I quit my job last month.
After three years of largely working behind a desk at a non-profit in town, I walked into HR and told them to kick rocks after being disrespected by the admin for the last time. My job had become a mausoleum as, unlike other pandemic era jobs, I still had to come into the office to risk being infected by a growing pandemic while doing monotonous labor that could easily be done from home. It was maddening but not nearly as maddening as my rapidly decaying relationship with my supervisors. My work had turned into mindless data entry toward the end with any suggestions, thoughts, and complaints tossed to the wind because my bosses simply wanted it their way and only their way. Felt like I was going nuts in there, unable to escape lest I lose my income and my healthcare in the middle of an unprecedented time period.
My lack of real options only made my self-esteem spiral yet deeper and deeper into dread.
Going to the office each day got worse in my final months. Spending 40 hours a week doing something that made me miserable just so I could earn maybe two or three to myself at the end of each day and a weekend to “recharge” felt humiliating. It felt like I was losing my mind forcing myself to move within the claustrophobic walls of my office and the building that I was not allowed to escape until the clock struck 4:30 pm each day. Even on the best of days, it was still a chore to get through it and it left me burnt out every damn time.
Quitting and finally leaving that place felt like escaping an insane asylum.
Not long after leaving this horrid cycle one of the first things I did was revisit a film I had seen the year before in Robert Eggers black & white 2019 masterpiece “The Lighthouse.” I was already fond of it before, having watched and enjoyed it with friends online during quarantine, but felt a desire to watch it again as the film made me infinitely curious of its nature the first time around.
It is a movie that can be interpreted in a lot of different ways, mind you, and whatever is your take on it is probably valid too. The film, a story of late 1800s lighthouse keepers steadily going mad on an island far offshore from New England, has a lot of different influences and themes to draw on and by Eggers own account is meant ask more questions than it answers. The most obvious messages one can draw from watching it the first time around is how infectious madness and isolation can grip the mind, deviance and sexuality, old timey tales and folklore of the sea, and of course a heaping helping of old school mythology especially at the end with its reference to the Greek tale of Prometheus.
But what I found on my second go around, fresh off my exit from my cantankerous job, was how much the film reminded me of how I felt when I was stuck in that office. Slowly losing myself, feeling loathsome, degraded, exploited and wasting away in a space I despised just because I needed money and, in this country, healthcare too, especially during a pandemic.
It’s a horror movie about a shitty job in many ways.
Again, the movie can viewed in a lot of different ways metaphorically but I couldn’t help but shake this strange troubling kinship with Robert Pattison’s character “Young,” as named in the credits. “Young” is constantly at odds with Willem Dafoe’s “Old” in the story as their worker/boss dynamic respectively shifts in wild directions throughout its runtime and the line between what is real and what isn’t blends in often strange and confusing ways. “Young” is shown to be mostly powerless in this relationship through the first two thirds of the film as “Old” berates him for “neglecting” his duties while giving contradictory orders and gaslighting him for what may or may not be his own amusement. “Old” chortles him with patronizing terms such as “lad” and “dog” maintaining a pseudo father son relationship with “Young” that erupts both erotically and violently by the film’s end.
Boss to worker relationships in this world is one of consistent imbalance, as cuts to protections of unions and worker’s rights in capitalist societies leads to workers being more and more servile instead of a more equal in partnership as it should be. Workers are pushed around consistently by their boss’s mandates and speaking out of turn against it typically doesn’t end well. Labor is largely expendable to them and to the managing class workers are cogs in a machine meant to perform a purpose or repurposed on a whim based on the boss’s needs. They largely don’t work nearly as much or in as labor intensive roles as their subordinates and yet hold all the keys and all the power in the relationship.
In the film we see “Young” toil under “Old’s” often conflicting and confusing orders. Shoveling coal into the fire, hauling heavy oil canisters up many flights of stairs, scrubbing and scrubbing again the floorboards yet the film doesn’t show much if at all of what “Old” does. Again, this is very open to interpretation, but if “The Lighthouse” is something of a horror movie about a shitty job then a line can be drawn here. “Young” works, “Old” doesn’t.
The imbalance of worker to boss relationships also includes cordiality as well. With things the way they are in the workplace, only one side really gets to be harsh and honest while the other often has to just stand there and take it. My relationship with my former boss was often like this. A micromanager who often gave confusing instructions on my work, forget what she told me to do then chastise me for doing what she told me to do, but then if I saw her on the elevator, I would still have to say “Hi!” with big fat dumb grin on my face like I wasn’t being hassled constantly by her. It was humiliating, especially on those days when I did go above and beyond the call of duty to bring something of worth to the table only to be told “no” over and over again.
This view of the worker relationship can be seen best during quieter moments in the film when “Young” and “Old” are having supper together. The two bicker like an old married couple and its very much Egger’s intention. Egger’s puts kind of a pseudo, toxic romantic spin on the two here that is very much a commentary on masculinity and homoeroticism but also can be seen in the way bosses often abuse their relationship with their subordinates and forces them to be “nice.” “Old” is constantly trying to get “Young” drunk and more “chark” with him while “Young” very clearly has little to no interest in his advances. Deep down, he understands that a relationship of imbalance can’t be friendly or even cordial and this powerplay between the two goes on and on for the entire film.
When “Young” does slip some honesty out it ends with “Old” berating him, guilting him, or just flat out lying to him (or at least as far as we can tell in the way this story is told). Managers are typically not looking out for your best interests in the workplace because that’s not where their priorities lie even though supposedly we’re all a team. I’ve had bosses get very angry with me if I so much as whispered that I wanted a day-off with my earned PTO. I’ve had one tell me I work too fast, and not in a good way, after finishing my work to the point I had nothing to do with my remaining hours. And with this last job I let out the mildest of “It is what it is” when being told I was being moved which got a “What was that?” glare.
For “Young” his increasingly estranged relationship combined with his troubled and, let’s say, “confusing” past led him into his paranoid delusions and his low feelings of self-worth. Whether “Young’s” visions of mermaids, sea creatures, and ocean deities were real or imaginary it represented his quickening spiral in this place he truly despised and his mind teetering on the edge of madness. I’m not saying I started seeing ghosts and demons lurking in the hallways of my office in my final months but I definitely felt like some weight was pressing on my mind constantly. It was frying my brain, making my mind feel foggy and hazy. It was like someone was tenderizing my brain like meat, while sharp nails were drawn on a chalkboard.
I couldn’t think straight or concentrate in that awful place. It felt like my brain was on fire because I was forcing myself to be somewhere I had no desire to be in.
May is Mental Health Awareness month and to our credit the topic is less of a taboo than it’s ever been in society. People are way more open about their feelings of self-doubt and depression and people are more willing to listen and acknowledge it too. The problem is talking about mental health rarely steps into the real whys and mostly talks about it on a purely individual level. Like it’s something random that just festers and grows in the mind instead of the result of very real circumstances in society that need systemic correcting. My job gave me my first panic attack and later landed me in therapy and psychiatry, taking meds to make me cope with my miserable state of life each day. And that’s the job of mental healthcare really in capitalism, is not to seek catharsis with the world but to MAKE you cope.
Mental healthcare can’t change the systemic problems we have with our work culture, all it can do is at best sedate us. What good is telling people to go outsideif they have to work two jobs to survive? How can you take up a new hobby or get out more to get your mind off things if you don’t make enough to get a gym membership or even a short vacation? It’s good we are talking more about mental health but we are still not actually talking about it too either.
In the end, you know what has worked better than all the Lexapro I’ve taken over the past year? Fucking quitting my job.
Our work culture is extremely imbalanced. I worked in one of the better circumstances in this country and I still could barely handle it mentally. People are working in far worse conditions these days and mostly just have to put up with it because there is nothing there to support them if they leave. I was only able to do so in my case because I live at home and have a large savings; most people don’t. If workers earn essentially slave wages, with no healthcare, no PTO, they just have to deal with it largely, there is no choice. With Union and worker rights being routinely weakened by private interest via the government in this country the power dynamic gets more and more out of control and laborers again have no power to speak of to stop it.
Sure, they can “just find another job” but if most work in this country basically operate under the same circumstances, then what exactly changes for them?
I’m mentally in a better place than I’ve been in a long time after quitting but it took a ton for me, even in my position, to consider losing my income and my health insurance in a time like this. I’m genuinely more happy and content than I have been in years but I know this can’t last forever, I know this freedom is temporary at best, and eventually, I’ll have to try to return to the “grind” and explain the enormous gap in my work history to people who likely won’t care or understand that I just couldn’t take it anymore.
A bad job is a maddening experience and quitting voluntarily in some ways feels like escaping a serial killer. There’s a reason people almost speak of past jobs, particularly in service and retail, like “war stories” because it often feels that traumatic for them. To be degraded, exploited, tossed around like a sack of meat all for a barely livable wage or salary at best is mentally taxing and depressing as hell.
“The Lighthouse” is a great movie that can be interpreted and understood in a variety of strange ways. In my case I can’t shake this connection to my foul workplaces of the past with this movie and how they dragged me down into my lowest depths. Everybody is pretty depressed these days and you’ll hard pressed to find someone who isn’t at least partly mentally unhealthy due to their work situation.
Whatever conclusion you may draw from Egger’s dry horror comedy (?) “The Lighthouse” for me at least is a reminder of the dread that I feel deep down in our toxic work culture and how unescapable it often feels when in it. This isn’t likely to change anytime soon but perhaps I can run out the clock long enough to find more pleasant ways to make money and survive.
Until then I leave you with this…should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll deign to save our suppliant…
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