Yesterday I got some good news when I visited my doctor; she told me that she couldn’t detect any sign of a heart arrhythmia I had developed three months prior to retiring. If my work had permanently compromised my health, I would have lost one of my most valuable assets.
My plan was to work until I was seventy; I had some financial ‘catching up’ to do before I figured retirement could be a realistic option. I entered the workforce after my children started school. When I was in my mid-forties, I became a statistic – another ‘gray divorce statistic.
Most People Retire Sooner Than They Expect
At 52, I was finally able to secure a job I really loved; I became a community college speech teacher. By that time, I had also remarried. I could see myself continuing in that position until I reached seventy. But life often forces us to change our plans. According to a 2018 TransAmerica Retirement Survey, 56% of people retire before they plan to do so. Like many other people, I wasn’t able to keep working as long as I had planned.
I enjoyed going to work each day and loved working with students. I was also able to contribute to a pension plan—yes, a real pension that has become a rare benefit these days. After a few years, I became a department chair and had new opportunities to learn and grow. I started thinking that I could continue teaching even beyond seventy; I was living my dream.
Eleven years after I started teaching fulltime at the college, we had a mass shooting that occurred in my building. I curled up under my desk as I listened to the sound of bullets popping. If there was some kind of action I could have taken, my body wouldn’t have cooperated – I was numb from shock.
Burn-Out and Health Risks
Within the next few months, I felt like I had aged 10 years. I tried my best to take care of students during that first year, but my energy was gone. I started experiencing burn-out. I’d lost the joy I had once felt. Even with the help of over-the-counter sleep aids, I still couldn’t sleep at night. I had also become irritable and cynical. Maybe it was just me, but I also felt like the overall environment had become more toxic – lots of administrative changes and added stress didn’t help. Unfortunately, I wasn’t financially prepared to leave quite yet. I started calculating when I could realistically afford to ‘retire.’
Fortunately, the mortgage on the house was paid off and we didn’t have any debt. I started tracking every cent I spent on a month-to-month basis. I also got information on what I could expect from my pension plan if I waited until full retirement age. With adjustments to my budget, I was able to put some money aside. Over the next three years, I also spent time exploring what I wanted my ‘next chapter’ to look like after teaching. I began visualizing a new path for my life; anticipating a positive future helped me to stay focused and keep saving for a better future.
Then finally, that last term – the last three months on the job—arrived. Just as that final term started, I developed heart arrhythmia. My heartbeat felt erratic. I could barely sleep at night. I had also gained weight. I felt like a mess. Yet when I walked out of my office for the last time, I felt relief. Something had changed, and I felt hopeful again.
A New and Healthier Life
I didn’t end up with as much of a pension as I had once hoped, but it is sufficient for my needs. Most importantly, I had my life back. Within a couple of months of retiring, I was finally able to sleep again – and without using any over-the-counter sleep aids that I had depended during the last three years I had taught. I rediscovered ‘joy’ in my life.
I am eating right, exercising every day, and taking good care of myself. I feel better than I have for a very long time.
Like so many others, I did end up leaving the workplace earlier than I had planned. However, staying any longer could have destroyed my health. I’ve known too many other people who destroyed their health because of work and they could never completely recover.
Once our health is destroyed, it doesn’t matter how much financial security we may think we have. In reality, it is important to start planning as early as possible for a secure, healthy, and fulfilling life beyond the workplace – and be prepared for the unexpected.