Here’s one way to get high. Shoot up the elevator shaft toward the third highest floor of the second tallest building in San Francisco. Ride silently with a man in a suit, the two of you rising out of the masses into rarified air. You’re twenty-three. Your posture has always been bad. You walk awkwardly in heels, having rarely worn them. It took you three trips to Bloomingdale’s to buy this three-hundred-dollar pantsuit, and you wear it like a costume. You feel small.
But on the other hand, you landed this fancy job on the forty-fifth floor of the old Bank of America Building in the middle of downtown. Step out of the elevator into a glossy, dark-hued office with 360-degree views of San Francisco. The roads stretch out beneath you to the bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, as if emanating from the very place you stand. Sometimes when the fog rolls in, it hits just below the forty-fifth floor, and all that’s visible in the world is the tip of one other building and a carpet of clouds. It seems self-evident that to arrive at such a palace in the sky, you must be extraordinarily special.
The other suit-wearers in the office call your employer The Firm, like that, capitalized. People at The Firm tell you that we hire for intrinsics, which means you’re born smart enough for this job or you’re not. They tell you that you have these golden attributes. So yes, you feel small in your costume suit, but also, actually, important.
Go to the micro kitchen. Gird yourself for the day. Get a cup of M&Ms and one of Cheez-Its. Grab a Diet Dr. Pepper. Maybe it will calm the nausea rising in your belly. Six months into this job and your stomach is already littered with dots of pain and flickers of nausea. Your bursts of wild, dread-fueled anger have begun on Sundays; chronic diarrhea has started. It will last for a decade. You will get bouts of itchy hives for months at a time, and panic attacks, and years when each day you wake up and your first thought is that you wish it were time to go to sleep. Like any high, from the outside the costs seem far too much to justify it. Like any high, from the inside it somehow makes sense.
* * *
How do you find yourself here? How did I find myself here at age twenty-three when I really wasn’t that type of person (I’ll claim I wasn’t)? And—this is what keeps me up at night—how could I stay for so long when the job made me sick and mean?
Here’s the claim already: I was not the type of person trying to get wine-cellar-and-yacht rich, not the type who would devote her life to helping Fortune 500 companies squeeze out just a little more profit next year, the primary work of The Firm. I was interested in helping the world, as many like me are, we who spend sixteen years attending excellent schools. Notably, many of my young colleagues at The Firm had a plan similar to mine: we would build our so-called “skill set” here in this marble-tiled, glass-wrapped office, and then we would march determinedly away to some other office with a much worse view and begin our real work transforming education or fighting climate change or improving local government. I was just there to prepare for something helpful and righteous and good, a vague thing that I would do later.
In other words, even then I could see that The Firm wasn’t those things—helpful, good. But I would just take a quick round trip there, just an efficient little skill-extraction venture, you see?
In the meantime, incidentally, it just so happens, we flew business class on any flight over three and a half hours! At 4 p.m. on Fridays, we sipped free craft beer from an always-full keg forty-five stories above the world! We were the best in the world, the smartest ones, with the coveted intrinsics! Ah, how wonderful it felt to believe such lofty things about myself, just for a moment, just while I was training for my life of good. But of course—and an entire canon of cautionary human fables from throughout history and from across the globe could have warned me of this—there was a cost.
* * *
In my first year at The Firm, being usually the most junior consultant on the team, I was often tasked with printing the team’s PowerPoint slides before big presentations, one set of slides for each attendee. We always edited the deck right up to the start of a meeting, nudging boxes to better align and tweaking titles to make the logical argument just a little tighter. In the hours before such meetings, my nervous system went on high alert: heart racing, breath shallow, mind frantic and jumbled with fear of making a mistake, bar charts blurring on the little screen in front of my eyes, the muscles in my shoulders and down my arms tensing until every little finger muscle was clenched around my mouse. At T-minus seven minutes to the meeting, I rushed my laptop up a flight of stairs to the desk of a secretary and huffed out a desperate plea: Please print this for me, seven copies. She looked up at what surely was a normal speed, but which I perceived as the pace of a snail emerging from a shell, and said,
“Just give me a second, dear.” She smiled.
I let out an unintentional but audible exhalation of frustration.
“I really need it,” I pleaded, fighting a ball of tears in my throat. “I need it now, please.”
The dangling “please,” my lame attempt at politeness, was overtaken by the spastic firing of my nerves, which had reduced me to an absolute wreck of desperation. Any trace of respect I had for this woman had been poisoned by a completely misappropriated conviction that everything in the world hung on the speed of this printing. I could sit here and tell you that this wasn’t my fault, that my rude sigh was unintentional, that I was trying to be polite, that I was under a lot of pressure. But I did sigh, and I wasn’t polite, and pressure in such circumstances is manufactured—we were not going hungry or performing heart surgery. My shitty behavior was just that, and it was ridiculous given the task at hand, which was printing seven copies of a slide deck. One of the intrinsics for which The Firm selected was not kindness.
* * *
I was just there at The Firm as a stopover, to get the skills, I would have said at the time; this was not really me, I would have said, but it was a thin defense. How quickly I was becoming an icky person in these small, important moments. This is to say nothing of the actual impact of the work I was doing, which, I believe, was marginally useful at best and totally harmful at worst (it is nearly impossible for me to tell, even in retrospect). Wherever the work landed on this scale, it is unequivocal that I was becoming less who I wanted to be, increasingly besieged with stress and taking it out on people around me. My body, sensing the wrongness, was beginning to throw up various signals of revolt—stomachaches, nausea, a vast blanket of fatigue, a constant, desperate desire to be in my bed.
At the very same time, though, I was, at age twenty-three, wearing Theory suits and eating fresh papaya strips at extravagant, five-star hotel breakfast buffets. I was boarding a 747 to China and settling into business class, my seat pod equipped with shelving and basil-scented facial toner spray. Oh, what a heady pleasure that is, to sit in international business class. In my life before The Firm, I had walked past the people at the fronts of planes, already seated, reading, drinking their drinks, stretching their legs into the expansive space in front of their seats. I had wondered, as I rolled my carry-on past them, accidentally bonking it on an armrest, who are they? How have they arrived there? And now there I was, one of them. The flight attendant came directly to me as soon as I was settled and took my personal drink order, free alcohol included. My seat became a fully reclining bed, and I was served fresh vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce.
But the physical comfort was not the best part. Best by far was the feeling I got when the rest of the people came on the plane, when I was already reading and sipping as they walked by, and I thought they thought I must be an important person doing important things. This was the feeling that I mainlined in international business class to China. This was the feeling The Firm extravagantly provided, enabled by frothy profits and a continuously reinforced narrative of superiority. More than anything else it was this feeling that captivated me—the feeling that, literally, made me captive.
* * *
I am trying to explain, to you and to myself, how I could both believe I was not one of these people, and simultaneously twist myself into such an ugly shape to become one of them, how I could literally make myself sick staying there, how I could be so privileged and have so many options and also be so deeply miserable and so unwilling to leave. Looking back now, it appears that I was subconsciously but remarkably quickly situating my sense of self within The Firm, supposedly at the top of the world’s hierarchy, molding my young identity around the fancy hotel suites in the absence of actually meaningful work, primed by years of selective and expensive private schools to equate admission into these glossy, rich clubs with worth and mattering. What drives me crazy is that this is an error as old as time—looking externally for self-worth, mistaking accumulated airline points for happiness. How could I possibly be writing about this old thing now? I knew about this trap, I was going in with eyes wide open, I thought, but I fell for it anyway, and for such a long time. My plan to do a quick drive-by at The Firm was flawed in the same way a plan to try heroin just once is flawed: both can almost immediately reprogram a brain to need them. Leave The Firm, and anything else is a downgrade. Leave and there will be an awful, empty, dark void where there was once self-worth. Leave and one is faced with the overwhelming project of actually considering what makes a person’s life worthwhile. And the terrifying prospect that perhaps one’s own life is not.
* * *
I stayed three years at The Firm and then went on to work in a similar environment for seven more years. Needless to say, it wasn’t the quick in-and-out I had imagined. I’m still combing through the decade I spent ravenously chasing after that business-class feeling, looking at the experience from this angle and that, trying to understand why and how, if this or that was worth it. There’s much still to do. But I can say one thing unequivocally. Those of us working for The Firms of the world are highly adept at telling ourselves stories of goodness and future goodness while primarily spending our days making money for our companies and clinging to the feeling of worthiness that our employers provide. This is a crucial mechanism by which people like me can simultaneously hate our prevailing system—extractive, dehumanizing, and work-obsessed—and also continue underpinning it. Some of us experience moral distress and become miserable and call it burnout. Some of us make ourselves sick and off-gas meanness. Some tell ourselves delusional stories of altruism, a la WeWork’s ‘elevating the world’s consciousness’ or Facebook’s ‘connecting every person in the world,’ or my own personal one: ‘save the world later.’ But we continue, fueled by hits of self-importance. We are able to leave the glaring badness of the situation un-interrogated for a very long time.
In terms of my initial skill-building goals, I did become excellent at PowerPoint and Excel, and I got plenty of practice articulating and presenting my ideas (were there other ways to learn these, perhaps?). The value I have gained from these moderately useful skills pales in comparison to the grand shame I feel about it all. My mean little acts still occasionally arrive in my mind unbidden at midnight and make me cringe in my bed. The times I rolled my eyes in the back seat because a taxi driver wanted to chat—he should be able to see that clearly I had my laptop out and was trying to get work done. The times I let out an exasperated sigh when the woman behind the counter making my sandwich paused to laugh with the other woman making the drinks, because I needed to get my sandwich and get back to the office. The Sundays when I was stressed about the week to come and took it out on my boyfriend in the form of stupid little fights. The panic attacks where I lay in the fetal position on the floor, red-faced, trembling, huffing air as if it was all about to disappear, him hunched over me, desperate, scared, saying, Rae? Breathe?
Now I am airing my shame because I don’t know what else to do, because I am desperate to free myself from the prevailing approach, which is, as writer Cathy Park Hong puts it, “to get ahead at the expense of everyone else while burying the shame that binds us.” She’s right, I bury the shame. She’s right, I haven’t yet felt my shame bind me to anyone. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to drag you into this.
Rae Katz’s prose is published or forthcoming in AGNI, Literary Mama, Under the Sun, Steam Ticket, Stonecoast Review, Talking River Review and others. She writes the weekly newsletter Inner Workings, a bestselling newsletter on Substack and a 2023 featured Substack publication. Previously, she co-founded Able Health, a San Francisco-based healthcare technology company supporting better quality measurement in healthcare. Rae enjoys quilting, puttering in the woods, and being a mom.