Personal Essay

The Case Against Trying To ‘Have It All’

Former TV news anchor Jackie Bruno had a loving marriage, great kids, and a career she’d worked her whole life for. But she couldn’t rest until she landed her dream job—and it nearly ruined everything.

Jackie Bruno at home. / Photo by Webb Chappell

Walt Disney once said that if you can visualize it and if you can dream it, there’s a way to do it. Yet this was not how I visualized my career going—not by a long shot. Instead of anchoring a major newscast in my home city of Boston, as I had wanted to do since I was a child, I was splayed out on a dressing-room floor at the news station crying into a pile of tissues and snotting through a cold that just wouldn’t go away. Sometimes it takes your body to tell you what your mind already knows. In this case, my mind had known for quite some time that I was clinically depressed and suffering from burnout. But rather than changing how I was living, I was doing what I had always done: doubling down, working harder, stressing more, and trying to control a situation that was out of my hands.

For the past 20 years, I had devoted myself to a single goal: becoming a local TV news star in my home state. In some ways, I had achieved that. I spent three years in Springfield working for the local juggernaut, WWLP. There, I led our coverage of the Phoebe Prince bullying trial, covered a historical tornado, and single-handedly produced and anchored our live coverage of the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death. By the end of that contract in 2011, I secured what I thought would be a dream job: weekend anchor at NECN, a station I had interned at in college. I was 27 at the time, an incredibly young age to make it to a top 10 media market such as Boston.

I was well on my way toward controlling my destiny. In my perfectly crafted plan, this would be the step I needed to jump to the big leagues: a national network affiliate. So far, my idea was working out perfectly. Little did I know, NECN was about to undergo seismic transitions that included, over the course of the next decade, many management changes and lots of journalists losing their jobs. It was an exhausting cycle that became traumatic, both for those who were let go and for those who remained.

I don’t use the word “trauma” lightly. I’m still haunted from witnessing the Boston Marathon bombings. When I think about that terrible April day, I remember running through smoke and a crowd of people, only to see limbs separated from people’s bodies. I was there covering the wedding of two elite runners, but instead of joy, I witnessed carnage. I trembled for days after and replayed the horrors of that evil act over and over again in my mind. Eventually, I went to a therapist. As soon as I said, “I was at the bombings,” a PTSD diagnosis was assigned. This was “Big T Trauma,” the most obvious kind.

At the same time, so many of us underestimate the torture of “little t trauma,” which is more common and often the result of frequent hits that come over time. I watched colleagues get fired, took their phone calls right afterward, and tried to carry on as though nothing had happened. I lived in constant fear that I would be next. I tried to ease the fear by following the rules, aiming to please, and doing everything right. Yet the reality is, that’s not always enough. Along the way, I developed anxiety and depression.

By the summer of 2022, I was a three-time Emmy award–winning reporter who was praised for her storytelling, and yet my bosses told me there was no way for me to advance beyond NECN and make it onto NBC Boston, the crown jewel of our station group. It was a wall I couldn’t push down, a hurdle I didn’t have the energy to jump over. So the day I received the news, I retreated to a dressing room and released 10 years of tears that I had stuffed inside for far too long. I also gave myself permission to do a few things I had never done before: I called out sick and made an appointment with my doctor to discuss my emotional state. Then I requested—and was ultimately granted—a medical leave from work based on my mental health. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan. I had no idea what would happen next.

If this seems dramatic, it was, and perhaps, so was I. A child of the ’90s, I was told I could become whatever I desired so long as I put my mind to it. There’s that saying, “shoot for the stars, and you’ll land among them.” But I didn’t just want to be among the stars—I wanted to be the star. It’s something I’ve been unpacking over the past two years, and I think I know where it comes from.

I grew up in a family of successful car dealers. My grandfather, Jack Barboza, was a local titan, and our whole family worshiped him. I learned from an early age that achievement gave you a lot in return. My grandfather had gone from an eighth-grade dropout to one of the top dealers in the nation, vying locally with another top dog, Ernie Boch Sr. I would joke later that I was the real masochist in the family, having traded in one brutal business, selling cars, for TV news. But my grandparents loved watching me on TV, and their continuous pride was like a drug I couldn’t give up.

Papa always had the news on, and I remember watching him, the leader of our family, trust every word that former ABC news anchor Peter Jennings said. That was power! I wanted to be behind that desk or on location holding that microphone. I loved to write, and for someone who always had a raging case of ADHD, the constant flow of news was intoxicating. I was also one of four siblings, all girls, and found myself constantly competing for attention and seeking validation.

My need to succeed started early. I was editor in chief of my high school newspaper by my junior year. I even had an internship in high school, driving my old Solara through snow and ice to the Providence PBS station. When I applied to Boston University, I did so through early action and chose my major, broadcast journalism, long before I arrived on campus.

I was also intensely competitive. I went from a nerdy girl who couldn’t get a date to my high school prom to Miss Massachusetts Teen USA in 2003 and later Miss Massachusetts USA in 2008. I made the top five at the Miss Teen USA pageant and was later devastated that I only made the top 10 at Miss USA. Thankfully, you only get one shot at those national titles. Otherwise, I might still be vying for a crown. I don’t give up easily.

I had tightly choreographed my life, yet being perfectly on point for the better part of two decades had worn me down. I was now a 37-year-old married mom of two rambunctious boys, and the truth was, I wasn’t doing any of my jobs very well anymore. Every day, I’d drive an hour back and forth to work and spend most of the drive time on the phone talking to colleagues. It wasn’t uncommon for me to come home crying. One day before leaving for the station, my seven-year-old son, Jack, asked me, “Are you going to be okay at work today? I’m worried about you.” I later learned that he’d also shared his concern with his schoolteacher. I was ashamed that I’d brought this despair home to my family.

I wish I could say that was the day I decided to take a break. It wasn’t. It took breaking down in that dressing room, plus a stern warning from my doctor. That was when I knew I owed it to my family to find a better way forward. I took a two-week break that soon became a three-month mental health leave. During that time, I talked to a therapist and did the work necessary to figure out why I’d become so rigid in my life and what I was actually looking for all along.

For the first time, I wasn’t plotting my future but rather simply enjoying the day. Slowly, I learned to relax and cherish the present, something I hadn’t done, well, probably ever.

For the first two weeks of my mental health break, I stayed in bed, panicked that I had destroyed my life. Then, after much prompting at home, I realized I should at least use the time to bond with my boys. I started taking them on day trips to amusement parks and family fun zones. We went to the beach in Maine, and for the first time, I wasn’t plotting my future but rather simply enjoying the day. Slowly, I learned to relax and cherish the present, something I hadn’t done, well, probably ever.

Through intense therapy, I realized I had been looking for approval from others and that what I really needed was to give it to myself. I also realized that I’d been chasing a childhood dream that no longer served me.

I started to document what I missed most about work. The list was short. I missed storytelling and making a connection with viewers. I genuinely loved helping and informing them. I knew whatever I did next had to be in service to something and that it had to involve storytelling.

I interviewed for communications and public relations jobs at a few companies and learned that executives there didn’t even know what TV journalists did or the skills we offered. They thought we just read the news off a teleprompter. Instead of doing what I had always done—try to prove myself and my value to someone to convince them to give me a job—I decided to bet on myself. I knew I could help companies tell their stories directly to consumers and grow their businesses by harnessing my skills as a writer, videographer, and producer with a wide network of local connections.

On an impulse, I created a limited liability company and within a week, “Newsmaker Marketing” was born. It was mid-September 2022 when I made the decision to throw myself into my new business and resign from the station. By October, I had publicly launched my company, built a new website, and very quickly signed up more than a dozen clients. For the first time in my life, I was relinquishing control and letting the universe guide me. I thought about the people who had doubted me, who couldn’t see my potential. What I realized was: They didn’t matter. I could write my own next chapter, and I didn’t need their approval. I was now giving approval to myself. I was validating my own worth.

Most important, I was reprioritizing my life. I was able to be at home with my children. I could close a deal, make an Instagram reel, and still get to my son’s class to volunteer. Over the past few months, our bonds have grown so much stronger. Coming home from work all of those years, I couldn’t shake off the drama of the day. Now, when I see their faces, I’m much more present. Together, we have healed, and this new way of being is so much better than my previous obsession with doing.

I’m just as busy as I was before, if not busier. Still, I’m operating from a much healthier place, and I know none of this would have been possible without that much-needed break. Taking time off should be a simple solution. A break is probably the most natural medicine a human can take. Yet, though technically free, it can be costly. Taking time for yourself can sink you into financial ruin. It can change people’s perception of you, jeopardizing future opportunities.

For a long time, I never wanted people to think I was unhinged. After all, society has such a stigma around a so-called breakdown. In my case, though, a breakdown led to taking a break, and that led to a breakthrough in my life. I don’t wish a breakdown on anyone, but I do want people to know that sometimes it’s okay to pause and take a step back. Sometimes, it is the only way to move forward.

First published in the print edition of the February 2023 issue.