Stress is a dangerous thing. It can manifest itself in all sorts of unhealthy, impulsive behaviors. And in the workplace, if you aren’t careful, it can ruin your career.

In 2002, I almost got fired. This is a story of stress, addiction, Jerry Lewis (yes, that Jerry Lewis) and how just when you think you‘re on top of the world, it can all explode — in an instant.

Except, my addiction wasn’t what you might expect. Like most addictions, stress was the catalyst. But I didn’t turn to drugs. Nor did I turn to alcohol. Oh, no.

I turned to something far riskier, for it seemed so benign at first, so fun, so…enticing. It was almost irresistible — encouraged everywhere I looked, given out at parties and conferences, and widespread across the entire U.S.

I was addicted…to the stress ball.

Now, you might be tempted to stop reading right here. “Oh, balderdash— how can a stress ball be dangerous?”, you’re probably wondering.

Au contraire, my friend — I’m here to tell you something so important that it might just save your own career.

It was 2005. I was working for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), the non-profit founded by the one & only Jerry Lewis. The organization was really run by Jerry, and he genuinely cared about the cause. So much so that we gave 90 cents on the dollar direct to our families and kids with M.D., making us one of the most well run & respected non-profits in the world.

Jerry meant business everyday, especially Labor Day…Look at those numbers!

All this to say — the MDA was a serious organization.

And there was no one more serious in our local region than a guy named Ross. He was the Regional VP, and he reported to the C-level honchos. He also had direct communications with Jerry (or so I heard). We didn’t see Ross much, but he‘d visit our branch for important matters like quarterly budget reviews or employee trainings.

Our office culture was very casual, but Ross was not. The door would burst open and Ross would come flying through dressed in a crisp suit and tie, firmly gripping his shiny, leather briefcase which presumably contained top secret financial statements and hand-written orders from Jerry himself.

Now, whenever I encounter very serious people I have one unavoidable compulsion — I must make them laugh.

It’s perhaps my way of disarming them, and I’m usually very successful, but with Ross it was a struggle. In our first few months of working together, he was not amused by me. But over time, and once he saw the great work I was doing, he loosened a bit. I could sometimes get him to crack a smile. And when Mercury was in retrograde — rare though it was — I could get him to laugh.

This was around the time that I’d developed the addiction.

Someone had gifted me with a stress ball, and man, I loved that thing. It was neon blue and purple, a squishy mixture of small beads resting in gelatinous goodness. What started as an innocent relationship soon became an obsessive, torrid affair. I couldn’t go anywhere at work without my stress ball in tow. I used it at my desk, took it to meetings, and even brought it to 1:1’s with my boss. The feeling it gave me — a freedom from pressure, a fast-track to flow-state thinking — was overpowering.

One day, Ross dashed through the door in his suit and crisp white shirt. We had scheduled a group interview for some open positions, and Ross wanted to demonstrate the proper way to conduct interviews at the MDA.

I brought the group of 12 candidates into the board room, welcomed them and shared how the interview would go, and then introduced Ross. My commentary and introduction was perfect — I was professional, articulate, and I even threw in a few highlights of Ross’ career to make sure the candidates knew they were in the presence of MDA royalty.

Ross looked at me and gave me a nod of approval — the very first one I ever received from him. I felt like we had just turned a corner, that Ross finally trusted me and saw the potential I had to be a future leader at this organization.

An immediate feeling of pride swept over me.

While Ross spoke, I listened while I squeezed my stress ball. I had it just hidden enough on my lap so that Ross and the candidates wouldn’t see it.

And Ross was giving the speech of his life. He talked about Jerry. (I squeezed) And our mission. (I squeezed) He spoke of all the families and children we helped. (Squeeze, squeeze) He talked about his role in the organization, and the important work he oversaw. (Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze)

And then it happened. There was a loud POP!

In slow motion, I watched as blue and purple gelatinous material exploded upwards from my hands, and projected at least 3 feet in the air. I saw the candidates in slow motion too, their eyes and heads moving up, following the trajectory of the airborne gloop. Like a rocket launch, physics took over and the gloop trajectory curved across the boardroom table, heading to my right.

Ross was seated to my right.

In sheer disbelief, everyone’s mouths agape, it landed. Directly, squarely, and totally — on Ross’ head.

At that point, slow motion became very slow motion. Ross was confounded, and yet he saw — just as everyone did — that the blue and purple gelatinous gloop had come from my seat.

His face became red as a tomato, his forehead crinkled, and he looked at me with an expression that only 3 letters can describe: W-T-F?

“Oh god”, I said nervously. “It was my stress ball, I’m so sorry, I’m so…ugh…ugh…oh no.”

“Whoa, she is gonna get fired”, one of the candidates exclaimed.

I looked at Ross in desperation. “Am I fired?”, I asked.

“Get me a t-shirt”, he said in a stoic tone.

Ross didn’t end up firing me. Instead, he went into a closet and changed from his blue and purple gloop-covered business suit into a baggy, cheap, MDA t-shirt. Then he came back into the room and finished the interview, this time with much less professional swagger but determination nonetheless.

It took me a long time to regain Ross’ trust. But I got lucky — he was a kind and understanding leader, especially after learning of my addiction. Though he never invited me to do another interview with him again, I think he knew the impact that day had on my life.

For, I learned the truth about stress balls. They aren’t just some silly, benign office toy. With their colorful beads and enticing gelatinous gloop, they are dangerous, cunning, addictive weapons of self-destruction.

I hope this story makes a difference in your life, and the lives of others. I hope you share it, and openly talk to your children about stress balls.

If I can help even one person avoid the future that I was narrowly spared from, then it was all worth it.