“One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.” – Oscar Wilde
At 39, I was overweight, defecting from a cult-like and hypocritical religion, and, ultimately, in a state of self-hatred after nearly two decades married to a woman who never said she loved me once. I had no money and spent months looking for something in accounting.
I spent most of my marriage unemployed. I had become severely ill, so it was better that my wife worked while I took care of the kids. I was a great househusband. I cooked, cleaned, changed diapers, and helped the kids with homework.
Then it all ended and I needed a job. I tested, frequently, for city and state positions, scoring in the top two or three of all those who took the assessments. Interviewer after interviewer said the same thing; you haven’t worked in years. We need someone who knows the current accounting rules, they said. Accounting rules, by the way, haven’t changed in decades.
Desperate, I applied at Wal-Mart. I immediately got a call and started orientation the next week. I’ve joked that, as a consumer, Wal-Mart is a bit of an abusive relationship that I always go back to. Now I was going to be a cashier there.
Self-hatred is a difficult thing. My marriage had a lot of problems, and there’s symbolic blood on both my hands and hers. My contribution to failure was this; how can a man love his wife when he hates himself?
I was happy to have a job, but self-loathing haunted me, a hungry ghost of the past looking to feed off my negative thoughts. And I knew it. While going through orientation, I had to put together my name tag. I was told I could use a nickname if I wanted. I always liked my middle name, Anthony, more that my first name, so I put “Tony” down as my name.
This seemingly small change made a large difference. Paul was a sad guy; feeling like life had beaten him into the ground. As his soon-to-be-ex-wife said to him frequently, he was unlovable. Paul had emotional baggage and regrets. Paul was shy. Paul dwelled on his problems, but rarely could find a solution.
It wasn’t intentional, really. But Tony was a friendly guy. Everyone at Wal-Mart liked Tony. And Tony filed divorce.
And soon I became Tony George. Only my supervisors knew my name was legally Paul. I came to work, put a smile on my face, and responded to customers with warmth and sincerely. Many people came to my line because they knew, not only was a fast at my job, I talked to people and made them feel better when they left than when they came in.
Wal-Mart drew me out of my shell of emotional abuse. Paul dwelled in self-pity. Tony encouraged co-workers to go to school and better their lives. Paul saw a life of pain and suffering and had no way out of it. Tony meditated, accepted suffering, and looked for ways to move on.
At Wal-Mart, I had to be friendly and helpful, even when I felt like running of and crying. My focus became the people in front of me, not my problems. I learned to talk to people by using their interests as the subject.
Wal-Mart did not literally save my life. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed,” she writes about her experience working at Wal-Mart. I read her book about a year after leaving Wal-Mart. And my experience with the company matches hers a lot, especially the training and the anti-labor messages.
I was in no position to date; I was going through a divorce. Not only was I not ready, I truly believed that getting involved before the judge put her signature on the divorce was wrong. But my female customers were so positive.
“You are too handsome and charming to be working at a Wal-Mart.”
“So what days do you work here? … Well, I’d better make sure I show up on those days.”
“Oh my God, you smell wonderful!”
The last one was by a 13-year-old girl. I think her comment was innocent in intent. Her mom, however, practically dragged her away.
But I needed that kind of environment. It helped me build my confidence. As that grew, so did my warmth and friendliness with others.
My year at Wal-Mart was the best therapy I could have. I had been seeing a therapist, who commented that my determination to become someone better was inspiring.
Then I slipped. The city of Reno offered me a job, which I gladly took. I enjoyed the job very much. While, like any government job, there was too much needless paperwork, my position as a program director benefitted many of Reno’s seniors and disabled citizens. I learned much about dealing with people at Wal-Mart, and I brought this attitude to my new position.
But dammit! My nametag said “Paul,” and getting it changed was a nearly impossible challenge. So I was called Paul again. And some of those old feelings came back with the name. After getting laid off from the city, I started college. Again, Tony got shoved aside by Paul. And I let it happen.
College was the best experience of my life, and you are welcome to read about it here. The last few semesters were incredibly difficult, and I stumbled a bit. Yet, I loved school.
But I was still Paul. There’s still some baggage to that name. I opened up a lot during my four years in college, but still tended to be that shy guy. Given my height and build, people interpret “shy” as “mob enforcer.” Actually, I’m a sweetheart.
So, I’ve decided to start using Tony as my name, socially and professionally. Let’s see how that works out.
Over the course of some future blogs, I am going to open up about the events that led to my divorce and why it was the best decision I ever made. Wait, didn’t I just say going to school was my best experience ever? Both are true. I could have never gone to school married to this person. She even admitted shortly before I graduated that she would never have allowed it.
If you are unhappy, either with your life or you, only you can change it. It will not be easy, but you have to consider the possibility that you are not living your life right now. You are living someone else’s version of your life.