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Finding My Way

I am, to my knowledge, the only member of the Class of 2001 to have spent time in a mental institution. 

No one who knew me well in school would be terribly shocked by this news. In fact, if you were to take a time machine back to graduation and ask my classmates who among us was most likely to be committed at some point, I almost certainly would have finished near the top of that list. 

How did I get there? How did I go from Wall Street professional to psych-ward patient to struggling writer working at a Trader Joe’s in New York? More important, how did I go from being tormented by my subconscious to being happy and reasonably well-adjusted?

Like many children from working-class backgrounds who land in elite schools, I carried a lot of people’s hopes and expectations with me when I arrived at Swarthmore. Having come of age in the ’90s, I internalized the notion that people with talent and financial ambition belonged on Wall Street, so after graduation, that’s where I went.

Though I was good at my finance job, I hated it. I hated the tediousness, the sedentary lifestyle, the making-the-rich-even-richer while pretending to serve some more noble purpose. It’s not healthy to devote so much of your energy to doing something you can’t stand; eventually, I could no longer be alone for more than an hour or two without drinking.

My classmates will readily affirm that my partying was problematic from the start, but after a few years in the workforce, I was drinking to obliterate a debilitating subconscious pain that I couldn’t articulate. Ultimately, I drank myself into the hospital while incoherently rambling about suicide.

State law allows hospitals to hold suicidal patients, so as I sobered up, I found myself in the intake facility of a psychiatric care unit.

Although I was annoyed, I was also relieved: The three weeks I spent in the hospital allowed me to do some deep reflection. I realized what I really wanted to do was write.

Having done so sporadically over the years, I knew there were few things more rewarding for my sense of well-being than honoring the urge to compose. Before my breakdown, I’d felt that devoting myself to writing in the absence of tangible financial success was a form of self-betrayal. After my breakdown, my only concern was whether I liked my creations.

To write, I still needed to work, of course, but I couldn’t risk returning to the draining, dangerous trappings of my previous life. So one day last summer, I walked into a Trader Joe’s looking for a job.

My work there is physically demanding and can be repetitious, but one year later I’ve grown deeply fascinated by the ethical and logistical questions raised by the food industry, along with the sociology of retail sales. My work on Wall Street was ephemeral—I find it much more rewarding to focus on growing as a writer while trafficking in that most visceral of commodities: food. And, most important, I’m happy.

What began as a painful personal and professional journey has led me to find pleasure working in a field I never would have considered while pursuing an art form I love. Sometimes it’s scary to change directions or admit we want something new. But it’s worth facing our fear to find out who we really are.

GABE TURZO ’01 is a writer in New York. He encourages anyone struggling with similar issues to email him: