundred-hour weeks and stressful shifts pushed me and my mental state to the brink until I crashed again and knew I needed to make some changes.
All those years in fast food took a toll on my physical and mental health until I was a shell of the man I had once been. All those days and nights away from my family were also one of the big reasons my first marriage ended in divorce a few years later.
I couldn’t do it anymore, but I didn’t know anything else, so I set out to change that.
I needed a new career direction, and the only way I knew to learn something was to go to college.
But I had a problem. I wasn’t even a high school graduate.
I found out I could still go to college with a GED, so I looked up where to take the tests. I remembered little from school and never got to learn things like Algebra, so I found a study guide at the library and started relearning everything I had ever forgotten.
It took a few weeks, but I was finally ready to take the tests. I was nervous, but confident, and walked out of the building that day knowing I had aced them. I found out later that I had placed in the top 2% of the country, and it made me feel better about going to college in my late 20s.
I was on my way to college!
What I really wanted to do was be a writer, but I listened to the well-meaning people who reminded me I had a family and “had I forgotten that writers don’t make any money?” I started checking around other schools, and working with computers seemed to be the most promising track I saw.
I signed up, qualified for student loans, and before the day was over, got my badge that said I was in the computer animation program at CAD Institute.
But, I still had a problem. I had to work.
Taco Bell was not thrilled about me returning to school and wouldn’t agree to trim my hours back. I was a salaried manager and expected to work as many hours as they needed me, which turned out usually to be between 60–80 a week.
But, I didn’t give up. I made arrangements for my assistant managers to open the store, so I could attend class from 4:00 am to 8:00 am on weekdays.
Every day I showed up on campus at 3:45 am. Then I would leave school at 8:00 am, change my clothes, and start my workday at 8:30 am. I often worked until 10:00 pm, or longer if the unpredictable overnight crew didn’t show up. We were a 24-hour location, so if my people didn’t show up to work, and I couldn’t get anyone else, I worked by myself.
It happened more often than I would have liked.
Somehow, for the next three years, I managed both my job at Taco Bell and college. I don’t remember how I was able to do all the art projects, papers, and extra programming that had to be done and still keep myself on the Dean’s List, but I did. I don’t know how I taught myself web design when I saw that my Arts Degree would do very little to get me a job as an animator when I had no talent, but I could build websites
I don’t know how I managed to support my family as the only breadwinner when I was completely and utterly depressed and anxious all the time. I don’t know how I managed to graduate with honors when my hallucinations were terrible, and I couldn’t control what was going on in my head anymore.
A few months later, I left the animation program because a Bachelor’s degree would have been a waste of time and money. Instead, I took the web design skills I had taught myself and moved on to a better career.
Taco Bell was the last fast food place I worked, and it almost killed me. I was a 30-year old in a 50-year-old body, and my mind was so damaged that I would never be the same again.
I did go on to do big things, even starting a web design business with my best friend in Boston, all while holding down a six-figure job.
Then one day I lost everything.
But that is another story.
There is a Lesson Here Somewhere
Even though for most of my life, it felt like I lived without any control over anything, I took the circumstances I’d been given and made the best of them. Yeah, life handed me the shitty end of the stick more often than not, but I made the decision to keep going forward and never giving up.
Contrary to what I’ve written, there were good times in my life. I’ve been a husband twice, and a father five times. I’ve lived all over the United States and ended up halfway around the world living my best life in the Philippines after losing everything and heading into a death spiral. I’ve worked for peanuts and six figures.
Even with the mental illness thrown on top of everything else, I‘ve had moments of extreme bliss and happiness. I’ve grown into a person who knows the importance of family and how to love.
Even if my life has been one big shit sandwich, I found fulfillment.
Keep going. Never give up. Cherish to good times.
I did, even when fast food was sucking the life from me.
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