I'd spent my entire pre-teen and teenage era depressingly aware of my own restrictions. All my life, I'd overheard the concerns of my parents. I was aware from an early age that we were poor: that there was a reason my clothes came from the thrift shop down Lake Street, and a reason why we went to the discount grocery store that stocked just-expired yogurt and mis-cut pork chops.
It was very clear that I was not going to college. My family couldn't afford it. And I had no idea how student loans worked.
At first, I tried to join the Army. I was too overweight by a pound to be sent to Basic (where I surely would have shit it or sweat it out the first day there). Told by the entry doctors that I was now out of the Army, I spent a summer reading the stories of the sexual abuse and harassment at the Air Force Academy, and went "thank god I missed that".
Out of high school, I ended up in a string of temporary jobs on the strength of three years doing Excel work for my father's independent baseball rag. With a WPM hovering around 100, I wore my wrists out doing data entry until I landed a more permanent job with a small CLEC in the midwest.
I wasn't happy, though. It was fine at first: I worked for a decent enough manager. But the longer I was there, the less I fit with anyone in the billing department. I was easily distracted, and stunningly bored, which were bad combinations for someone doing quality control on invoices.
But I had no college degree, and wasn't likely to get one. I could pay rent and pay for groceries, but there was no surplus at the end of the month. There was no obvious career in billing, just the disdain of my fellow invoice wranglers.
At the time, I'd been carrying on conversations with one of the uncles, who was helping me set up a server for a MUD. Nemesis wasn't much: it was a Linux box on top of a SPARC machine, running the initial bootstrap of my ex-boyfriend's mudlib, Red Leaves. But it got me working with a command line, and it got me reading the things my uncle sent me about basic systems administration and networking.
In the winter of 2006, on the verge of being fired, I quit my telecom job, packed my apartment, and moved in with my uncle.
All of my life, I was the responsible one. And, all my life, I was aware of my role as the "good kid". I cleaned, I cooked, I chased after allowance money until my allowance was taken away. I was getting to be good at cleaning - and thus, expensive to my parents.
It was a tremendous shock to move out of the city I grew up in, with its reliable bus system, and into the far suburbs of Northern Virginia. I didn't know how to drive. I'd never lived with anyone more responsible than me.
By fits and starts, I got cleaner, and my uncle taught me how to drive - something I'd assumed I would never be able to afford, much less have the reflexes for.
The first technical interview, I flubbed disastrously. The second was a job upgrading hard drives for the Army Human Resources Command - and netted me my first experience with sexual harassment on the job.
Then, for a long, brutally depressing summer I was unemployed, and unable to find work. A spreadsheet filled with the entry-level positions I applied to. Finally at the end of summer, a friend of my uncle's visited. An HR specialist, she spent an hour or three pulling apart and putting my resume back together.
I probably owe my her career. A week later, three companies were vying to hire me into their data centers, and I ended up, to my shock in the NOC of a major cloud provider.
And I was good.
Contrary to most pleasant fantasies out there, my life did not immediately go from traumatized teenager to badass systems administrator. I spent a lot of months paralytically numb, terrified, and jobless. I went from this to four or five years of 80-100 hour work weeks.
In retrospect, that job remains a montage of me driving a lot at night and in the early mornings, replacing hard drives, and consuming a whole lot of caffeine in order to endure night shift.
There's a lot of mixed feelings in my brainpan about that period in my life. But one of the things it did was teach me how to solve problems: to orient, observe, decide, and act with the speed required for a given problem. It taught me to step back and look at the overarching structure around problems.
And I was the problem. Or rather, my blind terror was becoming a problem - preventing me from focusing, preventing me from learning, and causing me to avoid the unknown.
I began to take long, meandering drives on night shift: out Route 66, down through Front Royal, up along the wining parkway of Skyline Drive. It was just to do something - just something other than staring at my monitor or work or worry.
It began to occur to me that I was doing something I couldn't have predicted, something dangerous, something impossible. It was important to take control of my own story, to do, and be more, than the ways I'd been limited and hurt.
For lack of a better dream, I began to dream of the West Coast.