Workshop Hell

chair
Photo by Justin S. Campbell via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

My husband and I both started attending employment counseling last week. After the first appointment, we came away with very different schedules. My counselor had me fully booked for workshops and appointments every day this week and into the next. Meanwhile, my husband was scheduled for only two workshops and one one-on-one appointment with a networking expert.

I had even been honest with the counselor about how overwhelmed I get and told her I can only handle part-time work (if that). She must not have understood what I was getting at. She would not have over-scheduled me if she had.

The workshops have proven to be pretty much useless. I already know how to write a resume. My problems are far more complex than that. What they’re teaching is so basic I think you’d have to be a complete idiot to get much out of it. I’m not saying I learned nothing though. I learned a couple of sneaky, unethical tricks to get my resume seen by potential employers. That’s the kind of stuff they’re teaching people.

There were really only two things I hoped to get out of all this, which have already proven to be complete busts:

  1. I was hoping to get help identifying a new career path that is a better fit for me than office admin. The only thing that’s come out of this in that regard is the advice to “find a way” to make money using my writing skills. No shit. Easier said than done.
  2. I was hoping there would be some kind of government funding for retraining, but my counselor told me on day one that there is nothing like that available.

 

I have ended up extremely overwhelmed and stressed by something that is proving to be of no value or benefit whatsoever. The problem is that I don’t know how to get out of it. It goes against everything in me to just not show up, so I know I need to cancel, but I don’t know how to. I will feel like I need to offer some excuse, but I don’t have one. And I don’t want to piss anyone off in a small town like this. In fact, my counselor even goes to my former church, which I intend to start attending again. If I bail out of all this without a good reason it’s going to be really hard to face her socially.

So I’ve continued to go.

My state of overwhelm finally came to a head today in a workshop on “Finding the Hidden Job Market.” This was the most useless workshop yet. It was basically hours of the instructor saying, “You have to socialize and talk to people to get a job in this town,” in a variety of different ways. I was already well aware of this. There’s no new way anyone can say it to make it any easier for me in practicality. So I was sitting there, feeling physically worn out from the week’s schedule, feeling tired from days of having gotten up earlier than my body can cope with, and with a blinding headache from the fluorescent lights. I was trying to look at the printouts I’d been given and the letters and words just started swimming on the page in pools of bright light, blending together, indistinguishable.

And then things took a bad turn, socially. She was talking about how if you’re new in town, employers are going to love that you’ve moved here, because…. she paused… she then looked at me and for some reason decided to single me out. “Do you and your husband have kids?” she asked me.

“No,” I said.

“But of course you will in the future.” Not a question. A statement.

“No,” I snapped, too loudly. “I’m already 43; if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably not going to.”

The room went silent for an awkward moment while everyone stared at me. Or at least I felt like everyone was staring at me. My face started to burn. I had overshared. Typical.

Then she, apparently unfazed, went on to say something… now I will probably not quote this accurately, word for word, because my head was in such a whirl that I’m not sure exactly what she said… but it was something to the effect that if we had kids, we would be seen as more valuable to the community, because our kids would be going to school here and would be involved in things and would be seen as the future of the community.

So, wait. What? She’s telling me I have to procreate to be valuable to the community? That employers would be happy my husband and I have moved here if we had kids? Was she implying they’d be more likely to employ us if we were parents and could contribute to the future population of the town? Is that how people think?! I hope I misunderstood what she was getting at because that is fucked.

I remained silent during this little lecture.

Not long after that, she had each person do a role-playing exercise with her. We were supposed to pretend that she was a potential employer and we were introducing ourselves for the purpose of networking. As she went around the room, getting closer to me, I felt this tightness rise higher and higher up my body. I started wracking my brain trying to think of something to say when she got to me, but my head was in such a fog by that point that I was a complete blank. I could not string a coherent thought together. When I realized that, I started trying to weigh my options for escape. But again, my brain wasn’t really working. My first instinct was to run from the room. But that would attract so much attention. I hate attracting attention. And there was actually someone in a chair blocking the path from my seat to the door. I would have to ask them to move to get out. So that was out of the question.

That was as far as I had gotten in my thought process when she finally came to me. She stuck out her hand and said, in her role as potential employer, “Nice to meet you. What can I do for you today?”

I blurted out, “I’m so sorry, I cannot pull it together to do this right now. I have a blinding headache and am not okay. I don’t want to be difficult but I just can’t.”

“Oh yes, you’re so difficult,” she said jokingly. Then she made some comment about how you shouldn’t be approaching employers if you’re having a bad day anyway and moved on to the next person. Funnily enough, and perhaps fortunately for me, two other people declined after me. One guy said it takes him all day to think of something to say and he can’t handle being put on the spot like that. A fellow Aspie, maybe? I could certainly relate.

As I sat there, I was feeling so awful, physically and emotionally, that I started having — okay, don’t be alarmed here; I’m not suicidal — mental images pop into my head of me shooting myself. I wasn’t actively thinking about suicide, or wanting to do it, or planning it. I don’t even know how to use a gun. It was just these images, unbidden. I used to get them a lot when I was young, but it’s been a very long time since the last time it happened. In fact, it was here, in this town, where I used to have them a lot.

When I got home, I fell asleep for a couple of hours and when I woke up, I didn’t know what day it was. I thought I was waking up the next morning. It took a few minutes to gain my bearings.

I really don’t want to go back to that place. Am I a terrible person if I don’t?

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One of My Work Meltdowns

Business Furniture
Photo by bfi Business Furniture Inc. Used under Creative Commons.

 

A work meltdown I had several years ago was the result of a culmination of a number of factors.

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

The Golden Rule

Photo by Mark Grapengater via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Mark Grapengater via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

When I was a kid, the Golden Rule was drilled into my head: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Because I tended to take things literally, I tried to follow this by treating people the way I wanted to be treated. This backfired. It turns out, the way I want to be treated isn’t the way most other people want to be treated. I would be more successful by following the spirit of the rule rather than the letter of it, so to speak. In other words, treat other people the way they want to be treated, not the way I want to be treated. Of course, this adds a layer of complexity, as I first have to figure out how other people want to be treated. I imagine it’s so much easier if you already think like most other people do.

I could provide dozens of examples, but for now I’ll offer just one:

My husband and I have moved many times. Being Christians, by which I mean we believe in Jesus Christ, in each city we’ve moved to, we’ve chosen a new church to attend. This is always a very overwhelming experience for me. Everything about modern evangelical church services is designed to entertain and to stimulate the senses. And before the service even starts, there’s having to walk through a crowded foyer and trying to find a seat in an unfamiliar environment. (Also, I’m aware that you can be judged for where you sit — I’ve heard pastors say from the pulpit that the people sitting in the back aren’t serious about their faith or about being at church.) With my sensory issues, I get so overstimulated, everything becomes a blur. The very last thing in the world I want at that point is someone coming up to me and talking to me and asking me questions about myself.

Because of this, if I see a person I don’t recognize at church, I do not go up to them. I respect them by giving them the space and time to get their bearings. That is how I want people to treat me, so that is how I treat them. That, to me, is kindness.

Imagine my surprise to learn that most people come to church wanting to be welcomed and looking for a sense of community, and they will never return if no one talks to them the first time! They will go away hurt and they will tell people what an unfriendly church it is!

The key would be to have the ability to read people, I suppose. To be able to look at someone and tell if they want to be approached or left alone. But reading people is notoriously tough for Aspies. Despite the stereotype, I am actually capable of reading people quite well, but only in a calm environment with little other sensory input. When I’m already overstimulated, like at church (yes, even after I’ve been going there for a while), my head’s in a whirl and detecting such subtleties is just not likely to happen.

Sensory Experiences I Love

Photo by dreamwhile via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by dreamwhile via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

My sensory sensitivity isn’t all bad news. I am also capable of receiving intense pleasure and joy from the right sensory input. These are the things that make life worth living:

Smell

  • The smell of rain.
  • The smell of bread baking, or something with cinnamon, cloves, and apples.
  • The scent of plug-in air fresheners. A lot of people with odor sensitivity don’t like artificial smells, but I love them, if it’s the right type of scent. I like cinnamon and cloves, vanilla, nuts, and some fruity scents. I don’t care for most flowery ones.

Taste

  • Salty-sweet combinations, like salted caramels. My favourite is Purdy’s Himalayan Pink Salt Caramels.
  • Flavoured, loose leaf black tea, like chai or anything nutty and/or chocolaty, brewed strong and served with lots of sweetener and whole milk.
  • White rum with club soda and lime over ice.

Touch/Tactile

  • Having my back gently stroked (by my husband). This is my favourite thing in the world. I also like having the top of my foot gently stroked. I often rub the top of my foot against the sheet-covered mattress when in bed.
  • Long hair on my bare back.
  • Stroking my cat’s fur.
  • Wearing an over-sized, soft, comfy sweater.
  • The way the air feels in the fall. Crunchy leaves under my shoes. Crisp air and cool breezes.

Sight

  • Beautiful scenery. Rolling hills. Cityscapes. City lights.
  • White fairy lights in a dim room.
  • A Christmas tree decorated in white and silver.
  • Adorable kitten faces.

Sound

  • The sound of rain.
  • The sound of traffic going by on the highway.
  • Good music. Indie, electronica, downtempo, etc.