Those of us in the U.S. are celebrating the Fourth of July by kicking back and grilling things. But if you’re here for a food-related post, you might want to head over to my Recipe Index or archive instead, ’cause today’s post is all about me quitting my job.
That’s right: I’m celebrating my own personal independence day. After 14 years as a clinical pharmacist at the local hospital—the last dozen of which was spent working overnights in a fluorescent-lit ICU pharmacy—I just wrapped up my final graveyard shift.
My last night at the hospital was more emotional than I’d expected. One minute I was rocking out to Europe’s “The Final Countdown” (which was blasting triumphantly in my head all night), and the next, I was weepy over leaving my happy little nightshift family. (Goodbye, Will and Deb!) I’d been working at this hospital since 2000—when Bill Clinton was in the White House, Buffy Summers had no idea she had a sister, and Mark Zuckerberg was just some 16-year-old kid. I won’t miss the 70-hour workweeks, but on some level, I’d become weirdly fond of my nightshift routine. My Indow Windows blackout panel is pretty awesome, and I love my Tempur-Pedic Sleep Mask. Call it the Stockholm Syndrome, but I’ll even (kind of) miss the jetlag I’ve suffered every Wednesday since Ben Affleck and J. Lo got engaged.
In some ways, I loved being a zombie drug dealer. (The job title has a nice ring to it, too.) Believe it or not, I actually chose to switch from my position as a critical care pharmacist to a generalist nightshift pharmacist back in 2002 because I craved predictability; I figured the seven-nights-on, seven-nights-off schedule would allow me to make restaurant reservations weeks or even months ahead of time. (Yep, I had my priorities straight.) The routine was fabulous…
…until it wasn’t anymore.
In hindsight, it’s telling that I titled my nightshift primer “Surviving the Night Shift” and not “Thriving on the Night Shift.” No matter how you slice it, staying up all night is neither natural nor healthy; numerous studies show that nightshift zombies like me are at higher risk for sickness and death. No bueno. For over a decade, I felt like I was able to keep it (relatively) together and avoid (most of) the ill effects from regularly punching my circadian rhythm in the face. Plus, my energy levels and sleep quality improved by leaps and bounds once I started eating Paleo—but looking back, perhaps experiencing the benefits of Paleo only prolonged the inevitable.
Yes, I got much healthier after I started eating home-cooked, nutrient-dense, whole-food meals—so much so that I felt compelled to start this blog and proselytize about the benefits (and deliciousness) of Paleo eating. But as I devoted more and more time to this little hobby of mine (and Nom Nom Paleo continued to grow), I realized that other factors important to health—getting proper sleep, connecting with family and friends, and minimizing stress—were falling by the wayside. I was missing weekends and holidays with my family.
Last Christmas, I contemplated the fact that if I kept working my nightshift schedule, I wouldn’t spend another work-free Christmas morning with my young boys until December of 2021—when my kids will be sullen teenagers who won’t want to hang out with their old hag of a mom. Plus, this year, with me hitting the road every free weekend to promote our new cookbook, I spent far too little time with my family, and far too much time in airports.
A few months ago, I was in Austin for PaleoFX (again, sans family), where a bunch of us shared a house with Dr. Kirk Parsley, a respected sleep doctor and ex-Navy SEAL. Determined to get my sleep routine dialed in, I diligently took notes at one of the good doctor’s PaleoFX lectures about the importance of sleep hygiene. Back at the house, I asked Doc Parsley if he had any advice for me, a longtime nightshift worker trying to “hack” a better sleep schedule. He looked me straight in the eye: “Quit working nights.”
I laughed it off, but his words nagged at me for months. I’d been interviewed for a Psychology Today article about the struggles of nightshift workers and the physical and mental drain of keeping vampire hours; I gave the reporter a glass-half-full perspective on graveyard shifts, but when the article was published, I couldn’t help but ponder whether the naysayers were right, and I was just fooling myself.
Don’t get me wrong: nightshift work is important. Without it, hospitals couldn’t stay open around the clock, first responders would be unavailable after hours, and road construction would only happen during the day (which I’m sure would cause tons of road rage accidents—though at least the hospitals would be open). But after 12 years of flipping from night to day and day to night, I was burned out—especially with everything else that was happening in my life.
I’d already missed enough Sunday brunches, guitar recitals, Little League games, and playtime at the park. I didn’t want to sleep through the rest of my kids’ childhood, living vicariously through Henry’s Instagram feed. It was time for a change, and to walk among the living in the daylight again.
Just so you know, I’m not hanging up my scrubs entirely. This fall, I’m planning to start picking up occasional shifts as a per diem pharmacist at the hospital. A girl’s gotta keep her drug-dealing skills up! But for now, I’m going to take a moment to cook and reconnect with the people that matter the most to me.
At my farewell party the other morning (a Paleo breakfast!), more than one of my co-workers asked me: “What’s next?”
To be honest: I haven’t a clue. But it’ll be nice to have the time to figure it out.
Looking for recipes? Head on over to my Recipe Index! You’ll also find exclusive recipes on my iPad® app, and in my New York Times bestselling cookbook, Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans (Andrews McMeel 2013).1