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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

Losing Colleagues & Your Identity

In the Fall of 1999, my husband suffered a medical event that left him temporarily disabled. He walked with a cane, he could not do his job as a massage therapist, and no one could figure out why. I was approaching the 5th year of running my nonprofit musical theater company - the real make it or break it year. I realized it was time to throw in the towel on the life we were trying to build, grow up, and find a "regular" job with a real paycheck, benefits, and good health insurance. So, I did.

I walked away from Circlestage in April 2ooo. This event was my first encounter with the loss of identity a job change causes. I formed a sort of family of these theater people during my time as founder, general manager, and sometime cast member. The laughs, fun, and stories from that time fill me up to this day. I am so grateful for the experience.

Like the time a few days before opening The Fantasticks, when my business partner, Don Hoffman, got food poisoning so badly he collapsed in the street. I rushed him to the emergency room while our choreography proceeded with tech rehearsal. If you are not a theater person, the tech rehearsal is strictly for all of the technology aspects of things. The actors and musicians mark there places while the tech people adjust lights and run the scenery and props to make sure everything is timed well.

Our lighting board had been stolen twice that week. Don's health remained in jeopardy and I left him at the hospital running back to the theater to help with tech night. When I entered the hallway that led to our space, I found the drummer lying on the floor groaning. He had told us right after he signed the contract about two bouts with appendicitis he experienced recently swearing it was all cleared up. "Okay," I thought, "add finding a new drummer to the list of to do's." When I sat down next to our choreographer, we both burst out laughing. We laughed until we cried. It was all too absurd. Yet, somehow, the show went on and no one died.

Then there was the time we were performing Beauty & the Beast (not the Disney version). We alternated two groups of children, totaling 10 so there were five per performance, who became the Beast's rose garden. By the last performance, only one little rose made it to the stage. The others dropped out for a myriad of reasons - colds, flus, parents who had not realized the schedule included shows during the day, and one little rose who fainted on stage from locking her knees while she stood there. The Beast gallantly carried her off stage with an improvised, "Oh, my sweet, little rose," returning very professionally to keep the show moving.

There was a proud moment when we debuted "Quilt" a musical - a seemingly never-ending musical clocking in at more than three hours - which included stories of many individuals across the country who contracts AIDS. We decorated the walls of the theater with paintings of many of the squares that made up the famous AIDS quilt.

And there was the work, nonstop work and nonstop worry. I was ready to leave that part behind, but I was not prepared for the hit my soul took.

Those fun people who were my family for a few years suddenly had little in common with my new life. They hung together in a pack and I was an outsider. The lack of interest on their part in continuing relationships, getting together for coffee, reaching out during happy or sad times sunk me into grief. (Note: there a few from this time period who are still my friends. The loss here is more about the group)

Were we really ever friends? I thought about this often. Did I misjudge the situations? Did they all secretly hate me? In the early 2000s, I still thought in extremes. Of course, they did not really hate me. But, in my mind, you either loved me or hated me. My emotions were extreme and the grief was real.

There was a lot of crying. There was a lot of anger. And, there was a lot of resentment - towards my husband, God, and my situation. All of this sounds kind of childish, and maybe it was infantile on my part. So, I kept it all inside out of embarrassment and fear of upsetting my family. Outwardly, I was described as "bubbly" or "always smiling" by my new colleagues. Inside, I cried and seethed...for nearly five years.

Work friends can become closer to you than any family member, and yet, completely evaporate when circumstances change.

If these people were not really my friends, and, now I am not a performer or producer or business owner any more, then who am I. I was lost. The only answer I saw was darkness, a black hole. Who am I? Who was I? Who am I now? It all went unanswered and I felt terribly conflicted most of the time.

My new corporate world was a strange place, one where I also felt like an outsider. I was so sad and lonely.

Eventually, things changed for the better. The change happened not because I spent the time to delve into my feelings and understand them. The change happened because I became too busy with my new job and new life to think about it anymore. Five years later, I had an even better job, a wonderful son, an able and loving husband, and had just bought a house for the first time. I felt secure and safe. The feeling was new to me and I let go of my grief replacing it with all the living going on around me.

Life continued, and, in 2015, I started living the dream. The best job ever. Internal coach at a national business after many years of hard work. I loved this job. I was doing all the things I enjoyed most. I was valued personally and financially. I was on the top of the world. My colleagues were smart, funny, innovative, and caring.

Then, in 2020, just under six years later, my job was eliminated. First, no matter how many times the management told me "this is not a performance issue," I still felt guilty and embarrassed. "What was wrong with me? Why don't they like me anymore?," I thought even thought I expected it would happen soon. I was very prepared, because there had been a big change in management and I was the oddity - a job that only one person was doing. I knew the change was on its way. It still hurt.

I had learned so much since 2000. I funneled my energy into positive activity. No need to waste it on grieving, feeling sad, or being resentful. I started working on my business right away. I love to create things and being my own boss again returned me to my roots. Success came to me.

Yet, that old question nagged at me. Were my colleagues ever really my friends. I pondered and pondered this. My reach outs were often met with brief "Good to know!" or "Thanks for the update" comment, but mostly with silence. Note: As above, I made several good friends at this job. My thoughts here are about the group of colleagues as a whole.

Then it came to me. Work friends can become closer to you than any family member, and yet, completely evaporate when circumstances change. Sometimes the closeness of physicality creates bonds that are rich and meaningful...and temporary. How strange? There is something distinct and rare about seeing the same person or people every day and sharing the happenings of your life with them in the moment. That singularity creates these friendship bonds.

I believe the relationships with your colleagues are real. I also believe they must be acknowledged while you are in the midst of them and mourned when they are gone. I cried a few times out of loneliness and loss while I transitioned from my last job into my own business. I miss my friends.

And now, I have new colleagues. They tend to be women who also own their own businesses. Life is good.

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