For the past six months, I have been untangling myself from a difficult situation that was my reality since early 2012. You read that right. Since two thousand TWELVE. For what spanned a decade, the majority of my daughter’s childhood, I dreaded going to work.
There, I encountered, well, that’s just it. I never knew what I was going to come across. Each day was a ticking time bomb made possible by someone else’s unpredictable, volatile behavior. There were loud outbursts—often times aimed at me—and door slamming, loud singing into the suite and behind closed doors—a seeming lack of awareness of the office space we inhabited. There was one way of doing things, and to suggest another way was futile. These ways cost colleagues time, energy, confidence, and on too many days to count, waning supplies of morale.
I looked around to see if others saw what I saw, and for a long time, other’s getting on with business gaslit me into believing I was either making this up or making it worse than it actually was. Over time, colleagues became a source of support and commiseration, and we suffered the onslaughts together.
Leadership at the time knew about it. They knew because I told them. I even documented it on paper. Some days I believed my staying reinforced that it couldn’t be as bad as I described, or I would have left.
What they didn’t know is that I play the long game. I am pathologically stubborn. My four-year-old’s tuition was on the line. As was a well-matched retirement. And during a three-year-period when my household was enduring my then-husband’s serial unemployment, my daily bread was on the line. I really didn’t think I could leave. I was mired in manufactured low self-esteem. My confidence took a beating. I convinced myself I couldn’t find anything better.
And so I expended a lot of psychic and creative energy to keep my head above water. I employed creative approaches to stay sane in this painful space. Therapy helped me gain strategies and build courage and perspective. I wrote post-it note mantras I displayed on my monitor like movie marquees to remind me of who I wanted to be, or stay, or become in the midst of so much chaos. I created a blog and developed myself as a writer in my off hours. I imagined myself with a book advance that would allow me to up and quit.
I also created a wall of dream destinations. I wrote in thick, black Sharpie marker places I wanted to go. I didn’t know how I would get there on my stretched-thin salary, but I believed that if I dreamed it, I could manage it somehow. (In 2013, after one of the early bouts of unemployment, I DID take my almost-six-year-old to the UK to meet my college roommate.) Where there is a will, there is a way!
These were the days when I walked four labyrinths in celebration of my fortieth birthday. So “Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth (50 miles SW of PARIS)” went up on the wall. I even wrote a note after I googled its hours one day: Every Friday 10-5 Lent (Feb) to All Saints Day (Nov).
“Ireland with a groupon”
“Slovenia” because I have friends who go there to visit family regularly and said we could tag along some time.
“Viking River Cruise – Danube” That was added during the Downton Abbey days on PBS when Viking vacations sponsored the show.
I read several novels translated from Swedish and enjoyed them so much, I was convinced Sweden had to go on the wall.
“P.E.I.” These destinations were conversation starters with colleagues who dropped by my office, but Prince Edward Island’s abbreviation consistently stumped them.
Melbourne, Australia, was on the wall in honor of my college roommate’s current residence, and Iceland was added because, well, who doesn’t want to go to a place that gives books as gifts and has a tradition of reading all Christmas Eve night?
In June, this tour of duty ended. Staffing changes were made, and I was the last woman standing. It’s taken all of these months for me to come down from the high alert I lived in every day. I have been surrounded by new leaders who have built trust with honest conversation, patience, and the belief that I am capable of more than I was allowed to display. There are no more yelling or scary outbursts.
All of these shifts occurred during remote work arrangements. This fall I was informed that I would return to the building, but to a new office space. Would that be okay? I was ecstatic. I knew how important it would be for me to not return to my old space. For this new era to really take hold, I needed to walk to a different door, sit at a new desk configuration.
October 15th I returned to the office for the first time since March 2020. I moved my computer and monitors first, and then tackled the wall. I assumed I would move the papers to the new office. I was wrong. As I pulled down the taped papers, I saw the wall for what it had been: a mental escape route. I am not the same woman who put those papers on the wall. I haven’t been to any of these places yet, and I still want to go, but I have new dreams and aspirations to add to the destination list. I don’t need to plaster them all over the wall. I can carry and cultivate them in my heart.
What lonely, awful days those were when I tried so many strategies and still went home depleted. I am proud of the ways I coped. I am proud that I conducted myself with grace and respect. I also know that I don’t want to do that again or for so long. I can’t change the decisions I made in the past ten years, but I won’t make them again. Those decisions were made in fear and scarcity, and they weren’t the best ones for me or my daughter. We could have been thriving in different circumstances. How can we best thrive will be the basis on which I make future decisions.
I am grateful for the time and space I have been granted to make sense of those difficult years. I am telling this story now—on the eve of New Year’s Eve—because I don’t want to carry this baggage into the New Year. I have worked excruciatingly hard to face the demons of the past ten years. To understand what made me so frightened and frozen in the midst of another’s instability and insecurity. The hard work has paid off. So has the patience of my colleagues and myself. I feel new and strong and ready for what a new decade at work will bring.