Bully Boss

One day this week I was driving on a usually open stretch of highway between Paso Robles and Cambria. The drive is gorgeous, with expansive vistas of ranches, mountains, and the ocean. Occasionally I’ll share the ride with trucks or tourists, but once past the main wine tasting road I’m usually alone. Not this week. An awareness bike rally was holding a ride. This happens every year. I hadn’t heard it was happening on my day to drive to Cambria. And of course, I was running late.

high angle view of people on bicycle
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Thousands of bicyclists wound alongside the auto traffic lane, two and sometimes three abreast. For every rider, there seemed to be one or two support vehicles, so the west bound lane was like a locomotive. Lots of cars. For reasons that are perfectly logical to me, these support cars were slowing traffic down, intentionally.

Remember, I’m running late for my meeting. So, I’m freaking out. Normally placid and easygoing, I was clenching my steering wheel, informing drivers that they should learn the craft before getting inside a vehicle and eventually yelling and gesturing. I arrived at my meeting frazzled. What had happened?

On the way home, blissfully alone on the road again, I wondered why my behavior had veered so deeply into the negative. It was like a flashback to my days of commuting in Los Angeles traffic. I had a 60-mile commute and depending on traffic that was either an hour or two to three hours. I left early in the morning to hit the one-hour duration, worked late to get a faster drive on the way home, ate a quick dinner, went to bed, and started all over in the morning. I know – it’s crazy. When I took the assignment to work in the facility further away from home, it was because the job sounded interesting and had something I wanted to learn.

Unfortunately — you knew this was coming — the interesting, fun part of the job didn’t last. A new boss was brought in, and the situation went bad quickly. He was a narcissistic bully with no experience managing people, put in charge of a department of eighty people. He had his cross hairs on me from the beginning. I never did figure out why. At the time I thought I was going crazy.

As I am driving home from Cambria thinking that my road rage was a flashback, I wondered if I might have some form of PTSD. Is it possible for work to traumatize you to the point that you have PTSD symptoms?

Turns out the answer is yes. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, “workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and work interference (sabotage) which prevents work from getting done.” I find it sad that there is such a thing as a Workplace Bullying Institute.

ptsd brain

They go on to say that “some psychologists believe that a different term, Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), should be used to identify trauma that is repeated or long-term. Bullying targets may show symptoms that are similar to PTSD and/or C-PTSD. For this reason, researchers of workplace bullying believe that bullying should be considered an example of captivity.”

Symptoms include:

  • Persistent sadness, explosive anger; inhibited anger; suicidal thoughts;
  • Forgetting traumatic events or reliving them. Feeling detached from one’s mind or body;
  • Feelings of helplessness, shame, guilt and stigma. One may feel that they are different than other people;
  • Attributing total power to the abuser. Preoccupation with the perpetrator, possibly becoming obsessed with revenge;
  • Social isolation, distrust in others or repeatedly searching for a rescuer; and
  • A loss of faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair

Carrie Anton wrote a piece on The Establishment website, When Your Workplace Gives You PTSD. Her description of a workplace situation closely mirrored mine. A few differences though. She was young and felt immature and inexperienced. I was at the height of my career and was still brought to the point of tears and the feeling that I was a failure and a fraud. Secondly, she was able to turn to Human Resources for aid. My HR office aided and abetted the narcissistic bully and offered nothing other than to say, yep – it’s bad. Not helpful. I’ve known many very good HR representatives, but I don’t trust them anymore. They are paid by management, and in at least my case, decided that they needed to side with management vs. the employee. Likewise, the ethics complaint I filed went nowhere and the general counsel of the division said basically, “boys will be boys.”

bully free zone

I left. I worked for a big company and still had friends, people who believed in me who helped me find another position close to home. It seemed better for my mental health than staying to prove a point. It took three years in a new job, with an amazing boss, to feel like a bomb wasn’t going to go off next to me. In the end, HR did me a good turn by not including the bully boss’s vindictive inputs into my employment record. The whole episode encouraged me to retire early – an option I was fortunate to be able to take. The sad thing is that I was really good at what I did, and the experience of one toxic boss deprived my company of my services, for which they had paid to train me over twenty years, and in the end that isn’t good for business.

Sitting behind all that traffic this week triggered memories of morning commutes to get to work and face whatever was going to happen or drives home from work and screaming at what did happen. The irony is that I love to drive. And I loved my job. I think the experience of a narcissistic, bully, boss deprived me of both, and that is what makes me fly off into rage.

I’m hopeful that recognizing my reaction to all those bicyclists will help me be calm the next time. Knowing that, I can take a deep breath and remind myself that life is about more than getting to a meeting on time.

If you are the victim of workplace bullying don’t despair. There is help, and more acceptance of bullying as a form of harassment. Human Resources can be helpful but be cautious. This is when all those networking connections you’ve cultivated come in handy. Use them. The references below might help.

Further references:

https://www.workplacebullying.org/suite101/

https://theestablishment.co/when-your-workplace-gives-you-ptsd-7b48c8f0af84

 

 

 

 

9/11 Personal Essay

I’m privileged to belong to a kick-ass writing critique group. Several of our writers have been working on memoirs and personal essays. They inspired me to write this piece.

Cardinal rule of photography – have something red in the picture to focus the eye. A little boy in a red sweater was running around in San Marcos Piazza on the island of Venice chasing pigeons, on a sunny day in September of 2001. Thousands of pigeons. I sat on some steps, camera to my eye, waiting for the magical moment when he would enter their nexus and they would all fly up, giving me a shot with action, red as the focus, and glee on his face. Unfortunately, these were wise pigeons, and aside from an undulating lifting off the ground and settling again, they paid the boy no attention.

“I’m not going to get the shot,” I said to my husband. He agreed. A man with a dark complexion approached us.

“It is too bad what happened at the shopping store in America,” he said. Ken and I looked at each other. Without words we said, ‘uh?’ and one of us mumbled, ‘yeah, sure.” I pictured an explosion at the Mall of America or something like that.  The man walked off and we decided to head back to our hotel and check out the international news.

On this trip we traveled with my parents. To give each couple some time alone, we split up that day. Ken and I wandered the island, explored alleys, and saw the Bridge of Sighs. As we walked back to the hotel we passed my folks sitting at an outdoor café. Dad saluted us with his beer and we joined them at their table.

“Someone said the strangest thing,” I said and proceeded to tell them about the man.

“It’s worse than that,” Dad said. And that was when we learned what had happened in New York, on that day in September. September 11, 2001.

We made it to our hotel room and turned on the TV in time to see the plane hit the second tower.

“We’re at war,” I said. I  didn’t appreciate the psychic gravity those words held. My next thought was, “we’re at war and we are in a foreign country. How do we get home?” The US had cleared the skies of planes. Nothing took off and everything in the air landed as close to where they were as possible. We were stranded.

Over dinner that night we discussed our options. Our return trip wasn’t due to start for four days. Perhaps US airspace would open by then. If not, my folks had friends who had a new daughter-in-law whose parents lived in Germany. Ken had black level status with Marriott and we could cash in some of those points for lodging. But what if it went on for months? We couldn’t be house guests with people we didn’t know for that long.

Florence was next on our itinerary. So, we went. Might as well try to maintain some normalcy. The first night in Florence my company called my sister, back home in Michigan, to see if I had made contact. Furthest thing from my mind. She called my parents, who passed along that we were fine. It made me feel good that they did that, and that perhaps they would have stepped in with some financial help if we faced a long-term stay.

We toured Florence, saw the statue of David, took a bus ride to Pisa and took pictures of us holding the tipping structure up. All along the way, Italian vendors posted signs in their windows, “We Stand with our American Friends.” The outpouring of mutual grief and confusion was shared by all we spoke with. The defacto expat community of travelers pulled together in hotel bars. Our eyes were glued to the TV, watching the plane hit the towers over and over. Seeing bodies fall, or jump, out of windows multiple tens of stories high. Knowing that they wouldn’t make it to the ground alive. We talked. We shared where we were from, and where we were when we heard the news.

Our plane was scheduled for September 14. Florence to Frankfurt to Denver to Los Angeles. Airspace in Europe was unaffected, so our flight to Florence was on schedule. As we stood in line to check in a man approached the woman in front of us and explained that he was moving and had too much luggage for the airlines limit, would she be so kind as to carry some of his luggage aboard? I freaked out.

“You CANNOT take anyone else’s luggage. Especially after what happened.” Security was called, and the woman did not take the extra bags. I have no idea if he was legit or not, I wasn’t taking chances.

We arrived in Frankfort to find an airport in chaos. Flights to the US had been cancelled for four days at that point, and tourists with no options were bunked in the ballroom of the Hilton adjacent to the terminal. Others were camped on the floors of the airport. We scanned the boards for our flight and saw that it was cancelled and headed for the Marriott. They gave us a room and we unpacked what little we needed for the night, and our bathing suits. They hotel had a rooftop pool and I hadn’t been in water for two weeks. I’m part fish. We sat by the pool, read our books, and decided we needed to get dinner. Dressed and hungry we passed through the lobby to the restaurant. A television screen had the same flight info as the boards in the terminal and our flight scrolled up. It was no longer cancelled. We raced to our room, tossed everything back in the bags, and checked out.

The line for check-in was epic. Everyone was hoping they could be on standby. Residents of Frankfurt walked up and down the line offering spare bedrooms and couches to the stranded tourists. We had an hour and 45 minutes before the flight. After 45 minutes in line, and two or three people away from the desk, they closed the flight. New rules. All flights close one hour before doors on the plane shut. Ken blasted the lid off the poor counter worker, who probably, no, didn’t have anything to do with that decision, but his rage had to go somewhere. She was the unlucky human in his path. Back to the Marriott, which graciously gave us our room back, still unmade, and again we headed down to dinner. By now it is about 9:00 at night, and we ate simply because we knew tomorrow would be a trial as well, and we needed strength.

The next day we got to the airport with ample time, checked in and headed for the security checkpoint. The first of three. We showed our ticket and passport at each stop. The terminal was quiet except for the shuffling of feet and the mummer of voices to ask directions, quell crying children and answer security questions. At the last stop we were locked into the gate waiting area, with another armed guard blocking the door. The air was tense, like everyone was afraid to take a deep breath. I scanned the other passengers. Just as they scanned us. Was this person likely to take control of this flight and ram us into a building? Maybe that’s why taking a breath was so hard, it might imply guilt.

On board the plane we sat in our seats and stared ahead. We had bought the first Harry Potter book, two of them, so we could each read. The perfunctory safety briefing seemed ridiculous considering four hijacked planes had heard the same words. Lot of good it did them. The in-flight entertainment was silent, the map of where we are in the sky turned off. The food served with plastic sporks. No one is going to overwhelm the captain with a spork, I guess.

We landed at the Denver airport at ten at night. The passengers erupted in cheers when the wheels hit the ground. We were safe on American soil, hadn’t blown up or crashed. The relief expanded my lungs, a felt I could float through the dark terminal. Nothing was open. We were the first flight to land in Denver since September 11. They lit just enough of the cavernous United terminal, to allow us to make our way to baggage, and customs and then a line of taxis called to take us to hotels. Our footsteps echoed off the tile, concrete, and glass of the building.

The next day when we returned, the airport was up and running as if nothing had happened. Except for the security lines, which were long. No one minded.

 

Don’t Do That!

Today’s DIYMFA Book Club prompt is about being pointed toward a juicy writing project that I embraced or avoided because of fear.fear potatoesI certainly steered clear of writing itself as a career because of fear. So, in a way, I avoided ALL writing. Eventually my compulsive need to write things out – usually in long hand – overcame my resistance. After all, no one would see it – right?  Call writing a journal, and suddenly you are writing for an audience of one – a safe, known, reader who still judges, but not as harshly as I envisioned everyone else would.

I was discouraged from writing by an uncle who had visions of being an author himself. In fact, he had published several books on Michigan history that were used in classrooms, something I’d love to have. His fictional pursuits were quashed though, and so his bitter advice to me, the year I got a typewriter for Christmas, “Don’t be a writer unless you want to wallpaper your bathroom with rejections.” That settled fear deep in me. He’s already published, and he couldn’t break into fiction.

A teacher in high school eased some of the fear, but in my working life, the need to fend of actual predators (individuals who saw me as a threat to eliminate – thus harming my livelihood) amped up my fear of dong something so risky as writing fiction. It took the fear of losing my job to eventually push me to finish my first novel, to prove to myself I had it in me; and to self-publish and enter it in contests to prove that I could handle criticism. Now I’m searching for an agent to move onward and the inevitable rejections aren’t slowing me down. I think my uncle would be proud, even though I ultimately ignored him.

Thank You Campbell’s Soup

As much as it feels like I’ve been writing all my life, I didn’t come out of the womb demanding paper and pen to write down a sentence before I lost it. The writing bug didn’t hit until sixth grade, by my memory. My family lived in West Bloomfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. At this point I attended Abbott Middle School, notable in the late sixties for not enough class rooms to educate the baby-boom kids. Not so important here in California, where I now live, but in Michigan a trek out to a mobile classroom unit in the winter was miserable.

My teacher, whose name I’ve unfortunately lost, had us cut pictures out of magazines for several months. She’d bring in a wide selection of periodicals and hand them out. We’d page through and cut out any pictures that caught our eye. Without a purpose in sight, we were free to pick anything. The cuttings were carefully stored in a manila folder with our name on the top. It seemed the most pointless thing I’d done in school. Between math, science, and history, cutting out pictures seemed soooo kindergarten.

Warhol Campbell Soup Can

Then one day she handed back our manila folders and told us to pick out one or more of the cuttings, and write a story about it. Now with a defined purpose, my structured mind wished I’d cut out different things. Interesting things, I could clearly see a story inside.

This was 1969. Andy Warhol had been painting Campbell’s soup cans for seven years, and in 1968 the tomato soup can screen print was released, among others. In my cuttings was a large Campbell soup can, whether it was from an ad for Campbell’s or his art I can’t remember. Of all the images, it is the one that struck me the hardest, and the only one I remember now, many years later.

I remember the empty hole in my thoughts that soup can picture created. What kind of story could I come up with that would get me an A? My academic career at that point (and for all of it really) was about getting good grades. The other kids were writing away, and I just sat staring at a picture of a can of soup. I put my pencil on the paper and hoped. As a rule, hope isn’t a strategy, but it worked. Words started to flow out of the pencil. Okay, I know that is a cliché, but that’s how it felt. It still feels that way sometimes when I’m writing and I’m not sure where it’s going. I can close my eyes and let something flow through, call it my muse, the creative force, or good luck. Yes, I edit heavily afterwards, because not all the words are needed, or eloquently state, but at least the idea is there.

In this case, the story that came out would foretell my interest in fantasy and science fiction. I wish I could say I have the story now, but it has been lost to time. What I do remember is that it was a tale of a society of very small people, who lived in a used tomato soup can, in the middle of a field. They rarely ventured out of the soup can because that was “out there” where danger lurked. I can’t walk a modern shopping mall without thinking about this story, as each store looks like a home. Come to think of it, old shopping malls might make great homeless housing. As I grew up, this story became an allegory for me of the narrow ways we tend as humans to view the world. Not realizing that there is a big “there” outside our view, whether it’s another county, country, planet, or metaphysical dimension.

So, I’ve been writing intentionally since eleven. I won’t do the math for you, but that is quite a few years, and I still find joy and frustration in the act. I know that’s what keeps me coming back to it.

It’s Embarrassing

Driving back from the Central California SCBWI Writers Day yesterday, I recounted my most embarrassing moment to a travel companion. She howled with laughter, “That would make a great story!” Using the philosophy that it can’t be embarrassing if you own it and use it, here goes.

neon-sign-of-treasure-island-casino-on-the-strip-in-las-vegas-nevada-A1E8N7In late October of 1993, we checked into the newly opened Treasure Island Hotel and Casino for the wedding of a colleague of my husband. The actual ceremony took place across the street in a little chapel that disappeared when another behemoth hotel and casino went up in 2007. The reception was held in a cavernous banquet room in Treasure Island. Sitting in the sea of round tables, seating ten each, we waited for the bride and groom to appear. And we sat. Until I couldn’t hold off a trip to the ladies room any longer.

Now, I should explain something here. Due to some feet problems, I was wearing flats. 2-2-flats-shoes-png-fileGenerally, I hate wearing flats because I’m vertically challenged to begin with, and feel short and squat, especially in crowds of tall people, which these all seemed to be. This was also the era of white pantyhose. I wore a pink skirt and jacket, with a white shell top, white hose and black flats. I looked like a dish of strawberry ice cream. In retrospect I shouldn’t have left the hotel room dressed that way, and the white shell was damp under the arms because even in late October, Las Vegas is too hot to be walking outside dressed like that.

So, I slipped off to the bathroom via a side door. When I returned, the hallway in front of the door was empty and only the soft music of the background track echoed in the hall. I opened the door to sneak back to my seat unseen. As I stepped into the ballroom, a spotlight flashed on and lit me up like a little pink Christmas tree, then the music began – Blue Suede Shoes I think. My face flushed a bright red and my eyes dropped to my white legs and black shoes.

elvis impersonatorThey had been expecting an Elvis Impersonator, and instead two hundred or so sets of eyes stared and laughed at my small, startled figure. I could have died right there, but I gamely walked to my seat and sat down. My husband filled in the Elvis details as I tried to regain some sense of honor. I will always remember the panic that gripped my chest and forced the breath from my lungs when the spotlight hit me. I think today I could have managed a little soft shoe and a flourished “ta-da!” ta-da (1)

The Simple Life

When I was just a kid, early teens, I dreamed of living high in the mountains, surviving by my wits and what I could grow. Even then I knew I couldn’t kill anything so I figured if I couldn’t coax it out of the ground or collect it already laying there I wouldn’t eat it.

Thinking about it with the clarity of age, I realize puberty was the primary culprit. Puberty and the seventies. At that time I wasn’t considered capable of holding my own checking account, renting a car or making serious decisions for myself. My age had nothing to do with it. I’m a girl. As hard as it is for young women today to comprehend, until the mid-seventies women had to have a male co-signer on everything. At least in my world, tucked away in Wisconsin and Michigan. The heart of America.

So I suppose it might be a natural psychological response to want to escape. Little did I know how hard the undertaking would have been. Hats off to those Mother Earth News types who homestead their land, grow all their own food and live off the grid. We do only a passing nod to that lifestyle and I’m here to tell ya – IT’S HARD.

With just five fruit trees, fifty grape fines, six nut trees, seven olive trees and two rather small vegetable gardens I spent the better part of six months canning, pressing, freezing and fermenting. That’s not including the other half of the year spent making sure said flora remains alive and producing. Remember I still have a Costco and numerous grocery stores to stock my shelves. The simple life isn’t simple! Yes I know what’s in the produce I grow, my olive oil has as much terroir as my wine, and I really truly appreciate consuming my own stuff. But we don’t do any protein sources (that comes from stores or my neighbor’s chickens) nor do we do dog food, many condiments, cheese (because despite my goal of becoming a cheese maker – I don’t have the set up and well – I had to draw the line somewhere), vegetables I can’t get to grow in my 100 degree, windy summer days and a whole host of odds and ends that make a dinner party pleasant and not a survival demonstration.

All this is to help you appreciate your local grocer, farmer’s market and yes – even the home gardeners who are trying to pawn their overabundance of whatever on you. Take it. Enjoy it. Simply be grateful that you can share in their joy and efforts. If the spirit hits you to try out a more agrarian lifestyle my advice is to go slow. Understand what you’re getting yourself in for before plunking down your 401K on farm acreage. Watch old episodes of Green Acres like documentaries. And if you decide to join us. Welcome – stop by and we’ll share everything we know.

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