Trying to Make it On My Own

Toronto

Photo by Kat Northern Lights Man via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to be old enough to live on my own. My dad had left just before I turned 14 and a couple years later my mom decided we needed a new start, so we moved to a small town of her choice a four-hour drive away. Unfortunately, I hated that town. This is going to sound really flaky, but I just got a bad, oppressive vibe there. Plus, it was really hard for me to make friends there, and it seemed like all the people my own age who were willing to have anything to do with me when I first moved there were heavy drug users. I drank alcohol, but illegal drugs were not my thing and being around them made me really uncomfortable. Meanwhile, I didn’t have a great relationship with my mom. She yelled a lot and was very critical. It’s like she took pleasure in pointing out things I was doing wrong and ways in which I was at fault for various things.

For example, sometimes my dad would phone and if I was friendly to him, my mom would scream at me, “How can you be so nice to him after the way he’s treated me? I’m the one who’s always been there for you! Where is your loyalty?” So then one time I refused to talk to him, thinking I was showing loyalty to my mom like she wanted. But then she yelled, “How dare you treat your father like that! No matter what he’s done, he’s still your father, and you have no right to disrespect him that way! If you keep doing this he’ll never come back to us!” This is only one of many examples. It was an ongoing pattern in our relationship when I was a teenager. I couldn’t do anything right in her eyes and I got yelled at for every little thing. It was unbearable. I don’t even have words to describe the pain and stress her yelling and criticism caused. Needless to say, home did not feel like an emotionally safe place for me.

I had dropped out of school when I was 14, but I was enrolled in a part-time education program by this point, and through that I got involved in a government-funded employment program for at-risk youth. They got me a summer job in an office, and when summer was over, I was kept on as a part-time employee. I was extremely good at not spending any money back then, so nearly every dime I earned went into my savings account. At 18, having saved up a small nest egg, and with my hours now being drastically cut at work anyway, I moved back to the hometown I desperately missed. Alone.

It never occurred to me that I might not be able to handle it. I had this boundless optimism (which is now long gone), and even though I had already failed at many things, it still never occurred to me that I might suck at life. I just thought anything would be better than living with my mean mom in that town I hated. And I was perfectly willing to work for what I needed. I assumed I was able to do that.

I initially rented a basement suite owned by a family friend. I assumed I would find a job right away, but it turned out to be harder than I thought. Part of the problem was the suite’s inconvenient location and the transportation issues resulting from that. I loved living alone, but seeing how quickly my little nest egg was diminishing just due to basic living expenses, I took a friend (the frenemy I wrote about here) up on her offer to share an apartment with her and her boyfriend. It seemed like a wise decision, as rent would be far cheaper and it was close to all amenities, making my job search much easier (there was no internet in those days; you had to pound the pavement, as they say). It actually went well at first, but then they broke up and my friend moved out.

Now here’s where I made one of my clueless social blunders. It didn’t occur to me that because my friend had moved out, I had to move out too. I liked the apartment and the location, and I got along well (platonically) with her ex-boyfriend. He was a really nice guy. It wasn’t like he had treated her badly; she had just gotten bored with him and wanted to move on, so I didn’t see how it could be a loyalty issue like when I was nice to my dad in spite of him treating my mom badly. But my friend got very angry at me for continuing to live there, and I was utterly clueless as to why. Now in retrospect I can understand that it was highly inappropriate for me to stay there, but I couldn’t see that back then. I was just baffled. I saw that apartment as my home. Why should I have to leave my home because of a decision someone else made? It was bad enough when my parents broke up and I had to go wherever my mom went, but I was an adult and could do what I wanted now, or so I thought. But it understandably led to a huge strain in our friendship.

And then a few months later my friend’s ex-boyfriend moved out too. He couldn’t cook and I certainly wasn’t doing that for him, so he found a room-and-board situation that included meals. And I couldn’t afford to pay the rent on my own, so after a disastrous situation resulting from placing an ad in the paper for a new roommate (which deserves its own post), I ended up having to move anyway.

The next couple years were spent moving from place to place and having roommate after roommate. In total I lived in six different apartments/suites with 9 different roommates. My living situation was a constant source of stress and worry. Some of my roommates were very unpleasant. One of them told me she thought I had a mental illness because I spent so much time in my room, but I was only doing that because being around her was a constant sensory assault.

I wished I could live alone again, but I just couldn’t afford it, even once I had found employment.

I was only able to find minimum-wage jobs (not surprising, given my lack of education). The first one was at McDonalds, where I started working a few weeks after moving in with my friend and her boyfriend, but I only lasted six weeks. The noise and the fast pace were more than I could handle and I ended up having a crying meltdown and getting labelled “emotionally unstable” by my boss, so I quit in a state of overload and humiliation. About a month later I landed a job in a mall bookstore and worked there for about 15 months.

I performed fairly well at the bookstore, despite the stress of dealing with customers, but I had a difficult boss. I got to be good friends with one of my co-workers (whom I’m still friends with to this day), and our boss became very paranoid about the friendship. She accused us of plotting against her (which was a completely false accusation; I wouldn’t know how to plot against someone even if I wanted to, and I have certainly never wanted to) and forbade us to speak to each other. One time, she saw us smiling at each other across the store and demanded to know what we were up to. We were “up to” nothing. We were friends, and we smiled when we saw each other; it was as simple as that.

I have always tended to get sick a lot (mostly bad colds/coughs and nausea/vomiting) when I’m in the workforce, so my choices are to either come in to work sick and get criticized for that, or call in sick a lot, and get criticized for that. During that time, I tended to call in, but then my boss accused me of calling in sick because of hangovers! She even wrote it in my employee record! Again, another completely false accusation. I have never called in sick because of a hangover in my whole life. I did drink socially, but I’ve never been falling-down drunk in my life and I have rarely had anything resembling a hangover. But I guess in her mind, there could be no other explanation for such frequent illnesses. It is odd, I admit, but I have always been this way and nothing I have tried has helped.

The work environment became increasingly tense, and soon the boss had become paranoid about the entire staff. Apparently another staff member overheard her telling someone that she intended to find reasons to fire the entire staff so she could start fresh with a new “uncorrupted” staff. This was because she thought one of the staff members (fortunately not me) was a troublemaker and was poisoning everyone else against her. It was insane; there was nothing like that going on. But she did start firing people one by one and I knew it would happen to me eventually. I dreaded going in there every day, not knowing if that day might be the day. One day I couldn’t take all the stress anymore and I quit. I knew it was unwise, as I had nothing else lined up, but I had reached a breaking point and I knew I would soon be fired anyway. Knowing that potential employers always ask why you left your last job, I knew it would be better to say that I left of my own volition than that I was fired.

In the following weeks, my former boss did indeed fire every last member of staff. In one case, she rummaged through a staff-member’s bag and found a roll of toilet paper, which she then accused her of stealing from the staff bathroom. My close friend was let go with the reason, “The length of time you have now worked here has made you overqualified for the position for which you were originally hired.”

For about three months I desperately tried to find another job, to no avail. Then some awful things happened with my roommate. I had come full circle; this was actually the same person who was my first roommate, the friend who had broken up with her boyfriend and moved out; we had since made up and moved in together again. She said she didn’t want to live alone because she had an ex-boyfriend (not the same one we had lived with) who had been violent with her and was continuing to threaten her, and she thought living with a roommate would offer some level of protection. It didn’t. She ended up getting assaulted by him and I was called to court as a witness (it turns out he had actually been on a bit of a rampage that night, so assaulting her wasn’t the only charge). But having reconciled with him before the court date, she lied in court to protect him and got angry with me for telling the truth. She moved out of our place and in with him (and eventually married him). We had been friends our whole lives but have not spoken to each other since that day. Her choice, not mine. I did not reject friends back then, no matter what, even when I probably should have.

Meanwhile, the guy I was seeing at the time was fast losing interest in me, dashing my hopes for something serious to develop there. A mutual friend he’d confided in told me he had developed feelings for someone else, so I asked him about it. I wasn’t angry (I never got angry about anything back then; it was almost like a weird deficit in my emotional repertoire), but I did want to know. He admitted it was true, but he got angry at the person who told me, which made that person angry at me. I apologized, but she said, “I don’t have time for this juvenile bullshit,” and never spoke to me again.

Emotionally, I hit rock bottom. I had tried and tried to make it on my own. I had been running on adrenaline for two years. I was exhausted, and I was getting physically sicker by the day (probably partly because I couldn’t afford to eat healthy food, or much of anything, really). I’d lost a couple friends, lost my boyfriend, had no job, my money had run out, I couldn’t afford rent on my own, and my mom had been calling me on the phone daily, begging me to move back in with her. I remember just sitting there thinking, okay, what are my options? Everything I had tried had failed, so I narrowed it down to two: I could either kill myself, or I could move back in with my mom. Killing myself would take a certain amount of courage and impetus that I just didn’t have. So I chose the latter. And it felt like a death of sorts anyway.

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Another One of My Work Meltdowns

Keep Calm Don't Melt Down
Photo made on Photofunia.

Another one of my work meltdowns happened when I worked in the office of a manufacturing company. I had gotten the job through an acquaintance. She knew a man in her church who was looking for a temporary admin assistant to fill in for someone who was taking a six-month leave of absence, and since I had office skills and training, she put us in touch with each other.

That man did not actually end up being my direct boss. He was the production manager, and my boss was the office manager, but when my boss was absent, he was in charge of me.

My own boss really liked me, and gave me a lot of affirmation. He repeatedly told me how impressed he was with how quickly I picked up the tasks of the job. He said he didn’t think anyone else could have learned it as fast as I did. On the inside, however, I felt like a fraud. Yes, I had learned the tasks, but I couldn’t see the big picture. I was just following instructions, but I couldn’t see why I was doing the things I was doing or how it all fit together. It was like following directions in a recipe and measuring out flour, sugar and cocoa without knowing you’re supposed to be making brownies, or doing a jigsaw puzzle without having a picture of what the finished result should look like.

Also, the whole place was a rather grimy, smelly, noisy environment that made it hard to concentrate. So I was already feeling overwhelmed, and then my boss told me they’d soon be training me on a new task: taking inventory. He took me into the back where there were rows and rows of things like pipes and hoses and rods and I was expected to learn what they all were. They all blurred together in my vision and I thought, “I will never be able to tell all these things apart and remember what they are.”

Meanwhile, I also felt like I was in over my head socially. They asked me if I watched the show Survivor, and said that the day after it aired the bosses and employees got together to discuss it. Back then, unlike now, I didn’t watch much TV. In fact, I lived in a rural area where I couldn’t get cable and only got two over-the-air channels. I said I didn’t (and couldn’t) watch it, and they were very disappointed, as that was part of the social culture there.

After working there for six weeks, one day while my boss was out, the woman who had hooked me up with the job showed up in the office right before lunch time. I had never given her any indication that she could visit me at work; her appearance was totally out of the blue. She asked me to come to a certain restaurant with her on my lunch break. I said, “I can’t, I only get half an hour for lunch and that won’t be enough time to eat at a sit-down restaurant.” Just then, the production manager entered the office. The woman said to him, “You’ll let her have extra time for lunch so she can come out for lunch with me, right?” I hadn’t known she was going to ask him that and I was totally caught off guard. He replied with a kind smile and a gentle voice, “Yeah, of course. Take as much time as you need. Have a nice time!”

The thing is, I didn’t even want to go out for lunch with her. She had a very domineering personality and was difficult for me to be around. I used my lunch time to decompress; the last thing I wanted was social interaction with someone like her during that precious time. But I couldn’t see how I could get out of it at that point. So I went.

When I returned, with my head in a whirl from the social interaction in the middle of my workday, the production manager, to my shock, was angry at me! He yelled at me, “Don’t you ever do that to me again! Using your friend to get extra time for lunch, knowing that I can’t look like an asshole in front of someone I go to church with!”

I said quietly, “I didn’t even want to go out for lunch with her, and I didn’t know she was going to ask you if I could have extra time. That was all her.”

“You must think I’m an idiot!” he yelled back. “But I can see through your schemes! Don’t ever underestimate me again!”

He stormed into the back, and I had my meltdown. I was alone, thank goodness. My meltdowns are less debilitating when they happen in private. However, I was still sniffling a bit when my own boss returned to the office later that afternoon. He asked what was wrong, and I couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “I don’t think I fit in here.” He assured me that I was doing a great job and then went into his office.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I just kept going over what the production manager had said to me. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to me; the fact is, I often get accused of lying or scheming or having wrong motives in things, when the truth is, I don’t even know how to scheme. I completely lack that ability. Perhaps I’d be more successful in life if I could lie and scheme (it seems like the most successful people do it well), but I can’t. My brain is just not wired that way.

The next morning, as I drove to work, I was in an emotional state from the stress and the sleep deprivation and was not thinking entirely clearly. I started praying, “Please God, I don’t want to quit on yet another thing, but I feel like I can’t handle this. Please release me from this job without me having to quit. I can’t do this.”

When I got to work, my boss was waiting for me. “I have some bad news,” he said. “The admin assistant you’ve been filling in for is coming back early. You’ve been an excellent employee, but we have to let you go.”

So, my prayer was answered within minutes, and I was out of a job again.

During that six weeks of working there, however, I had saved up enough money to buy my first computer, and within about a month, I encountered in an online discussion forum the man who would later become my husband. So something good came out of the experience, anyway.

 

 

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.

 

Self-Defense, Verbal and Otherwise

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Photo by Marg, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

For much of my life I had problems defending myself. Partly because I didn’t quite know how to and partly because when under pressure I would become paralyzed and/or mute. People just did whatever they wanted to me.

One incident happened when I was in grade one (just to clarify, I’m Canadian; we call it grade one, not first grade). I was outside the school during lunch hour and some teachers came hurrying towards me and firmly told me that I needed to come to the principal’s office.

Apparently, I was being accused of breaking a window. I didn’t know why. I was not aware of having broken any window. But adults were saying I did, and I was completely trusting of adults, so I believed them. I believed that I had somehow broken that window without realizing it. As if maybe I had been running along and accidentally kicked up rocks from my shoes with such force that a window was broken. That sounds really implausible now, but it was the only explanation I could think of at the time.

Not that I expressed such thoughts. I couldn’t make any words come out of my mouth. I sat there silent, bewildered, and waiting to see what would happen.

By some miracle, my name was cleared without me having to do or say anything. I don’t quite remember what happened, but I think the real culprit confessed. I was free to go.

Flash forward 10 years. A bully girl attacked me and proceeded to beat me up really badly. By then I had learned to use my words. I kept saying, “If you have a problem with me, can’t we talk about it? Let’s work this out.” But she just yelled, “Shut up, loser!” The beating continued until an elderly couple came out of a nearby house and yelled that they were going to call the police. She left and the couple took me into their house and talked to me. “Why didn’t you do anything?” the man asked. “Why did you just let her do that to you?” I had no answer.

The problem was, despite having been able to find my words, I was not able to bring myself to physically fight back. I thought about it. I tried to envision it. But my body wouldn’t move. Other kids were cheering on the fight but there was no fight. There was no struggle. It was just one person pounding the other to a pulp. I suppose I looked like a coward but I wasn’t really afraid, just confused, sad, overwhelmed, and inexplicably paralyzed. I didn’t know why, so I couldn’t explain it.

Fortunately, once I was an adult people stopped inflicting violence on me. But I continued to find myself in situations where I was taken advantage of, misunderstood, or falsely accused, and I continued to be really bad at doing anything about it. I did try, but was horribly ineffective. Many times I was told, “You need to learn to stand up for yourself!”

Finally in my thirties I went through a year of counseling, and my counselor and I talked about strategies for standing up for myself if the need arose.

Then when I was 40 years old, one day at work, someone made a false accusation against me which was brought to my attention by my angry boss. I managed to stay calm and I explained to him why I was not guilty. He remained skeptical, as the person who made the accusation was highly regarded. He ended the conversation with, “I just want to get to the bottom of this!”

I knew it would not be difficult to prove my innocence. I compiled documents and e-mail exchanges that did get to the very bottom of the situation and revealed exactly what had happened. Basically, the whole mess was the result of someone requesting to book the facility for a certain date, me rightfully denying the booking because the facility was unavailable on that date, and them showing up anyway, leading to a whole shitstorm of consequences. It was 100% not my fault and the documents I provided proved it.

The following week was my 6-month performance review. I was told that while my work was of a consistently high quality and while I had always demonstrated a conscientious attitude, a courteous demeanor, and a high ethical standard, I was too defensive and had an unhealthy need for vindication. I told my boss that if he was referring to the incident of the previous week, perhaps I had misunderstood, but he’d said he wanted to get to the bottom of the situation. Since I had in my possession everything that could show him exactly what had transpired and why, I thought he would want to be made aware of it. My words only proved his point that I was defensive and he told me this was an area where I needed personal growth. I then made the mistake of blurting out that for much of my life I’d never defended myself, but I’d gotten counseling to learn how, and the fact that I could do so now meant I had achieved personal growth. He just stared at me. Then he made up a reason why I was fired.

It seems that I can’t quite get it right. I’m supposed to stand up for myself, but I’m not supposed to be defensive. I don’t know where the line is, and I still don’t know what I did wrong in the work situation (other than the part where I admitted that I’d had past issues that had required counseling, but things had already gone terribly awry by that point anyway). I know I am socially awkward, but I can’t imagine anyone not defending themselves or providing documents that proved a false accusation false. I’ve observed that most other people in the workplace are not pushovers and do not take any crap. But it seems like when other people do it, it’s accepted, and when I do it, I get it slightly wrong somehow, and it’s not accepted. I would be willing to change, but I’m never sure exactly where I’m going wrong.