My Mental Breakdown – An Architect’s Story

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I was painting when I got the call. It was my boss – “why aren’t you here? Everyone else is here, I’m really disappointed in you, and I’m starting to question your commitment to the firm.”

The pressure intensified when my wife, Lauren, was pregnant with our daughter. A few months earlier I had just taken a new job that I was really excited about. I was fortunate to have landed this job before my previous employer had to lay me off. He was the one, in fact, who had suggested I start looking for other work. This was my dream architecture job, working on huge, big budget projects like stadiums and performing arts centers.

The new firm, David M. Schwarz Architects, had a reputation for doing really great work, and they had actually offered me a job two years earlier, but I turned it down to take my other dream job. Now I had worked at both of my top choice firms. My career was looking bright. What could go wrong?

It didn’t take very long before I realized that something was a little off about this place.

Architecture is an industry of deadlines. There’s a certain amount of work that needs to be done before you can move onto the next phase of the project, and the deadlines tend to be rigid. I found myself working longer hours and the bosses becoming intense.

I experienced my first serious deadline after about 6 months.  It was killer.  At first it was exciting and almost fun.  Nice dinners were paid for by the office every evening, and it was a bonding time for the team.  At the end though, I was exhausted.

As time went on, so did the project schedule, and I soon learned that nothing was more important than the project.  We went through waves of frenzy.  We’d have an easy week of 40 hours directly after a deadline that built up to a sustained 50 hours within a couple weeks.  In about two months we’d be starting into the deadline crunch again.

The crunch went something like this.  We’d have 2-4 weeks of about 60 hours that intensified to 1-3 weeks of 70 hours, finally culminating in one or two giant 80 hour weeks at the office.

Late night

If you’ve never worked an 80 hour week, let me break it down for you.

You start out exhausted because you’ve just been working weeks of long hours, often on the weekends. You work frantically, with bosses piling more work on your desk.  The faster you work, the faster they give you more.  Finally when you look up it’s dark outside, and the office is empty except for your team, clicking mice and scrolling wheels as fast as their fingers can move them.

You hear the cleaning crew start vacuuming and realize you’re starving.  You order something delicious for the team.  Get back to work.  When the food arrives, you and your team, anxious for a break, take a few minutes to wolf down your meal with a few laughs to break the tension. Back to work.  When your eyes start to blur, it’s time to go home.  Walk outside and get a cab to drive you 45 minutes home.  It’s 2 AM.  Sleep a few hours and get up to do it again. And those are the good days.

My personal record was a week of 92 thankless hours. People often talk about pulling “all nighters,” but I think  they usually mean when they work until 2 or 3 AM, or sleep under their desks. I was well familiar with true all nighters. I once put in 36 hours straight, without as much as a nap or a walk outside.

Fear the Great Tyrant

If the work schedule wasn’t enough, we employees were constantly reminded that we were dispensable. Sometimes the reminders were subtle and other times, well, I’d get to work one day and the desk next to me would be empty. It was a never-ending test, and I was acutely aware that there were 15 people ready to replace me if I made the slightest slip-up.

The atmosphere was toxic.  The firm had the highest turnover rate I’ve ever seen; for a company of about 50 people, I think over half had been replaced in the two years I worked there.

Those of us who were left at the end of each month did a great job of putting on a brave face and rising to the task at hand, but if you looked closely enough you could tell that most of us were miserable.

One day the big boss, David, heard that many of us were unhappy, so he called everyone into the conference room. Then as if he were trying to raise our spirits, he said that they had been letting the people go who weren’t at the top of their game and hiring those who were.  They would continue to do so as necessary, he reassured us.  And that was it, the great morale boost.

Life Gets In The Way

That December my wife and I bought a condo for our growing family. It took months longer than we had hoped to close, because it was a short sale. The place was a total dump and needed to be completely gutted, and we only had 3.5 months before the baby was due.

We had moved out of our apartment and were staying with some really wonderful friends while we got the condo ready. It was one of those beautiful and rare opportunities you get in life to be with friends, and it’s still hard for me not to be bitter about how little time I actually got to spend with them.

It was stressful. I couldn’t have a homeless baby. Our friends were amazing, but we were sleeping on the floor and I couldn’t bring a newborn baby into their home. I wanted the satisfaction of bringing a baby to my own home.

We didn’t have the money to pay a contractor so Lauren’s and my dads came to work, and with the help of more awesome friends it almost looked like we were going to make it in time.

What our bathroom looked like at the time. Where's the toilet? Where's the tub? Gone.

What our bathroom looked like at the time. Where’s the toilet? Where’s the tub?

Unfortunately I was hardly able to spend any time working on the condo with my crazy work schedule. Personal lives received no consideration at the office. On Sundays I would work on the condo during the daylight hours, then at sunset go to the office and put in a full 8 hours.

Even that wasn’t good enough for them. One of my bosses questioned me on a Monday. She asked about the baby and condo, then she said, “well that’s nice, but the project is what’s important.”

Divine Intervention

Snowmageddon. We had feet of snow on the ground, coming up to my waist in some places. Most people had more than a week off work, and I got three scattered days. One of those days seemed safe enough to drive to the condo, so I made the trip.

Which brings us to the phone call at the top of the post.  Why wasn’t I at work?

Big snow

The unrecognizable parking lot.

We spent our first night at the condo without a kitchen and boxes piled high one day before the baby was due. Fortunately she was 11 days late. I had heard stories of people going back to work those long hours the day after their baby was born, because of pressure from the office. At least I was able to use the two weeks of vacation I had saved up.

Some Things Never Change

When I went back to work it started all over again. This time, though, when I couldn’t go home I was missing my baby. As time went on, I would go days without seeing her awake. This was not what I wanted for my life. Family is the most important thing to me and I had sworn I would never be the kind of dad that misses plays and soccer games. Yet here I was, off to a terrible start.

That’s when the panic attacks started. 4 o’clock would roll around and I could see that I wasn’t going home on time. By 7 I was angry. I could feel my stomach knotting up and my heart racing, my breathing fast and shallow.

I couldn’t keep the emotions inside and I had to get out. I would often end up in the bathroom sitting on the toilet crying with my head in my hands. Sometimes I would run around the block to a quiet spot and scream, then quietly go back to my desk and work till midnight.

There was no way I could keep this up. My work suffered. I had been looking for another job for a while, but we were in the heart of the recession and nobody was hiring. It would take me a full year to find a job.

When yearly reviews came around mine was pretty bad. One day when our nanny was sick I called to say I was staying home with the baby. The next day I was called in to the conference room where the bosses were seated, waiting for me. This behavior was unacceptable they told me. I needed to be more responsible and they didn’t want to talk to me about it again. “You won’t,” I said.

One week later my resignation was on my boss’s desk.

I was determined to leave no matter the cost. I had made up my mind and lined up a little part time work.

The day before I was planning to quit I got an email from an architect I’d never heard of, asking if I’d like a job. I was stunned.

It was the best interview I’d ever had. He was friendly and I was comfortable; we made jokes and laughed. It was a small firm of only four people, seemed calm and the hours were good.

He told me that he had found my resume on the American Institute of Architects web site. I could hardly believe it. There were thousands of resumes on that web site, and mine was a very poor rough draft that I hadn’t updated in at least a year. I know that he was getting many qualified resumes emailed to him every day.  The fact that he chose me out of all those people defied the odds.  I couldn’t be that special.

This job was perfect for me in more ways than I can describe in this already long post. Suffice to say, in the 3.5 years I’ve been there I haven’t once worked more than 45 hours in a week. I believe God saw my suffering and answered my prayers for relief.

Why am I writing this?

Not many people know what I went through during those dark years, and it was a major part of what has shaped my views on life and work. While my experience sounds extreme, sadly it’s common in the architecture industry.

Although my next job was a significant improvement, it was still a job. When I was going through the difficult times I thought another job was the answer to my problems. Now I know that I’m not suited for employment, and if I had looked and prayed for another solution, such as the entrepreneurial endeavor I’m taking now, I would probably be much further ahead.

There is hope. For any of you going through a similar situation, no matter what your circumstances, there is a way out. No matter how bad you think it is, you’re never stuck.

UPDATED 11/23/2014 – I realized I was only telling half the story, and added the section on fear.

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Some people like to be called mister. I prefer dude.

17 Responses

  1. Dave says:


  2. Richard says:

    A really touching, well written post Isaac. You have a kind of fire that’ll take you far in business.

  3. Parry says:

    Isaac aka The DUDE! I can totally relate to this post man!! Good stuff!!

  4. Christine says:

    I didn’t realize you went through such an awful time. I remember you being tired and stressed out at that time, but I had no idea! I’m sorry we weren’t there for you more, but I’m so thankful God provided a job that gave you some relief!

    • Isaac says:

      Thanks Christine. I tried not to be too negative all the time, but you guys all were a big help to me whether you know it or not, so no worries at all!

  5. Christina says:

    hey Isaac, Paige sent me the link to your blog. Great post! I too am a recovering architect. I worked for 3 years for a large firm in Melbourne, then realized it wasn’t for me as soon as I got registered. I was lucky to not be forced to work massive hours, but many others at my company had to. I learned that it’s pretty standard in the industry – and I decided there was no way I was going to live my life that way. So I got out ASAP! Doing my own thing has been SO much more rewarding too – and the environment I’ve created is MUCH more encouraging and positive – rather than being in an environment where you’re spending the majority of your time dealing with shit when it hits the fan. Glad to see you enjoyed Thailand, and all the best with your entre-endeavours!

    • Isaac says:

      Hi Christina, thanks for the comment! I’m glad that you’ve made such a big transition and you’re happy to have done it in the end. That’s certainly encouraging for me, at the very beginning of the journey. I like how you’ve taken your experience and created a business around it. People always talk about doing that but I haven’t seen many examples.

      It’s also very encouraging to hear that your new lifestyle is so much more rewarding. I think one of the biggest benefits/draws for me is having control of your environment, and that you’re able to craft something very positive is amazing. Thanks again for your comment and I’ll be following your blog.

  6. Chris says:

    Just read this post. Wandered in from the Fast Business Forum. Very cool!

  7. doug says:

    I skimmed this before, but now I actually read it. “One of my bosses questioned me on a Monday. She asked about the baby and condo, then she said, “well that’s nice, but the project is what’s important.””
    That’s just sick. What was the firm?

    I am a recovered architect. It feels great. More good news coming soon.

    • Isaac says:

      I know. I’m not going to bad mouth people in public… But I have no problem doing it behind their backs in private, so you can send me a message if you want to know.

      There used to be a site where employees of architecture firms could rate their companies, but it was shut down. That would be a great thing. Maybe that’ll be a future business for me. And I’ll be sure to take bribes from the big companies to give them better ratings.

      I can’t wait to hear your more good news.

  8. Isaac says:

    Alright, it’s almost a year after Doug asked for the name of the firm. I realized it’s not badmouthing, just being honest, so I updated the post with the name of the firm – David M. Schwarz Architects.

  9. Burnt out and heartbroken says:

    Hey Issac, I couldn’t have found your post at a better time. I’m in it right now. When I say, “in it”, I mean I have one week left at my firm and working for architects. I told them I was leaving two weeks ago, and I gave them my official letter of resignation a week ago.

    I started only 20 months ago. I dropped out of the profession before and went to construction management. I was tired of traveling, so I took a job in my home state. When I started there were 8 people, including the principals. Three short months later, they fired an intern and the CA guy. Two other interns walked out and the secretary quit. That left me and the two principals. The first year was pretty good, surprisingly. It was a lot of work, but I was passionate and honestly I think in hindsight, the principals were just happy to have someone there to do the work. This year has been much, much worse. It is normal for me to go in at 4 or 5 am, work weekends, work all night. The more I do, the more they pile on. I really don’t blame them at this point, because resentment is toxic. However, it’s been terrible for my health. I’ve lived in a state of panic and fear for months. I’m supposed to get comp time but I don’t and never have. I’m typing this on my last Sunday I will ever go into that office. I quit without having a job lined up, and similarly to you it was the next business day after a terrible review. I was paid well for this business, but took a substantial pay cut from construction. I’m anxious about my last week, but I’m breathing. Truthfully, I am just a casualty. I’ve spoken with others that came before me. One girl had a nervous breakdown, got into a car wreck and broke her neck. She quit over email, didn’t give notice and walked out. My boss has taken away my Adobe subscriptions and scanning capabilities last week, and now I can’t really do everything I need to finish before I leave. I know they just hired a recent grad to replace me. I don’t think she’s even 25, but I could be wrong. I feel bad for her, but she starts after I leave. Unfortunately, this is a cycle in the profession. A good analogy at my firm: the coffee maker broke. It was awful. Rusting all over the corian countertop and falling apart. When it was time to get a new one, they replaced it with the exact same model. Why change anything? Just replace it until that one breaks.

    I hope you check this. I need prayers right now, but I am listening to positive speakers on YouTube trying to rebuild my self worth after this. I quit without having another job lined up. It was that or have a full blown breakdown. I have an interview with a large GC set up, a recruiter getting more interviews and a great contact in my dream GC job working on getting me an interview. Luckily, construction is booming and big companies need good people. With 4 years construction management and my IDP completed, ready to test, I should find a good job. I told my bosses when I quit I’m going back to construction. One called me asking me if he failed me. I told him the profession did.

    • Isaac says:

      Hi, I’m sorry that I didn’t see your comment until just now. When you wrote, you had one week left, and that was about a week and a half ago, so hopefully you’re doing better.

      I’m so sorry you had to go through everything you described. Of course I know all too well how awful a working environment like that can be, and I know what you mean about it taking a toll on your mind and body.

      On the bright side, you decided that you weren’t willing to take that kind of treatment anymore and you left. I’m glad you got out, some people never do, or they do after they have some form of nervous breakdown, like your colleague. It’s very sad.

      I’d love to hear how you’re doing, and help any way I can. I’m sorry it took so long to see your message, but you’re in my prayers now.

      I’ll reach out to the email address you left on your comment. Best wishes.

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