My seasonal job as a painter/apartment cleaner ends this week, and boy am I relieved! But as with anything in life, there are always lessons to be learned… 

Unlike my dear fellow Lovely writer Lindsay, I was not at all fond of the last “day job” I had. Frankly, it was the worst job I have ever had, and I started working at age 13. It was grueling, humiliating and frankly hardly ever rewarding. I’ve had cleaning jobs before, but they were nothing like this. Despite the job paying $10 an hour, I was lucky to get 20 hours of work in a week. But I stuck it out, and this week, the job finally ends.

Yet as hard as the job was at times, I’m walking away an older and somewhat-wiser person. I really think you can learn from any job you take on, no matter how much you like it. So in addition to how to get a paint stain out of carpet (press a wet towel against it with something heavy, and leave it for at least a day), these are the lessons I learned from cleaning up after other people:

1. You have to be your own advocate.

No one’s going to look out for you if you don’t look out for yourself. Period. It sounds harsh, but the main person with control over your happiness and satisfaction at a job is you. Whether you work in a cubicle or in a field, you can’t expect other people to be looking out for you one hundred percent of the time. You work at a job — you’re not attending a daycare facility.

I’ll pair this harsh rule with a harsh story, just to make my point. One of my coworkers and I were once cleaning the apartment of a person who was recently evicted. He was an alcoholic, and his place was filthy. Just riddled with food, garbage, dust, and bodily fluids I really don’t want to mention here. We took measures to protect ourselves (masks, gloves, long clothing, etc.), but somehow a kitchen knife poked through a garbage bag and stabbed me in the leg.

I had a choice to make: Should I go to the hospital to get a tetanus shot, or should I keep on working with a scraped leg? The cut was very shallow, so it was really my call. I made the better-safe-than-sorry choice, because I didn’t want to risk really getting hurt. It paid off — I ended up just fine, and my work even ended up paying for me to go to the hospital. But I had to speak up and say, “Take me to the hospital!” Because on the job, your voice should be the main one determining your well-being. No one else is going to do it for you to the same extent.

2. You can’t be afraid to say “Bugger Off!” To The Rest Of The World.

One of the worst things I did while working this summer was not take better care of myself. I felt far too obligated to spend time with other people (whom I loved, don’t get me wrong!) that I put aside my own well-being. While recovering from a hard day’s work definitely includes an occasional cocktail with my journalist pals or an episode of Doctor Who with my boyfriend George, it also includes ridiculously long showers and lip-syncing to “Hey Mickey!” in secret during George’s nap (don’t tell, Lovelies!). I didn’t realize that spending time with just me, doing just what I wanted to do after an entire day of following a task list created by someone else, was exactly what I needed!

3. Set your limits, and stick to them.

The apartment complex I was cleaning was also the same one I lived in, which made for some very awkward situations. In general, my rule was this: anyone from work could call or text, but no one came to my own apartment. That rule was broken a few times by one of my coworkers, and I didn’t hide that I was surprised that she came by. Over time, her visits grew more and more brief.

But there was another rule I learned to hold to: If I said I wasn’t available, I wasn’t available. I drew that line right away because I knew my sanity depended on it. Think about it: If your employer could literally knock on your door at any time of day and ask for your help on a project, wouldn’t you be a little harsh about boundaries? I just didn’t want a situation like Dante’s in Clerks

4. Be Honest, But Don’t Be Overly Dramatic.

The day I could finally say out loud, “I really do hate my job” was so liberating. Just saying that I was thinking and not holding it in anymore was so liberating. But over time, I conveniently forgot to mention to people that most of my coworkers were nice, that I enjoyed being handy and that it was fun to actually do an honest day’s work. You know, the good parts of the job. The fact that most of the job stressed me out tainted the entire impression I gave of it. It was such a negative narrative that the good parts just slipped on by…

Sure, certain jobs suck. But no job could possibly suck all the time. No one would take it on if it did. It could be the worst environment ever, with the most obnoxious coworkers and the most demanding bosses. But maybe the pay is really good. Maybe there’s a certain security guard in the front of the building who always asks how your day is. Maybe there’s a guy in the cubicle down from yours who mixes playlists for the rest of the office to listen to all day. You have to remember to tell the whole story (or at least close to it!) whenever you’re talking about your workplace. Just for the sake of accuracy!

5. Don’t ‘Vomit’ On The People You Love

Poor, poor George. Almost every day I’d come home smelling like excrement and Simple Green, and I’d let loose about every single thing that had stressed me out at work that day. A toilet was clogged. I had to spend an hour scraping the inside of an oven. I ran out of paper towels and had to cut off my work shirt’s sleeves to make rags so that I could finish wiping the floor so I could come home. All this in an exhausted, poor-me tone.

Granted, these were legitimate things to vent about. But ranting about every single thing to one person was and is not the proper way of releasing tension. If someone loves you, they’ll probably do their best to be supportive during your time of need. But using one person as your ‘rant buddy’ changes an entire relationship. It makes them feel like your therapist, not your friend/parent/partner.

This isn’t to say you should stifle your feelings if you’re wading through a crappy job. That will absolutely destroy you, I guarantee it. But you shouldn’t trust all of your inner peace to someone else. I’d save the “entertaining segments” of my day to tell George (“There’s a really brilliant mural in the apartment across the way! Who knew?!”), but I’d do my best to take my peace into my own hands. I’d watch a lot of movies. I’d blog. I’d wear my favorite jammies and lay across my bed like Cleopatra for a while. And I felt better.

I don’t write this post about my job to knock people who work in manual labor jobs. On the contrary, if I learned anything as a painter, it’s that I could never ever do this stuff for a living. Those people are complete badasses, and are so tough that it is no longer a surprise to me that an entire holiday is devoted to them. This job mostly sucked (in my opinion) because it was structured poorly for the company’s needs, and because the team was vastly understaffed. Had conditions been different, I’m sure my feelings about the job ending would have been much different.

All the same, I’d rather be a fish-pale writer who spends the entire day holed in up in a desk or cubicle. And I’m now more confident about than ever about that. :)

What was the worse job you ever had? In the end, were you glad you took it?

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