A work meltdown I had several years ago was the result of a culmination of a number of factors.
- There was a bad smell in the building that had been making me gag. I mentioned it to my boss, who mentioned it to the janitor, who apparently tried to eliminate it, but I could still smell it. No one else could smell it, so I was treated like it was all in my head. I plugged in an air freshener near my desk (perhaps that was too presumptuous of me, but I was the only one who worked in that area; everyone else had their own office), and that helped, but in my absence it was removed. I casually mentioned to my boss that my air freshener had gone missing. He told me he had removed it because it bothered his sinuses, which of course I understood, but it still left me smelling the bad smell, and I had trouble concentrating on anything as long as I could smell it. He must have mentioned it to his wife, because she then gave me a big vanilla-scented candle as a gift, saying her husband had always been able to tolerate those. I kept it right next to me on my desk and it helped a lot, even unlit. But one day I came to work and it was gone. I mentioned to my boss that my candle had gone missing, and he said he and some other people had wanted to use candles downstairs, and he had taken it down there.
- My boss told me about something he was planning, saying he wanted feedback from a critical thinker, so he could plan how he would respond to other critical thinkers who he knew would have a problem with it. He said, referring to how to get other people to accept it, “It’s all in how we package it.” The problem was that his plans were, in my opinion, unethical and dishonest. Since he was asking my opinion, I gave it to him as diplomatically as I could and without using those two words, but it still got awkward. Of course, he went ahead with his plans, and the worst part is, there was a man who was basically a victim of it all but had no idea why things were playing out the way they were. This man even came to me for advice and I did my best to advise him without actually telling him the truth, as I was required to keep my boss’ scheme confidential and to be complicit with it. This all completely went against my principles and left me feeling sickened with guilt and disgust.
- A coworker I got along really well with quit, and told me it was because he felt he was being treated badly by our boss. This left me working alone with the boss every day, after things had already gotten awkward.
- As well as my job duties, I was expected to take on a “volunteer” project in my “spare time.” I had done a similar project the previous year before I worked there, and I was expected to do it again. I had determined, based on coping strategies I had learned from my former counselor, who was the very same man who was now my boss, that the only way I could manage this without overload was to set very clear boundaries and deadlines. The project required contributions from a number of other people, and I had set a deadline for these contributions which I made clear to everyone involved. On the day of the deadline, someone e-mailed me and said her contribution wasn’t ready, and asked if she could get it to me the following week. I replied and said I was sorry, but if I were to complete the project in time I needed everything that day. My boss found out I had said that, and he confronted me. He said I was being too rigid and I “wasn’t showing enough grace to people.”
Then came the meltdown. Right in front of him, I started to shake and cry uncontrollably. I then ran out the door to the front porch of the building and vomited over the railing. I sat down on the steps and shook and wheezed for several minutes.
Once I was able to regain control, I went back inside and as calmly as I could asked him if I could go home and calm down. He agreed. I said I would come back that afternoon to finish my work. I gave him my word that I would be back.
When I got home, I was crying again. My husband was home, and I could barely speak to tell him what had happened. I just cried and cried. Finally he managed to get the gist of the situation. When I returned to work a couple hours later, he went with me, and helped me complete my tasks. My boss looked at us and said nothing. He knew my husband socially and probably found it awkward.
Before I left that day, with my husband’s encouragement, I handed in my letter of resignation.
Afterwards, I was exhausted for months. That happened in September, and it wasn’t until at least January before I felt like I came out of my fog. My house was a mess. My friendships had been neglected. I don’t even know how I spent my time during those months. It would be a huge exaggeration to say I was nearly catatonic, and yet somehow I can’t think of another word. It’s like I was inside myself and was too exhausted to come out.
I try to think of what I could have done differently to avoid the meltdown. For one thing, I should never have taken a job working for my former counselor. The whole thing was a bad idea and was probably in itself a breach of ethics on his part. At the time, I was just so flattered that someone who already knew everything that was wrong with me, including my sensory and emotional sensitivity, would offer me a job I hadn’t even applied for. I started thinking that maybe it was meant to be and that it might be a job where I could actually thrive. I have always been good at the tasks of those kinds of jobs; the work itself has never been the issue.
Unfortunately, the very coping strategies he’d taught me as my counselor, he did not allow me to implement in the workplace as my boss.
While I never should have taken the job, once I had, I suppose I could have asked before bringing in an air freshener. I had to do something, as due to my odor sensitivity I couldn’t function with the bad smell, but I suppose taking the initiative to solve my own problem without getting permission was seen as me not knowing my place, or something like that.
Another thing I could have done differently was not given my true opinion of my boss’ plans. That would have prevented some of the awkwardness that resulted. But it still wouldn’t have solved the problem, since once he went ahead with them I still would have felt guilty for my required complicity with them, and the guilt would have been even more intense if I hadn’t at least offered any words of protest.
I also should not have agreed to do the volunteer project. That was too much to take on, and I only did so because it was expected and I didn’t want to rock the boat, as I already felt awkward with my boss. Once I had taken it on, however, I still think I had the right to set a deadline. I actually suspect that my boss’ accusation about me not showing enough grace to people may have been more about what I had said to him about his plans than about me enforcing a deadline for submissions for the project. He was already seeing me that way, but it was only in that situation that he said it.
So I don’t know. I suppose I made wrong choices, but everything I did was to try to cope. It’s just that my efforts to cope caused problems between me and my boss and were then thwarted by him.
There is an interesting twist to this story. This former boss and I are not on bad terms. He gave me a glowing work reference and although my husband and I have moved away, he and his wife keep in touch with us and when they’re in our area they visit us. We all just kind of pretend none of this ever happened. Once when I did try to broach the subject he told me he has nothing but positive things to think and to say about me, and we left it at that.