I am not big-headed enough to think I am special or remarkable, but I do sometimes wonder if my talent for screwing up is something out of the ordinary. I was tempted to list all my fuck-ups here, because they are almost impressive in a terrible sort of a way. I have consistently and considerably managed to damage my life and those of others with my bad personal choices since, well, forever.
However, the list would be too long, too depressing and not really relevant, so I’ll move on. After spending many years struggling to get a foot on the career ladder – self-employment being my only ever real work (because the only person who would employ me was me) – at the end of last year I was offered my first Proper Job. I was starting at the bottom of the ladder as the administrator for a big team of professionals at varying levels of seniority.
It turned out to be a lovely team in a great work environment with an acceptable balance of stress, ease, frustration and reward. The number of hours was really the ideal fit for my young family, and my ‘above & beyond’ work ethic was repaid with gratitude, respect and flexibility. Being public sector, I was well-protected as an employee and the pay was very good for the level of work I was doing. The people, at all levels, were very kind.
However, now I had the taste for the working mum life, I quickly began to crave more stimulation. I wanted to put the handful of skills I do have to better use. So, when the marketing job came up for a small independent agency, I wrote a chance letter and expected to hear nothing back. I was only part way through my marketing degree and they wanted a graduate with a range of skills that I openly stated I had not yet fully formed.
Somehow, though, I got the job. I know! Believe it or not, that sort of thing really does not happen to me. They saw something in me, they said, and were willing to invest in training the right person. It was more hours than ideal for a mum of 4 young kids, and it amounted to less pay after childcare was factored out. However, it was a real career move and I was excited. Receiving that job offer was, I thought, my defining moment of 2017.
My lovely team at Work #1 were understanding, supportive and sad-but-pleased for me when I handed in my notice after only 8 months. I left with cards, gifts, a tasty farewell morning tea in my tummy and lots of warm feelings to carry forward into the exciting new chapter.
Living the dream
Week 1 at Work #2 was thrilling. I continually pinched myself over the fact that I was actually getting paid to do something so enjoyable, something that required skills that not everyone in the world has. Does this mean I have some skills? Me, the person who fucks up at every corner? Do I really have something in me, beyond an ability to perform basic repetitive tasks, that someone out there deems worthy of payment? Apparently, it seems, I did.
The training I was promised never actually materialised. I was dropped in at the deep end and had to figure it out for myself. That was cool, I have always been a self-educator, it just meant things took a little longer at the outset as I fumbled through trial and error. Still, I got the job done, bringing work home with me on evenings and weekends to compensate for any shortfall in speed.
Not just this, but it became evident that I was doing the job pretty well. Clients that had been on the brink of leaving were now back on board and delighted with my work. Praise and thanks were coming in from all angles (except from my actual employers). My metrics told the story in black & white numbers. Everything was going well.
My self-esteem had never been so good. I had come a long way from the empty shell of a human I was two years prior, with nothing to show for my life other than an array of crippling mental health problems.
After a short while in the job, in spite of the learning curve, I began hitting the tight timeliness targets that were requested of me. As my pace picked up, more work was pushed my way and I continued going above & beyond by bringing it home and donating my own time. There was never any thanks, never any positive feedback for any work I did, but it was what it was.
I was never given the work phone that I was promised in my contract, but – not liking to make a fuss – I simply used my own. My family photo album was obliterated by hundreds of work photos. The social media pages I managed were unprofessionally integrated into my personal Facebook account. I never saw my own personal notifications any more and I all but lost touch with my personal connections. Instead, I was drowning in 24/7 notifications from work. As a migrant with most friends & family on the other side of the world, and no time any more for my nearby friends, I felt isolated.
As the friendly newness wore off, the boss grew more critical of me day after day. I was often given an instruction by one manager and torn down for following it by the other. Very minor, inconsequential errors that I made as a learner who had been forced to hit the ground running without training were blown enormously out of proportion. In some cases, I was flamed for unwittingly neglecting certain client-specific requirements that I couldn’t possibly have known because nobody ever told me.
When the ‘beginner errors’ dissipated once I figured most of it out, the boss continued to pick faults where there were no faults to be found. I began to feel like the nasty emails had become a sport. On an average day – both on work days and weekends – I would receive anywhere from 2 to 10 separate criticisms via email, occasionally more. Never, not once, was all the good work I thought I was doing mentioned or acknowledged. The only exception to this was when I was criticised for delivering a better standard than clients were paying for – I shit you not.
The constant influx of criticisms and work notifications wore me down within a matter of weeks. I was simultaneously battling three solid months of winter flu bugs while drowning in work between my degree assignments and my take-home-tasks. One bad headache lasted for over a month without relent, and 2-3 times a week it would evolve into a full debilitating migraine. I had not suffered one of those bastards in over a decade.
And now, to top it all off, I could only deduce that I must be terrible at my job.
One Monday morning, I cracked. It was 10am and I had just received my 12th email criticism within a 14 hour timeframe. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but for the first time, I stood up for myself. I was immediately hauled into the meeting room and given the third degree. The boss was shocked – shocked – that I thought I was doing a bad job. “You’re great! The clients love you! This is just how I am… I don’t have time for niceties. Almost everything you are doing is completely on point. This is just the small stuff.”
It was the first time I had heard any positive feedback from my own team since I started working there. I felt really stupid. Clearly I was just being paranoid the whole time. I’m a grown up, I shouldn’t need validation and I should be able to deal with criticism. My bad.
Seeing that I was physically and mentally very unwell, she sent me home for a “paid mental health day”, which was never actually paid.
I returned the next day, resolving to have thicker skin. After a couple of days, the usual barrage of criticism resumed. I shouldered it and got on, but a switch had flicked inside me. All of the hard work I had put into restoring my mental health over the last 18 months disappeared in an instant.
The relapse hit me quickly like a punch in the guts. I suffered daily anxiety attacks. Each notification that pinged my phone left me seizing up with panic. Fear gripped every moment of my day. I quickly became so depressed that it was everything I could do to resist driving off the cliff edge on the tearful drives home each and every day.
I kneejerked by cutting out food during the day. Starvation calms my nerves, but I am too far into recovery now and my effort to overcome it simply resulted in another bulimia relapse, which is arguably worse because it makes me fatter, not thinner. I was back to sneaking around, staying up late to binge. I was no longer able to sleep at night without the help of harsh sleeping pills. Every moment of every day was just bad, bad, bad. I literally lost the will to live. My head was fuzzy and my creativity was gone. Started smoking again. Couldn’t study, missed deadlines. I could barely even parent my kids.
I wrote a letter to my boss and said I couldn’t go on like this any longer, and requested a meeting to discuss my resignation. We met and they talked me out of it. “We love our staff! You’re one of the family and you mean a lot to us. What would you do with your life if you went back to just being a mum? We’ve invested a lot in you now (??!!). You can’t go!” So I stayed and assured them that I would somehow figure it all out.
And I did. I figured it out by switching off the human and turning on the robot. I cut out my emotions and went into work overdrive. I laboured solidly round-the-clock, seven days a week, averaging 3 hours’ sleep a night. No lunch breaks, no evenings, no weekends off, just a couple of slower evenings at the end of the week.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t last long. After one particularly nasty email a couple of weeks later, I cracked again. I replied – heart on my sleeve – explaining exactly what was going on with my mental health and expressing deep regret that I was left with no choice but to hand in my notice. I took full responsibility for the issue and in no way implicated them. In response, I received a frosty two-liner acknowledging my resignation and reminding me of my obligations. So much for one of the family.
Three days later, my doctor signed me off sick for my notice period. I didn’t even have to ask – I went in for medication and I came out with a strict instruction not to return to work. Friends and family urged me to listen. My dietitian insisted the same.
My great plan
Still, I couldn’t just leave them hanging. The boss had family problems and was barely at work that week. I had so many unfinished jobs and lots of clients depending on them. If I walked out they could lose business, and I couldn’t just detach. I informed my managers that I had been signed off as unfit for work, but said that if they wanted me to continue then I would continue. I tentatively proposed a work-from-home arrangement, but it was declined and I was instructed to continue as things were.
So I mapped out a plan to leave them at a stage where they would cope without replacing me until mid-November if needs be. It was about 2-3 weeks’ worth of work on my part. If I could reach this point before my notice period was up, I decided, then I would take the leave. So I killed myself – not literally. (Bad joke). Pulled a series of all-nighters, neglected my overdue assignments and my family. Started early and finished late every day, as I always did. I completed at least 2 weeks’ worth of work inside 4 days, and they knew it. If I say so myself – I did a bloody good job of it too. It was met with gratitude from the clients and silence from the bosses, which is just about the highest form of praise.
By this morning, I had reached my target. I sent the boss a status report and asked if there were any other areas they wanted me to cover. I reiterated that I would not leave until I could be certain that everything was going to be okay at their end, but I also openly stated that my mental health was deteriorating with each day that passes, and I would appreciate the chance to work on recovery by taking my (unpaid) sick leave if & when the time is right for them.
Once more, I was hauled in to the meeting room and bitched at from both sides of the table for even suggesting it. I repeatedly stated that I was not walking away until it was right, because I have a commitment and because I truly care about the company. However, after pulling a miracle out my ass and reaching a point where I could not really schedule much further ahead, I asked what more they actually needed me to do. They had nothing. “Fine, then. Tie up your loose ends and we’ll let you go at the end of the week. You won’t be paid.”
Then, for the first time, it really hit me.
ANGER. RAGE. FURY. FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU SO FUCKING MUCH.
I took a deep breath, and calmly said: “Okay. But just so you are aware, you are not letting me go. I could have handed in my GP’s letter and walked out on Monday. Instead I have not only continued, but also given you almost every minute of free time I’ve had this week. I have missed my kids on the first week of their holidays and I am at a big financial loss for doing so, because the cost of their school holiday care massively outweighs the money I am earning here this week. But I am here because you matter to me and because I have a sense of responsibility.”
Or words to that effect.
Their response was not kind. I was told to tie up my loose ends and get out by the end of the day. The boss stormed out of the office and I never saw her again.
I took a rare lunchbreak, just a short one. Stamped around a nearby garden and released my bitter rage. Then I returned with a fake smile having wiped away the tears. I made numerous phone calls with convincing professional bubbliness. I kindly received visitors and was only too delighted to show them around. I was abundantly cordial with everyone around me.
Then the time came. I was unceremoniously told to leave behind the branded gifts I had been given when I started. I then walked out of that fucking door with silent tears streaming down my face, and I never looked back, not fucking once.
On my way home, I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up my prescription – the first opportunity I’d had to do something for myself all week. Sleeping pills and antidepressants to add to my collection of strong painkillers and nicotine lozenges. How fucking symbolic, I thought, feeling utterly battered and bruised as I scrunched the paper bag in my hand.
Should I regret leaving my lovely Work #1, where I had it better than most? Should I regret handing in my notice after such a short time and not giving it more of a chance? Should I regret not walking on Monday and putting my health, family & finances first? Should I regret not giving them a real piece of my mind? Should I regret going above & beyond when it was never going to be enough? Should I regret leaving on bad terms and damaging my CV? Should I regret going to work in the first place when my mental health was clearly in such a delicate position?
These are all questions I taunted myself with on that final tearful drive home. The answers should at least be “possibly” but – bizarrely – that is not the case. I am now jobless, my bank account is stung, my mental health is in tatters, my uni work has fallen by the wayside and my kids have missed their mum. Somehow, though, as angry, hurt and bitter as I feel, I still have no regrets.
I have learned a lot. I have learned some new skills. I have learned what the inside of a marketing company looks like. I have learned that I can actually do that job quite well. I have learned that I am not cut out for agency life. I have learned that, with young children, I need flexibility and time ahead of money and success. I have learned that, to achieve that, I need to work for myself and not someone else. I have learned that sometimes people just really aren’t nice people, however hard you try to please them. I have learned that, even in 2017, mental health is still stigmatised and not considered ‘real’. I have learned that I really do need to take care of myself. I have learned not to be such a fucking pushover. I have learned that crying is better than numb.
So now it’s on to Chapter 3, however it will look. 😊