By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.
Dated: January 24, 2018
Both of my parents have demonstrated an obscene work ethic my entire life. And sure, they came right out and told me and my brother to work hard in school and for the things we wanted, but I think that I learned subconsciously to mimic their true workhorse style.
You know how they say: “Work smart, not hard?” Well…that lesson was never taught in our house…. Instead, Mom and Dad just wanted us to take pride in the efforts we put into whatever we did. You give it your 100% best efforts, and you don’t worry about the rest.
I get (or got) this perverse high from working nonstop at full tilt, and it came on quickly in my early teens. As I was getting better at track (and training more and more each passing year), I was also working at Dunkin’ Donuts during weekends and summers. The manager there learned fast that she could use my “Work the hardest you can, even at your own expense” mantra to the store’s advantage. As a young teen, she had me working in the kitchen with the full-time bakers. Later, she had me driving the delivery trucks to their other stores, and opening one of the stores at 5 AM. At the same time, my coworkers learned to let me pick up the slack while they took extra smoke breaks and stole my tips.
You’d think I would’ve learned to ease up the pace a bit, but nope! Not me! It made me proud to come home exhausted from my shift, with my feet aching and my hair and skin smelling like stale coffee grinds and donut grease (despite numerous attempts in the shower to eradicate the smells).
My work ethic only increased after that, to the point where I was running my own law firm, on three different boards of directors, doing pro bono legal work for the RI ACLU and a few select clients, testifying at the RI State House on various criminal justice and civil rights bills, volunteering for a friend’s mayoral campaign, representing a nonprofit on a RI Senate Study Commission and coaching high school track throwers. My obsession with doing my absolute best for all of these clients and entities led me to neglect my diabetes and caused me to have almost forty surgeries and procedures over a four-year timespan.
Even the Deputy Defender at my last job told me (half-jokingly) during my job interview that she’d only come down to the branch office for my interview “to see how tired you are from everything you’ve been doing!”
Looking back on it now, none of it was for fame, accolades or a sense of power. And upon deeper reflection, none of those things were ever praised in my childhood home. The only goal that my parents ever encouraged us to pursue (besides attaining higher education and the pursuit of happiness) was to work hard at whatever we chose to do in life. There were no five-year or ten-year plans in place. We weren’t raised to be doctors or lawyers. They didn’t push us to go to Harvard or Yale. They wanted us to find our own way, and to find our own version of happiness.
Turns out: None of my major life decisions were prefaced with much premeditation.
As contradicting as it sounds, I never plotted out what sport I hoped I’d excel at, or what college I’d work hard to get into, and yet, once I made the decisions, I worked my ass off to give my absolute best to the task at hand. I stumbled upon throwing and had no idea that I’d be good at it. Same with law school! I only considered it after my diabetes precluded me from becoming a federal law enforcement field agent. And the only reason why I decided to run my own firm is because I’d left a few other incompatible associate/partner positions and a friend told me that he’d mentor me through opening my practice.
I have never dreamt of running for public office, obtaining a judgeship or becoming a senior partner at some huge law firm. In fact, I’ve always preferred working behind the scenes. Coming out of law school, I would’ve been perfectly content being a worker bee, doing the grunt work while others received the prestige. I hate politics (personal and professional), and the only thoughts I’d had regarding political positions were that it’d be great to be an adviser and help shape public policy/law without having to do all the hand-holding and deal-making.
I was in my glory in both college and law school, taking up to 20 credits a semester, getting a double major and a minor at Penn State while spending 2-3 school days per week on the road for track meets; doing research for three different law school professors on top of doing internships and writing a 100-page paper on the criminal justice system (when my writing requirement only required that I write 10 pages, if memory serves correct). I didn’t even realize that I was double majoring, or was earning a minor as well. Hell, I was three classes away from a second minor in African and African-American Studies!
It all made me feel useful. It made my life feel purposeful. I felt like I was contributing; like I was soaking up as much knowledge and guidance as I possibly could. Like I was helping as many clients as I could possibly help.
And while I have essentially stumbled upon every accomplishment and accolade I’ve earned since high school, and had no prior plans for any of the educational, professional or activism decisions I’ve made since then, it has somehow all felt like it was meant to be. I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like, had I not been a hammer thrower or a criminal defense attorney.
If all of this was somehow preordained for me to stumble upon, what am I supposed to believe my purpose is now? I feel so confident that I’m supposed to be practicing criminal defense, representing indigent clients, doing pro bono work and advocating for justice and equity for all. I know I had a skill at legal research and writing. Yet now, I can’t even understand or analyze a single legal case. I’m in so much pain these days, I’m mind-numbingly laid up in bed, with every other thought being: “It hurts so bad!!!”
Almost a year ago now, I came to the heart-wrenching conclusion that I could no longer perform my job duties, and I immediately notified my employer. Just about one of the most soul-crushing things I’ve ever had to admit to myself or others. This workhorse has been put out to pasture. My heart and my soul (and my ego) want to be able to continue contributing to society. My mind and my body have taken that purpose away from me, and it is still something that I am adjusting to. Why put a purposeful soul into a defective body?
Best believe, if I could work, I would. I’ve been working incessantly since I was fourteen years old. I was able to earn a good living running my own law firm, starting at the age of twenty-five, in the midst of a tough economy and an even tougher area of law to turn a profit. I have no qualms about doing hard, thankless work; I’ve sure done it before. In fact, I’ve done a helluva lot of free work, and been more than happy to do it!
The workhorse in me sure isn’t happy about her crap body forcing her to retire. Quite honestly, being trapped in this body is one of the cruelest punishments I could ever receive. It’s stifling my spirit. I’m trying to stay optimistic that life will guide me to stumble into whatever’s meant for me next, but in the meantime, I need to conserve my energy in order to make it through most days. Time to put that workhorse spirit into adjusting to my new quality of life – goodness knows, finding peace with this reality will be the hardest work I’ll have done yet!