Life After High School: Interview with Suzanne Earles

Today’s post is a favorite among my ongoing blog-to-book project: Life After High School: Secrets To A Successful Life By Those Who Have Had Twenty Years To Think About It (or) What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School with an interview featuring my dear friend Suzanne Earles. If you missed the last post, click here, otherwise, you can start at the beginning here.

Suzanne Earles

Formerly Suzanne Roberts

Federal Way, WA

My Life In High School

Suzanne Roberts AHS 1996

Who were you in High School and how did you feel about it?

I was a new transfer from San Diego in 11th grade. I didn’t grow up with everyone at AHS, but many people were very welcoming. I made some wonderful friends that have stayed my best friends to this day. I guess I was partially an athlete, playing Volleyball, Basketball and Softball, but also a total nerd in the math and physics club, and knowledge bowl.
What did you think your life would become when you graduated?
I was going to be a Naval Officer and hopefully a fighter pilot until I retired. I didn’t plan to marry or have children.

My Life After High School

Suzanne Earles with husband

What happened in your life to you, for you, and by you in the last twenty years (how have you used your time and who have you become)?
My life took all kinds of unexpected twists and turns. I left the Naval Academy due to health issues and didn’t really know what to do after I left. My parents suggested the University of Washington as the next logical step.

I didn’t realize at the time, but I had PTSD from being at the Academy. The Academy breaks people down to build them back up the military way, and I had left at my breaking point and had not been built back up.

My first year at UW was very disorienting. My parents got divorced. I wasn’t really available to help either of them because I was still trying to figure out myself. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life because my focus had been so specific before. I tried a few different majors, mostly following what other friends were majoring in. I met a wonderful group of friends in the Architecture department at UW and ended up sticking with that.

I “found” myself again through copious amounts of travel. I traveled to Rome with a study abroad Architecture program through UW, and ended up traveling all over Europe by myself and then with my cousins. I didn’t return to my old self from before the Academy but became a whole new person without much semblance as to whom I was before. I also traveled to Northern Jordan for an archeological excavation after graduation. I toured a lot of the Middle East with a roommate. I’m so glad I got to do this before all this kerfuffle in the Middle East now! I’m not sure I’ll ever get to go back.

Once I came back from travels, I tried many different jobs like residential construction and lighting design. I even worked at a funeral home! Then 9/11/01 happened, and again the world got turned upside down for me. I got laid off and no one was hiring in architecture fields. I went back to school for massage therapy and got my LMP license to practice massage. I did that for a short time but wasn’t very good at marketing myself and running my own business. I was beginning to understand who I was as a person, but still not what I wanted to do with my future.

I felt the strong pull to serve my country again after 9/11 and thought perhaps that going enlisted this time might be different. I struggled with the same medical issues as I did at the Academy, and scrapped that dream again for the second time.

Just as I was feeling lost once more, I met my now husband, Erik, through friends. He was my anchor who kept me grounded through all the changes of the winds that tugged at my heart. The beginning years of our marriage were lots of fun—parties, drinking, hanging out with friends. We had odd jobs, but nothing of substance. We got a house. We traveled a bit. Erik went to school to be a commercial diver. We didn’t realize that the only jobs for diving would be in Louisiana! That dream ended up being a bust, and Erik decided that it wasn’t for him. I feel like both he and I had tried so many different avenues, but none of them filled “the void” and made us happy.

We sold our first house and tried to pay off some of our school loans. My dad, who was now in his 80’s needed more care, so we built a lovely house together in Edmonds and moved in with him and took care of him. Erik got a new job at Comcast and life was back to “normal” for a while. Then Erik fell off a ladder on an icy day at work which led to multiple injuries and medical bills.

I took on a high-stress job as a cabinet sales rep, but it paid well and had good benefits. I was now the “breadwinner”. My dad found himself a girlfriend to take care of him, so we moved out and bought another house in Orting near Erik’s friends and family. Erik got a new job working for Sony Online and realized he wanted to work with computers for a career. He went back to school and worked. Life was back to “normal” again and we decided eight years into our marriage that we needed a baby (my biological clock alarm went off at age 30 and blared at age 31).

Zoe was born when I was 32. I’m sure those who are parents can agree that kids are the best decision ever! Zoe completed us and filled that void in me that I had been trying to fill my whole life. She is our everything. I continued to do my high-stress job and raise a baby. My dad’s girlfriend left him and my dad continued to get worse. I took on the care of my dad, in addition to everything else. It was interesting to watch my little girl grow up and gain more life skills and my dad growing closer to the grave and losing his life skills. I think it’s called the sandwich generation when you raise a kid and take care of your elderly parent.

The economic downturn brought even more stress, as people were laid off at my company and I had to do the job of five people. Erik eventually lost his job. Trying to manage all our bills on my own and take care of everyone was more than I could handle, and the stress led to more health issues for me and more medical debt. We ended up losing our house and declared bankruptcy. We moved in with Erik’s parents and then into a townhome.

My dad died last year on January 1st, 3 weeks away from age 90. I was, of course, sad, but I felt a huge amount of relief too. He had lived such a full life, and I had no regrets because I had given him my all when he needed it most. He might have been a terrible husband to my mother and others, but he was an amazing father. No one is perfect. All he ever asked me for was “love and respect” – something I now ask Zoe for. After everything I had been through, I somehow felt stronger knowing we were on the other side of everything, and that there was only one direction to go from here—up.

I started a new job before my dad died, and so did Erik. We are now both in jobs that make us happy and we feel appreciated in. We don’t make the amounts of money we did before, but we have learned that happiness and having less stress in our lives is worth far more than lots of money. I do remodel consultations, and it fills my need for residential design. I actually feel quite zen as I measure a challenging kitchen!

Erik has a good stable job with the Kent School District as their IT support. He is now the “breadwinner” which frees me up to do lots of other things with Zoe. I’m a Daisy Girl Scout Leader! I never thought I’d do that! I do the mom stuff like taking Zoe to playdates, gymnastics, basketball and help her with homework. I meditate (transcendental meditation is a life changer!!!) and try to focus on my mental health.

It’s so strange that I left high school with the need to do big things to change the world. Who could have guessed that all I really needed was to have my own little world (my family, home, job) to be happy? My health is a constant issue for me, but I feel good about my future for the first time ever! I look forward to growing old with Erik. Our trials so far in life have made our bond stronger, and Zoe is the glue that cements everything. I have also rekindled old friendships from high school and college that I let lapse before.

I guess I would have to say that if I’ve learned anything in the past 20 years, it’s that family and friends are what I need most to fill the “void” and not necessarily fancy jobs and big adventures. I’m slowly becoming more concerned with how I see myself and not so concerned with what other people think of me. I look forward to the next 20 years and what they may bring. I’m sure life still has ups and downs for us, but we are strong together.

Suzanne Earles with daughter

My Life Lessons

What were the major life lessons and wisdom that you gained during your journey over the last 20 years?
Take care of the people who matter the most to you; you never know when they’ll be gone. Take care of your own body and your mental health. Money isn’t so important; happiness is found within yourself and the people you care about. Don’t be afraid to keep trying things until you find where your soul belongs. Don’t be afraid to change your way of thinking and who you are. Grow, adapt, love!

Letter To My High School Self

If you could write your 18-year-old self (or however old you were when you graduated) a letter, and send it back in time, what would you say? What lessons, wisdom, encouragement, or warnings would you give yourself?
Hi, Suzanne. 38-year-old you here!

You will end up very happy at 38, but it won’t be through the ways you think. It won’t be in the military and by yourself. Surprisingly, you’re going to make a great wife and mother, and be very happy in that role!!

No matter how much you diet and exercise, your body will feel like it betrays you. But don’t be too upset with that body. It gets you through Plebe summer at the Academy, it gets you to the finish line of a triathlon, and most of all, it makes the most amazing human you could ever imagine! Your body is just a shell that holds your soul, so make sure to feed that soul with passions, travel, and love.

You are going to go through many trials and tribulations, but you’ll be stronger in the long run. Chase your passions and don’t worry about the money. The money will come and go—sometimes it’s out of your control. Learn to be okay with giving up control. The hardships you face will give you perspective and make you grateful for the people in your life.

Make sure you keep in touch with good friends from high school. You will need Kimmy, Katherine, and Colleen and they’ll need you too. Make sure you spend any time you can with your mom and dad. You won’t realize all that they sacrificed and how much they love you until you have your own kid.

Good luck 18-year-old me! I wouldn’t change a thing on this ride of life. You’ll do awesome, just keep an open mind!


In the next post, I will continue with more interesting interviews, like this one with Stacie Quatsoe.

Are you from Generation X? I want to hear what you think! Please comment below and participate in the conversation about What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. What do you wish someone told you when you were eighteen?

About the author

Featured in CNN Money Edition, Jesse Stoddard’s primary aim is to make his mark in the world by exploring new ideas, enhancing collaboration and cooperation with teams, and working in his unique ability, which is transferring infectious enthusiasm, taking action, and loving people in order to gather and connect with others to pursue a bigger, brighter future.

Jesse’s mission is to make good bolder with his writing and art, to serve God, and in such a way that he illuminates truth, shines a humorous light on our human imperfections, and reminds us all to be humble while pointing us to what’s right.