Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Work: My one taboo subject unleashed

Tears are streaming down my face. I have the proverbial frog in my throat and my skin is prickling with anxiety. My chest is tight and burning while my head feels woozy and I'm having trouble focusing my eyes on the screen. I'm hungry despite having just had breakfast and I feel nauseous at the same time. I want to lay down and close my eyes and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist but my mind is going fifty to the dozen and I know I need something to focus on or this feeling could spiral out of control.

I'm letting people down again. But I can't go back there. Not now. Maybe never. I hate it.

I've been avoiding writing about my return to working in an office. This year is supposed to be all about positivity. About being happy and achieving what I want to do. This year I was to join the majority of the adult populace and start working again. But here I am on day three and I'm not at work. I'm here at my own desk. The place where I feel safest.

I've been promoting my blog on Facebook to my own friends and family. Now as I write I am cognisant of the fact that I now have an audience of people who know me in the real world. I love that but I have had to make a promise to myself that no matter who is reading my blog I wouldn't let that knowledge change my voice.

I've written about some pretty damn full on shit here over the last year or so but I don't fear anyone's judgement about my crimes of the past. I do fear, however, what people think of how I am now. Actually, the only judgement I fear is about what I do for money. I should I say what I don't do.

Whether we live to work or work to live having a job is an enormous part of any adult's life. Whether we work the 9-5 or the 7-7 or 8-3, in an office, a hotel or at a school or anywhere, we can spend more time at work than we do with our families. For many, work can be what defines us. For most of us, work is what brings in the money so we can live. What we do for a living and how much we earn determines what kind of life we can afford to live. And what we do for work can also be how other people judge us and how we can judge other people.

I started working when I was 18 years old. I didn't have a part time job through high school, not because I was lazy, but because I was too scared to. I was so terribly shy and awkward that I hated dealing with people I didn't know. I spent most of my final year of high school hiding in my room.

All through school I had no idea what I wanted to be. I liked the idea of graphic design because I loved art and I did my year 10 work experience with a graphic design firm. Other than that all I knew (and I have written evidence of this somewhere) was that I wanted to travel and then get married and have a family.

When our family had to move from Sydney to Melbourne my sister and I got to choose what school we went to. The one I picked had a 'business school' and my destiny was settled. My parents chose my subjects and I did a secretarial certificate while completing year 11 and 12 so when I finished my Victorian Certificate of Education I was qualified to work as a junior secretary.

In the first ten years of my career I moved around a lot. Working in small businesses, I had to move out to move up. I was trained very well in my first role by the senior who worked with me in a tiny office. I had loved working on computers since we got our first Mac in 1985 and I excelled at the IT subjects I studied through high school. So by the end of my first couple of years of employment I was doing pretty well.

I loved doing all the tasks that required me to use the computer but I still hated dealing with other people, especially on the phone. I stuttered and ummed and I always felt like I didn't know what I was talking about. I felt inferior and stupid and small. That feeling was replayed when I started working again last week for the first time after an absence of five years which is why I find myself here, writing about the one subject I hate to talk about.

Socially I was still very awkward well into my 20s. At work drinks I always drank too much in an effort to overcome my anxiety. I said silly things and behaved inappropriately and then woke up in the morning hungover and depressed and dying inside at the memory of the night before. There were many, many days that I woke up and just couldn't bear the thought of fronting up to work. Hungover or not, the thought of talking to people, putting on my work face and being the person I thought I had to be in order to be liked was just too difficult.

I got sick a lot. From my first job through to my last I had many an illness that would keep me away from the office for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Bronchitis, tonsillitis, ear infections, flu, migraines, repetitive strain injury, chest pain. But some days the alarm would go off and I just couldn't get out of bed. I just couldn't get on the rollercoaster of life and face the world.

I'd call in sick and huddle under my doona wishing there was a better way. In retrospect, after all the therapy I've done over the last five years, I was suffering depression on and off all through my working life. I self medicated with booze and drugs. They gave me the escape from the shy, defective person that I believed I was.

Strangely though I was actually very good at what I did. When I felt confident and happy I was brilliant at most office administration and I was an extremely fast operator. I can't tell you how many temp jobs I've worked my way out of because I've completed the project in half the budgeted time.

It only took a personality clash, or on a few occasions I was bullied, and my confidence would go crashing down and I'd be sick again and unable to get out of bed.

In 2000 I got a job working for a large international firm. I had only just recently broken up with a man I'd lived with for yearly three years and I was hugely overweight. My new boss was a lazy narcissist who did nothing all day but delegate all his work to the team and then take all the credit for it. He got a thrill over asking people do to things. For instance, he would get me to print out every single one of his emails. Or he'd ask me to answer his phone because he couldn't be bothered to when I was sitting at my desk having lunch. Seriously. I can't remember many other details but I remember the morale in the office was extremely low. Everyone bitched all day about this guy and it became increasingly harder for me to hold it together.

By mid 2001 I was in a full blown depression which once again was untreated. I was referred to a psychiatrist who told me I had serious mental health issues that would require two sessions of therapy a week for possibly years. The sessions were $230 a go and I didn't know you could get a Medicare rebate on it so after the first couple of appointments I told the doctor I couldn't afford to come any more. Yolanda was sending me money from the UK to pay for it which just made me feel worse.

I took some time off work but when I returned it was clear the situation there wasn't going to improve. I remember yelling at that boss about something. He was pushing me and I snapped. I stormed out of that open plan office screaming and shouting in tears. Another time he was horrible I went to the toilet and refused to come out until 5pm. I stayed in there for hours.

I resigned not long after and accepted a role at the large financial services firm I ended up being employed by until 2009. My confidence had been absolutely shattered by my previous employer yet I started a job at this company that is famous for its ruthlessly hard work ethic.

All the while I loved doing PowerPoint presentations and designing leaflets and newsletters and the like and wished I pursued my high school interest in graphic design instead of secretarial work. I always went for roles that were in the marketing departments or had a desktop publishing focus because this was my area of interest.

My last role was as a research administration assistant. The first few months were excruciating because of the massive learning curve. The girl who was handing over the role to me was not leaving because she wanted to. She had built the position up in the direction that she enjoyed which was more of a junior analyst type role but the company wasn't going to pay her for that. They wanted an admin assistant. She loved spreadsheets and charts and analysing data which was an area of weakness for me. She did all she could to handover the role in a hostile manner, making it difficult for me to grasp. By the end of the first few weeks I was in tears with the manager and saying I was unqualified for the role.

Luckily, or maybe unluckily, the company stuck with me. After two years there I was doing the job really well (and fell in love with Excel - go figure!) but I had become sick and depressed again and once again didn't seek proper treatment. I did a self development course called the Landmark Forum which started me on the self development/therapy road but it wasn't enough.

The department I worked in was very male dominated. The team I worked for were young, fit and good looking men who earned huge amounts of money. They were arrogant and sexist and often spoke with one another without any acknowledgement that there was a woman in the room. They talked about their girlfriends and lovers and women in general with utter disrespect. I just sat there and did my work and listened while my blood boiled and what little self esteem I had was eroded, comment by comment.

I was drinking heavily from Friday night through Sunday night most weekends. I was promiscuous and showed myself as little respect as the men I heard talk about women all day did. Some days I was so self conscious, just walking from one end of the office to the other took every bit of strength I had. My body shook with embarrassment as I put one foot in front of the other to get from A to B.

At the time I was also sleeping with and in unrequited love with a man who I pursued relentlessly despite the fact that he treated me like shit. By the end of 2002 I was vomiting every time I had an alcoholic beverage. I didn't understand what was happening to me. The girl who could easily put away 10 schooners on a Sunday afternoon was throwing up after one drink.

I went to the doctor who ordered a whole stack of tests. The vomiting was accompanied by the most intense chest pain. A burning that started at the centre of my breasts and shot through to my back like I was being impaled by a hot poker. I had an endoscopy, ultrasounds, blood tests, breath tests, urine tests but the doctors couldn't find anything physically wrong with me.

The only person who suggested I might have anxiety was my mother but I refused to believe it because I knew my head was much harder to fix than my body. I wanted so badly for them to find something, anything, that could be medicated or operated on to fix that horrible sickness.

In early 2003 I cut everyone but my family out of my life. To my family I was unbearable. I was rude and selfish and completely self obsessed. I went on a diet and I exercised. I became obsessed with every calorie I put in my mouth and when I wasn't at the gym I fantasised that I was running. Just running and burning that horrible person that was me away.

I thought if I could lose weight and be skinny then people would like me and respect me at work. After listening to those horrible conversations by my team day after day about girls being a 'moose' if they were slightly overweight or 'minging' if they weren't attractive enough I just thought if I made myself look better I'd be better.

I quit smoking and drinking and lost 12kg and got down to the lowest weight I'd been in six years. People noticed too. They said nice things to me at work. Even my family were more complimentary.  I felt more confident and started seeing my friends again. The guy I had been chasing for so long was giving me more time. And then I started to feel that need to make a change. A big change.

A position became available in our London office. One that I was extremely qualified for and I managed to convince my superiors to let me go. I could get away from the boy I'd loved for so long and I could push myself to try new things, to travel.

That's all I can write today. I want to tell you about London though. I've got to write about it. Maybe it will help me get over this fear of work I've got if I write it all down and analyse it.

I've got to find a way that I can work without having to go to an office. I've got the skills. I've got the equipment. I've just got to find the confidence.

Back soon.



FiveFrogsBlog said...

Wow love. Gripping. And so familiar. Big hugs and some mwahs. Great work for opening up xxx

Tracey @ Bliss Amongst Chaos said...

It's brave of you to write about something so personal. I also suffer from anxiety, and at times so much, that it effects the way I live my life. I wish I could 'feel the fear and do it anyway', but not yet. I just hate the way it stops me living my life fully. So, I guess what I'm saying is 'I hear you' :)

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Rachel @ TheKidsAreAllRight said...

Compelling reading and I can relate to so much of what you write. We have some shared experiences V. I haven't worked in another person's office in a traditional work environment for 10 years.

Rachel @ TheKidsAreAllRight said...

I just found a quote from the author Tom Robbins that helped me a lot with my bad feelings about not being able to work in offices:

“You've heard of people calling in sick. You may have called in sick a few times yourself. But have you ever thought about calling in well?

It'd go like this: You'd get the boss on the line and say, "Listen, I've been sick ever since I started working here, but today I'm well and I won't be in anymore." Call in well.”

The Babbling Bandit said...

I read this comment while I was out and about with Ned today in the the thick of the Aussie Day celebrations in the city. Totally stressed out by the sun, the crowds and a kid who kept saying "I want" I was on the edge. And then I read this and I read it a second time and all of a sudden a weight lifted off my shoulder. This is EXACTLY how I feel. It bangs the nail on the head of why I've been having recurring nightmares about returning to an office for the last five years. I don't want to go back to being sick! I've worked so hard to get well so to go back to work and get 'sick' again would be a tragedy.

Is there a book that this has come from?

Thank you so much for taking the time to add this comment Rachel. I'll be using this with both my psych and my insurer. Phew. Relief.

The Babbling Bandit said...

Hi Airlie. My situation is probably different to yours as my income is propped up by income protection insurance which I have been on since my breakdown in 2008 so I wasn't walking away from any money when I left last week. Money is probably what makes us stay in work situations well beyond what we should. That fear of being without.

I wrote about my insurance situation last year. You can check it out here:

You are very brave to stick with your job through anxiety and bullying but I do think moving on if you can (if you still need to) can sometimes be better than sitting through it. I know that can be easier said than done though. My problem in the past was that I was too scared to try something other than office work. I don't want to waste the current situation I'm in and find myself back in an office job that sucks the life back out of me and sends me back to where I started.

Thanks for dropping by again. I really love your comments. V

The Babbling Bandit said...

Facing demons is something I'm not good at. I'm an expert in avoidance. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. V.

The Babbling Bandit said...

Hi Sandra. It is comments like this that make it all worthwhile to put fingers to keyboard. Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I hope you are feeling ok now. V

Rachel @ TheKidsAreAllRight said...

Yes, it was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

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