Courage Under Fire: When Speaking Up Makes You A Target

MEDREACH 11, Soldiers share CLS, Malawi, May 2011

Image by US Army Africa via Flickr

The other day I wrote about the down side of The System.  I saw mention of some research that found injured workers who received benefits recover more slowly than those who go back to work early. This is linked to the mental health side of a physical injury as we see on the commercials, no doubt, but simplifies things for individuals unable to work due to extreme stress, breakdown or sexual assault.  It also glosses over the fact that I would prefer to be at work, thank you.  I tried with everything I had to stay at work.  I have stated all along that if I had received any support (or in fact was not further traumatised by bullying, gossip and blatant misconduct on the part of senior staff) I would probably have never had to leave work.  The findings of the study are correct in that a continued link to your workplace, where you can contribute positively and maintain relationships, would be of crucial benefit to one’s mental and emotional health.

But what if it your workplace that is inherently unhealthy?  What if you try and try to work ‘through it’ and eventually find that though you do a great job and receive positive feedback from the outside, on the sly your boss and other members of a small staff use opportunities to make your presence there as difficult as possible, lest you try to ‘dob them in’ too?

When I started I was a bit of a golden child there, teacher’s pet. Maybe that’s a leftover from being the eldest child.  I put my hand up for things that other people had let go (bit boring, time poor, other commitments) as I was awash with new enthusiasm and sickeningly happy to be there.  I was a happy, confident person.  I was a little politically minded (in a general sense, enjoyed discussing issues and dilemmas) and eager, but not stupidly so.  I knew what I was doing and I thought it was a reasonable fit; older staff wanted to pull back from roles and us younger ones were happy to pick up the slack given that we were beginning our careers.  Win-win, no?

From being a ‘strong asset’ to an unwanted problem.  That didn’t happen because my work or productivity changed.  I continued to do a tricky job IN SPITE of the hideous things that were taking place.  I know that I was pushed out because I verbalised clearly, ‘I’m not the problem.  These people did this and you need to deal with it’.  That offended the sensibilities of some at this organisation and made me public enemy number one.  I wasn’t trying to throw my weight around – I was plain desperate to be saved.  I’d been seriously sexually assaulted, had this fool coming to my house, calling me, texting me…the other witness, my senior, warning me to shut up or she’d ‘be in trouble’, too.  Literally, these two were on either side of my workspace every day.  The big boss was across from me.  I haven’t even thought of that before.  The sheer pressure of being surrounded, metaphorically and literally.  I feel panicky thinking about it.  No wonder I was feeling strangled.  I was bloody surrounded!  If I’d had an office in another building it would have felt like less of a vice. Probably.  I’m sure they’d have found a way.  But maybe I would’ve had room to breathe.

I really don’t know how I went in to work.  I don’t have a face that hides emotions.  I was scared to leave the house, or even any window or door unlocked for goodness sake.  I got a dog (who was a destroyer, but mostly of soft furnishings).  But I walked in there each day, bar four days after the most serious assaults.  I should have been awarded a fricking medal.  (Classic over-achiever, see?)

I could have recovered.  That’s the part that hurts me the most.  It’s what I talk about in counselling, it’s what makes my chest hurt and why I cry.  Why I am not able to work, really.  Yes, I was violated. Yes, I was threatened and manipulated.  Awful.  But once I got to the point (boiling point) where I said enough’s enough and took the matter outside the workplace, I should have been able to work on getting myself back in order again.  It wasn’t like that, though. It was the opposite in every clichéd way you can imagine.

“She’s been here longer than you.  We used to work together.  She’s very helpful.  She’d never do the things you’re saying”

They’re going nowhere.  If you can’t hack it, you need to leave”

“You’d better be very careful who you accuse of things around here”

Heart rate’s up, chest tight.  They’re the most pathetic looking bunch, too.  The person who made those threats above – the smallest, least intimidating physically.  Everyone’s favourite ‘nice guy’.

“He’s not the best leader but hey, he’s such a nice guy

“The women love him.  Think he’s cute”

“He was the best of a bad bunch on the day” (Referring to his interview to become boss)

“Better the Devil you know and all that” (He was promoted internally)

And, one of my favourites, “He cooks a mean barbecue” (Ummmm…)

So he was never fit to be in charge in the first place and no one would believe the anger in him unless they’d experienced it themselves (it’s unnerving when a tiny, well-groomed man goes so red in the face, you think it will explode).  And he made decisions not based on merit, or even laws and Health and Safety obligations (forget moral obligations), but pure nepotism.  Still does today.  You can tell, I hold his actions and negligence responsible for the last few years of my life in this state of seclusion.  In my mind I punch him in the well-groomed face. In reality my heart leaps into my throat if I think I see him go past in the local area.  Not because I’m scared.  Because I’m angry (*find much more intense adjective for that).

I did leave at the end of a year, not because I wanted to but because they made it so it was my only option.  I hate that.  I’m not a powerless person.  I am not a victim.  I am not a pawn.  But in the course of maintaining strength, independence and an awareness of my rights as an employee, I became those things anyway.  I got through one layer but they put up another.  And I really took a blow.  Lost all faith in myself and anyone around me.  I knew I was good at my job, I don’t mind if that sounds arrogant.  I worked hard and the job itself was a natural fit for my strengths, interests and personality.  It still is, though I feel in my heart I will not be able to return in any capacity.

And the rumour mill still turns.  ‘They’ ask after me.

“Do you see her?”

“What does she say?”

I have a friend who is still there.  We started together and she is AMAZING.  Someone who would cut off an arm or a leg to give to you. A beautiful soul.  One of the good guys.  But we aren’t friends in public.  Certainly not on any social networks.  We try to avoid being seen together.  Isn’t that sad?  It’s coming from both of us.  I don’t want anyone to bother her, question her or drag her in.  She knows that people talk, that they would not hesitate to question her if they knew we spent time together.  So we sort of mutually agree to be secret friends.  My heart is so heavy when I really feel the impact of those statements.  Grown women who spend their days maintaining a special bond, but only in whispers.

This was not what I started to post.  Unintentional but I’m sure many would say, obviously what I needed to get out.  I’m not even sure if it makes sense to read.

Whatever the case, I have concluded that I cannot blame myself.  I could not have tried to do anything differently.  And if I had, the result would have been the same.  Whatever I did, ‘they’ put the pressure on.  It’s taken five years to really feel like it wasn’t my fault.  But I’m there (99%).  What I have to do next is get through the sense of loss. The rage.  The feeling of having been failed.  That I spoke up but that in my case doing that was not enough.  I am still talking now and the process is so very slow.

That said, I would not hesitate in encouraging others to speak up. The more times you call their bluff (or at least get help to get out), the less isolating it will be for the next person.  Let’s make standing up to criminals and grown up bullies the norm.  Even the playing field a little more.  We deserve nothing less.  And that’s the world I want to raise my child in.  I’d tell him to speak up.  And so I must live it.

4 thoughts on “Courage Under Fire: When Speaking Up Makes You A Target

  1. I’m so glad i found your site. Thanks for pinging on my “Blogging for Mental Health”.I am not going to let someone discriminate or bully me for being a fucking survivor. HEY! yeah i get angry. Sorry, this isn’t directed at you — it’s about stigma and free speech. End of story. Melis..

    • Please don’t be sorry. I’m sorry for the experiences that have upset you but I’m happy to see that I’m not alone in being angry! Perhaps it will motivate us to do great things…maybe we already are 🙂 Thanks for stopping by. I’ll keep reading yours.

  2. That is an awful existence. I often see another form of this where employees are often asked to take one for the team, they are always on the short end of the stick – always, of course, for the team. If they speak up they are the bad guys for not supporting the team.

    • That was a phrase thrown around there, yes. I hate the hypocrisy that we say to our children ‘speak up, tell someone’ but as adults those who speak up are labelled ‘troublemakers’ and people distance themselves – even when something so wrong is going on. I’d like to think we could push for a switch from shooting the messenger (!) to supporting the brave. One step at a time. Thank you for your comment.

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