Gap Year Nightmare or what made me start blogging
When I arrived in The Small City I was confident that I was simply "damned good" at what I did. This was supposed to be low-visibility post, which I would use to test my real-world survival skills.
The glaring August sun seared my forehead on that first Saturday afternoon. Now, I can't help but think that it was a marker for the oppression to which I would be subjected later.
Add Mall sat in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn't help notice just how prosaic and contrived it looked. This shopping centre was the city's attempt to modernise the small, forgotten town that was famous for its farm products. It suddenly dawns on me that there was not a car to be seen in the Mall that Saturday afternoon. I shook my head, realising that it would take some time to adjust away from the crush of bodies that filled my range of vision almost every waking moment in the Big City.
My new employers sat across from me in the Mall's Chinese restaurant, the man was a ragged display next to his exquisitely dressed wife, who was his business partner. I noticed the worn out collar on his faded cotton t-shirt. I noticed that it stretched over his 190 cm, 100 kg frame. I noticed the visual contrast he made with the slight, delicate curves of his dimunitive wife who was exactly one foot shorter and one third his size. He was a blonde white male who had lived in Jamaica for a year.
In the office later that afternoon, I listened as the mismatched couple told me all the negative qualities of their past and present employees. Not a kind word, no open acceptance of individual differences. Surely, I was in danger of receiving the same treatment when my time came. I wondered how they would receive me, given my penchant for being direct, and my irreverence for authority. I was also moody. At least that was how some people would describe the difference between my extreme cheerfulness and quiet reflectiveness when I needed to do my work.
Hours later, I stepped into my beautiful new apartment. Late night fumbling with keys didn't mark the beginning of a romantic interlude; it was my return from the office after 12 hours of labour intensive work and torment. Or, it was my return from the video store or laundromat.
Nearly three months after starting my job, I stood in my antique furnished office with my head stuck outside the window. My left forefinger was stuck in my left ear, and my mobile phone was pressed against my right ear. I was talking with the head of a research centre in the United Arab Emirates. She wanted me to head up a team for a special project in Dubai, and was willing to wait two weeks but I had to decide right then. I was tempted to jump, because it didn't seem to matter to my employers that I was doing well or that my clients appreciated my work. Five hours later, a South African with similar credentials to mine just happened to be in the research centre building after I ended my phonecall and she saved me from making that decision.
I was stuck, for the time being. [I came on to blogger round about here].
By the end of 2003, I had lost my self confidence. The stress of not having a social life was causing me to lose sleep. My skin broke out in lesions that would take a year to disappear. Worse yet, my body was overwhelmed and a tumour had formed in my uterus. I convulsed in unbearable pain, but medication helped only a little. Long hospital stays were out of the question because I didn't have two consecutive days off and I would have to tell my employer about my medical condition. Not an option. This was my problem so whenever it was necessary, I drove myself to the hospital and slept there while hooked up on IV medication.
The side effects of my condition started one month after I started my job, but it would be four months before I got a proper diagnosis. It was interpreted as moodiness and despite reports to the contrary from the clients, I was wrongly chastised for not bringing enough zest to my work. Later, after finding out that on Friday nights, I would rush to the hospital straight from the office, he instituted mandatory Saturday morning meetings at 8:00. He was forcing me to tell him about my illness. The meetings provided my boss with the opportunity to look at his team as his "accomplishments" and to mould us through some kind of psychological techniques he supposedly picked up in Aikido. I saw right through it but my body was too weak to support the resolve of my mind.
Things got worse when I returned from a two week trip to Papua New Guinea. My weekends were obliterated and I spent six days a week in my office. My acne flared up so that my face became a mask that I wore to scare people away. My boss swore bitterly when I missed work without notice because my pain medication didn't work. Then, realising that I wouldn't be easily broken, the fabrications came. Anything that was meaningless to someone else was an issue that would require a meeting with me. Even if there were witnesses, I would still be accused of "hurting" the clients. I had made friends with some people who had ostracised him and his wife's family. This led him to accuse me of improper behaviour. Because it was such a blatant lie, he decided to apologise to me in front of his entire staff.
It didn't help that my colleagues didn't stand up to him for his abusive behaviour towards them. I realised that any action on my part to curb the problem would have resulted in serious retribution. He was already using his key to access my apartment a month before I quit. I would come home and find doors open, and my computer moved from my desk to the floor. A missing videotape, lingerie, and my favourite skirt were among his prizes. He hinted at it by telling two of my female colleagues to beware of lingerie thieves.
I was slim and toned from rock climbing and eight hours of racquet sports each week. This inspired him to go on the Atkin's diet to improve his "figure". He said that I made him look "fat". Only about three months later did he realise that a trip to the gym every once in a while was a better idea.
I remember being treated to a flash of his abdomen one day in the office. He wasn't speaking to me, but as I turned my head to look at the shelf he was blocking, he pulled up his t-shirt to show me the big change. I was shocked at the thought that my boss could not perceive that this was inappropriate behaviour.
One day in late January, I had a misunderstanding with some clients. Nothing serious, but they thought I had invited them to dinner. Coincidentally, I was spaced out and nauseous from my medication and was not coherent enough to pick up on the error. What followed was a lengthy chastisement on inappropriate contact with clients. He felt sorry for me, he said, because he knew I had no friends, but his clients were off limits. I tried to explain that it was a harmless misunderstanding that could have happened to anyone, but I would be punished for it. My colleagues paid for it too, on the same day, in a barrage of expletives. I missed my pain medication because of the tirade and the excruciating pain started. Unable to bear it, I wept uncontrollably.
That four-letter word was the last straw. Later that evening, nauseous and about to collapse from pain, I sent my resume one last time. It was a post that I had turned down before, thinking that I would quit once I finished my postgraduate studies. On Monday, the job was mine. I wanted to quit right then, but I felt so scared that I stayed and decided not to defend myself from the insults.
I was puzzled by his shocked reaction at my decision to leave. Exactly what would he be missing by letting me go? After all, he implied that I was a constant source of distress for him and his business. He didn't hide his resentment and flat out refused to speak to me for the next two months.
Before I left, I was forced to evaluate his "management style", so that he could find more reasons for criticising me. I could not fall asleep for two weeks because of the stress. He had already treated one of my more placid colleagues to a three hour tirade over his "half-hearted criticism". I shrank when I saw this tall, bright and very talented person, walking back to his office with his eyes bright red from crying. I reached out to him, but he was fine. After all, his wife was at home waiting for him.
Nine months. Not a gestation period, but an excruciating labour that I barely survived.
My friends now tell me that I am different, that I am more serious. I am still healing, and I am back to practicing meditation, after nine months without it, but my mind was in such turmoil that it's hard to cleanse my spirit. One month after quitting, my skin healed completely, and my tumour has responded better to treatment.
I wonder if I would have tolerated my experience better if I had been able to rely on the support of my friends. I hadn't told anyone what was happening but when I finally did, almost everyone seemed to think I was overreacting. That included one determined suitor who asked: "so what would you like me to do?" and a trusted friend who said: "you're playing a game of ego". The suffering, it seemed, was mine to bear alone.
I am grateful that the crisis allowed me to see that people who tolerate abusive relationships cannot in principle object to the abusive behaviour of other people, even if it is directed towards their loved ones.
My experiences with a workplace bully has taught me that I need to have personal boundaries. Living through that nightmare, and watching others adjust to it was a major turning point in my life. Not only will I know when I am at the brink of an abusive relationship, but I also know that immediate extraction is the only solution.
I pray that the people I care for will do the same.