Music can nurse you through every human emotion, lift you up and break your heart. There’s a song for all of the defining moments in your life. Some music will always remind me of this seven years. This song linked above is the first that will remind me of The Conclusion, The New Start, A Win. Being free of the vice that is being an injured worker. Let the real healing begin.
It is almost seven years exactly.
Seven years since I walked into that school and felt all of the pride and excitement that comes with starting the job of your dreams. Especially after returning to university to get there. Giving up a professional income to study for this because THIS is where your heart is. Where all of the best things can happen. The classroom. And it was mine.
Seven years since I moved into my first real home on my own. Not a granny flat or weirdo share house. Mine. Two bedroom unit I would pay for with my dream job in the school I had chosen, in the beautiful small suburb on the edge of town.
I was in a relationship. I had my home. I was happy. All my ducks were in a row.
Seven years since the school year started but I see now that by that day, I was on his radar. He was a predator from very early on, if he has ever been any other way, I couldn’t say. Certainly the gossip from those on his interviewing panel were that his references were questionable. Inappropriate relations with staff, in general, were part of his MO. But hey, they knew him. He was a Nice Guy. Further complicating my experience, the power plays and existing alliances amongst such a small, long term staff list would ensure I would not get any of the support that was rightfully mine when the time came; ethically, morally, legally or as the profession standard.
Seven years I have tortured myself. First with denial – This revolting creature could not possibly be serious? But I will never forget how he asked for a ‘team photo’ on school photo day and as they took the shots his hand slid down my back and squeezed my buttock. But I look so happy in the photos. My hair was shiny, my eyes bright. My belief that I was in the right place with important work to do with students as a caring, empathic teacher was at peak level then. And I fought it’s demise every step of the way. Then I tortured myself with the guilt and shame spiral that I’d come to know well working in welfare with child survivors of sexual abuse. No amount of reasoning and research means a thing when you feel so stupid and trapped in your own skin. That theoretical knowledge probably makes it worse in some ways. Another thing to beat yourself with. How could I miss the signs? How could I be fooled? How did I get to this? I am an educated adult in a fair country in 2007. I am a Union member who knows my rights by heart. I can talk. I know who to tell. How the hell can you have all of that and still sit at the bottom of your running shower every night and wail? How?
It really has been seven years of screaming into people’s faces as they stare blankly ahead and pretend they can’t hear me. I did it that first night. We had the children on a school camp, you see. While you wondered how your kids were on their first big camp away, they were tucked up in bed but the most senior teachers were both in a dark room with me. One trying to remove my pyjamas, one joking about how I was young and “probably giving HIM an erection” as I fought him off and yelled about how much trouble he would be in. She was awake. She did hear me. I fucking told her I was upset about it when he left the room and she said, “He’s just an affectionate guy” – hard to say in your sleep.
I just had to stop for a bit. Seven years and it still hurts. It is still hard to believe that two primary school teachers acted in that way with kids asleep in the cabins beside us. He was supposed to be in a cabin on the other side of the camp. With the fathers who had volunteered to assist. On this camp so far away from home. No car. Only HIS car.
I am in awe of the human mind, how it worked to get me through that camp. That whole year with HIM, in the office next to my classroom, only windows between us. Six months later, after he was sent home and the Police became involved. As the Principal held a staff meeting to tell everyone that HE was suspended due to accusations by a staff member. And the room fell in on top of me. (Protocol that can be found on a Google search clearly states that this meeting should not have taken place, staff should NOT have been told but apparently the Principal should not be reprimanded because “he was new to the job”.) I printed out the guidelines for him, you know. Highlighted what he had to do next and the ‘chain of command’, if you will. I spoon fed it. I knew enough to have little faith in either his abilities or interest. And he pretended I hadn’t. Because they went to school together as kids. He knew HIS wife. HE was immature but harmless, couldn’t I see that? They were both just NICE GUYS.
For seven years I have heard that. From every level of the hierarchy. I have been questioned, cross examined, shamed, blamed and talked about. I worked for another two years (because I’m stubborn, and I truly believed in Right and Wrong) but this followed me. Like they told me it would. When I sat in her office, broken down, desperate, and asked the Principal for help as HIS frightening behaviour was breaking all kinds of LAWS (I thought that would scare him into action HAHAHAHAHA) and he stated very simply, “If you make this known outside these walls, your career will be ruined. Mud. Sticks.” I still thought he was being dramatic, or referring to other difficulties. I did not realise that what he actually meant was that the three of them together would almost kill me from the inside out. That he would laugh when a temp agency called to ask if I had worked there before. That I would become unemployable because someone with authority over me in the workplace decided that he would have me, body and mind, whether I wanted that or not. Every time I got the guts (or pissed off enough) to say something I was “being unprofessional” and “should reconsider whether I am suitable for the job”. Said the ‘new to the job’ principal. Was he also new to planet Earth and Australian Law?
For seven years I have known that the only option for me was to fight. At times I had nothing left. I considered how I could stop the insanity…only one way that I could see. Then I would decide again that they couldn’t have all of me, the pricks. I didn’t try to wipe myself out in defiance because that would be too much of a gift to them. All gone. Nothing for them to worry about. I wanted them to have something to worry about.
For seven years I imagined bloody revenge. Fiery vengeance. Sometimes violent retribution. What else can you do? I did take myself to a counselor then and ask if I was becoming a psychopath, had I crossed the line? What had I become? (It’s particularly disconcerting when the targets inhabit primary schools, really makes you feel fucked up) Just a normal person after trauma, apparently. Using anything that my brilliant mind could dig up to release some of that pain. I don’t think you can ever be the same though, after a mind shift like that. My tolerance for hearing about other people’s trauma is much lower. I am enraged. Angry. Sick to fucking death of sexual violence and manipulation and victim blaming bullshit.
It has been less than seven years since I first called my union representative and put this scenario to them. Probably about three years since I saw a lawyer. The union works with this law firm to aid employees financially and legally in a way I cannot emphasise strongly enough to you. Join your goddamn union and investigate your rights at work. That wasn’t enough to help me, true, but I have utilized those venues in the only way they are available to some of us – with the impending threat of a public hearing. Seeking some financial compensation. Not to get rich. Hahahaha you don’t choose Workcover to get rich, kids. Turns out you have to be a bit of a sadist, or one tough mother. It’s brutal. For bringing Rape and Stalking charges against your boss…faaaaark.
Even with all of the evidence that I had, the Police and Court documents, countless psychiatric examinations by strangers and sharp legal representation to face their scary lawyers…seven years to come to an end. Three years of constant legal action. He pled guilty, right? Still three years for that to be recognised. To prove that I was damaged by what we agree he did. Prove damage enough that I might get some recognition in the eyes of…well…anyone. I wasn’t fussy by now. Only one option. I had to fight for it. I knew I couldn’t go on any other way.
Yesterday, I got the call. My lawyer. Her voice happy and light. It IS over. I’ve taken it to the limit and the other side has made an offer that indicates I was indeed the victim of some hellish wrongdoing. There was a tussle, mind. Some initial offers which were insulting to the person reading them out and all of us. This kind of settlement could’ve meant a much higher one should I have been forced into jury trial to prove employer negligence. It could also have meant the same, or less. Depends on the jury. It would have meant more public knowledge and opportunities for more abuse and pain for me. I was willing because I wanted to prove a point but I’m pretty bloody glad that I don’t have to, as I’m sure anyone would be. Seven years is enough.
Turns out that there is no precedent for this scenario in workplace/employer law to get this far. Has a boss sexually assaulted an employee? Well, yes. Was it like this? Did everyone involved lie, bully and blacklist the victim? Was that person able to fight this long? Nope. When I first called the union they did say, “Um, I don’t know where to start. This is a new one for us!”
I wanted to make a mark on the world, you know. And I hope I do it in other ways, too. But in these circumstances, I have had a big win.
What I am hoping for is that this seven years and yesterday’s outcome serve as a warning to employers and other staff (especially THIS employer) that rape, sexual assault, stalking, harassment and gossip ARE WRONG, EVEN IN YOUR ISOLATED WORKPLACE! A Duty of Care exists even if you choose to think that young women are “dick teases” who “bring it upon themselves”. (Yes, direct quotes). If an employer in the future only acts out of fear for his own hide rather than being a lawful and ethical professional, so be it. As long as someone’s silent suffering is minimised or prevented. The moral revolution necessary and thorough smashing of the patriarchy that enables this shit must come also but that’s work far beyond the capacity of the utter bastards in my story. It was of course their strongest weapon.
If there happens to be another asshole out there preying on a Bright Young Thing who dreams of Making A Difference (and I think we know there is), and she has to call her union rep or a lawyer one day, I want to make sure they know there is a precedent in this area. You are not lost in the woods entirely. Because I tried my best to slash my way through and I think I left a trail with a little light. It’s yours if you need it and I’ll be here somewhere if you need directions. Funnily enough, in about seven weeks I don’t have to be an anonymous shell anymore.
Something weird happened. I’m learning. And getting stronger.
I had the Case Conference in the city with my lawyer, barrister and The Other Side. I knew I didn’t have to see or speak in front of the enemy so I was not too stressed on the way in.
Five years of these meetings has taught me to play angry rap music LOUDLY and keep my sunglasses on en route. Don’t concentrate on anything except the words (along the lines of ‘fuck the haters’ or ‘you can’t keep me down’) and breathing. Kind of like giving birth – this is going to play out anyway so you just have to survive it. Later, you’ll recognise your own strength under fire.
The barrister and my lovely lawyer explained the way the Other Side would try to pick apart the case and listed its possible weaknesses in the legal arena. The way the other side would fight mirrored the ugly tactics of his defence in criminal proceedings…though I am seeking financial compensation for damage done. Guilt proven in Court. But even after this, they would still attack me so personally. My childhood. My behaviour. Though I knew these things on a theoretical level, having them listed before me so blatantly was just as shocking as always. A sucker punch. Down I went.
Five years since I first disclosed any of the harassment, assaults or stalking behaviour has taught me that the cliched comebacks and victim blaming never feel any less of a violent attack. Even as a list of possible legal arguments, Things They’ll Use to Discredit You are just as disturbing, shameful and remove all of the courage you’d built up to get where you are. I DID NOT GO IN PREPARED FOR THIS AND I FELL APART. Maybe you can’t steel yourself in this case but let’s just say I forgot how much that hurt.
The barrister spoke numbers. Wages lost, past and future, with pain and suffering topped one million dollars. Though I will never see that amount it comforted me a little to have it recognised even just between us. My loss has been a big one. That’s when I really started to cry and moan, “None of this matters compared to how much I want to be a teacher! When I talk to kids in the supermarket, when I read my son a story…I just ache with the grief that I can’t be what I wanted to be so badly. I was meant to be a teacher”. Head down, choking sobs My lawyer comforted me, her eyes watery, and the two of them left to “bring it” to the Other Side…and see what exactly their position was.
Five years of spilling my guts and expressing pathetic despair should have prepared me for that dark hole I fall into afterwards. It didn’t. I tried to read a book. Couldn’t concentrate. I could hear lawyers talking in adjacent rooms. I put on the trusty headphones and music at full volume. This time, strangely, it was Damien Rice. Delicate. Over and over. I sat up against the floor-to-ceiling window and let the tears fall. Honest truth…I thought about falling from the eighth floor into the concrete chaos below. Falling. Letting myself fall. Would the hurting end? What would my child think of me? How does such a positive, passionate woman with postgraduate qualifications end up sitting in a window wondering about ceasing to be?
My Dynamic Duo returned and I sat at the long conference table with them. They had presented our side and heard the response and counter claims from the other side. An offer was made for settlement on behalf of my ex employer…which didn’t have to happen so I consider that a small positive. It was a shitty offer but made nonetheless. Further details were put to me, some of which were outright lies and I was able to refute in detail on the spot. That pissed me off but cheered me at the same time. STILL LYING! The next steps and what can be expected were not so diabolical. As we finished up I felt … alright. My last words were, ” If I have to be out in front of a jury to fight for compensation, that wouldn’t be the worst thing”.
Five years of fighting a whole group of liars and bullies gives you little to enjoy. Being able to respond to bullshit and denials felt great at the County Court. If they want to make me do it AGAIN, I am very clear on the details and telling the truth makes it easier to repeat with surety. I’d like to avoid taking things that far of course but I know I’m strong on the stand.
To get home I had to play that fucked up angry rap again. It’s a blur, really. Just had a headache for the rest of the day and puffy eyes. I hugged my son with all I had and ate ALL OF THE CHOCOLATE IN TOWN.
Five years with this has taught me that the psychological responses to traumas remain the same. The blows really smash you hard. Send you straight back to the place you were then. During it all. The bottom. Five years have also taught me that what’s happening now is HARD but it’s not like the bottom. When you’re stuck with secrets and scared, you have no voice. Ever.
I’m still talking now and there are so many roadblocks from these assholes but I have a voice. I’m being heard. Not like I deserve, not nearly as much as I want, but I have a voice. And I survived the next step. I’ll probably survive the next one.
When you’re on Workcover (receiving partial pay for being injured at work) you are warned that you may be ‘monitored or under surveillance by private investigators’ employed by the insurance company or employer.
The first time I was told, I didn’t take it in.
The time I read it in a letter as a gentle warning, I thought, ‘Who would do that?!’
I looked for some information about other people’s experiences on the Internet. You know, you can’t ask out loud, just throw it out there. It’s an isolating experience. You find answers where the rest of us go to find each other. Forums. Blogs. Websites.
And I read some stories about ways detectives had followed and reported on injured workers. One who pretended to be a potential tenant and attended an open house, asking the kids questions about their Dad who was on Workcover. I mean SERIOUSLY. I’d erased the old me from the Internet years ago. Used search engines to find mention of myself by anyone, anywhere I’d appeared, even proud moments or awards I’d won. And deleted them.
Delete. Delete. Delete. All gone.
If I leave the house, even for an appointment with someone or to see my GP, I look around me at all times. I check for people watching me. I avoid open spaces. Main roads. Shopping centres. And schools. I avoid schools like haunted houses. 3.30pm when the kids all spill out…terrifies me. They’re everywhere. Teachers. Students. Parents. And they’re all laughing and busy in a place I dreamt of working in, a place that should be safe. I am scared of them, yet wish desperately to be back there. It’s a shitty, mixed up feeling.
My son goes to daycare occasionally so that he learns that there is more to the world than the bubble in which we have lived. I went to pick him up one afternoon recently (in obligatory sunglasses and hat) and I felt a man watching me. I saw him scribbling down some notes. I thought, ‘Is he making notes on me?’
I felt sick to my stomach. Shrunk into my seat. I became harder to breathe.
I reversed the car and noticed his number plate. The letters.
If that man was an investigator, he has a bloody wry sense of humour. And brass balls.
I laughed later, though. That paranoia. Is he watching me? SPY. Yeah, probably not this time.
Bloody Workcover. If you’ll excuse me, it’s a headfuck.
PS Thanks for saying lovely things lately. It’s very, very special to me that you take the time to do that. Much appreciated xx
So, the cheque came. To open a cheque for $65 000 is quite an experience. That is the going rate in Victoria these days for Permanent Impairment caused while you are just doing your job. Psychological injury is now recognised and compensated accordingly on the same level as physical injury (it was previously capped at about $10 000). This is a one-off, tax free ‘benefit’ payment as recognition of the official assessment that you’ll probably never work again. And I’m not that old. I had many years up my sleeve.
That’s not the thing I’m trying to celebrate. I am trying to tell my head that I can celebrate being one of the very few who have been recognised at this stage – the harm done to me has been acknowledged at long, long last.
I’m telling myself that now, that’s one more on the scorecard for the Good Guys. When another person comes in to the lawyer’s office, crying, desperate…they can say to her ‘It is very hard to win, but it CAN be done. It happened just this year…’ and maybe that person will feel a little bit more hopeful, right? The odds have shifted a little. I’m an example of the exception to the shitty rule in legal circles. That’s great. Why aren’t I happy?
I’m spinning around a la Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes cartoons. Mentally, I’m feeling Deep Panic and Rushing Anxiety. I’m a bit sad about that because shouldn’t there be a sense of relief? I’ve kind of Done It. I’ve had a Win. Stupid Anti Climax.
You tell yourself to keep going when you have something really hard to do. Come on, you say, it’s worth it. You can do it.
Then you get there.
But you’re still scared. Still nervous. Still having nightmares that are so emotional, I wake up exhausted from the fighting and the angst. Still taking your pills. Still gotta work hard to calm down. Be mindful.
I suppose that is the way your psyche needs to work, to get through. If you thought everything would stay exactly the bloody same, it’d be hard to summon up the energy to fight.
Ah, but it isn’t the same, is it? I have some money. Some power. Some choices. That’s a kind of freedom I haven’t had since I stopped going to work. And in some moments, you can buy some happiness or a kind of Brand New distraction. I’m not dead yet. Shopping is still fun!
I kept thinking to myself ‘money can’t buy happiness…but it can buy you a new MacBook to blog about the shit on’. I spend a lot of time on the computer. So I did buy one. And it’s so beautiful and amazing, I can’t bring myself to take it out of the box yet. It’s on the bench. But what a thing of beauty! And I can communicate via the Interwebs like I do on a very beautiful, fast, shiny machine.
When I can open it.
I’m such a nerd. Maybe tomorrow.
I’ll remind myself again. I had a win. I will enjoy having some money. Choose a better house. Buy a new couch. Some stuff. Buy a badge that says ‘You did good, kid’. So I don’t forget. Damn, my head is so stubborn *grrr*
I think I may have already mentioned this but it is overtaking my brain today, this week…
I have been gently warned by my lawyers that I may be, or perhaps have always been, under some sort of surveillance by the insurance company or representatives of my former employer. I may be channeling Matt Damon.
It was one sentence at the bottom of what I assumed to be standard letter to ‘injured workers’. They gently stated it when we last met to draft my affadavit to apply for Serious Injury status, thus allowing me the right to sue for damages.
This issue of Whole Person Impairment Assessment is a whole other post but, with a file inches thick and psychiatric assessments coming out of my ears, I was recently assessed as permanently impaired by what happened to me when I was at work, but not impaired enough to be compensated or have the right to claim negligence or recoup any lost wages and all the rest. The categories that let me down in the rapid twenty minute assessment by another stranger? I “could still drive” my car and the ‘assessment’ of my intelligence had not lowered. Do a quick search for a definition of intelligence and you will see that scholars have struggled to define the term for eons. I can summarise my thoughts on it here, though.
I have worked very hard all my life in academia. Learning is what I do. It is what I love, what used to inspire and drive me, personally and professionally. I put myself through university twice. I was born curious and determined. I think, I consider, I hypothesise. It is what made me good at my job. It is what has saved my sanity (joke!) as I navigated my way through the criminal justice system as a victim of crime, and how I manage the seemingly endless fight against a workplace beset by flaws and intentional cover-ups. No workplace should allow a sexual predator in its midst, but it would be of particular concern to people if they knew the attitudes and accepted behaviours in this sector. We trust these people with a great role in society and I was proud to be a member of the club. Not for long. I digress. What I mean to say is that I found the reference to my intelligence, used by them as proof I have not been injured enough, to be insulting. Is there a direct correlation between sexual assault and loss of intelligence? Was I less molested because I can articulate my feelings about it for you? I despair over this.
So, after ‘failing’ the test which would afford me the right to claim damages, I completed the necessary paperwork to apply for a Judge to grant me Serious Injury status instead. This is apparently the most common route in these cases but that gave me little comfort. I think it would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that cases of, in this case, workplace rape, (let alone with stalking and bullying over many months), a fairly serious psychological injury will probably occur. The susequent five years of seclusion, depression and overwhelming anxiety which have impaired my quality of life, let there be no doubt, are more than enough proof. I’m tired. Let’s be sensible. It was, and is, SERIOUS.
As I left the barrister’s office, I put my head down and felt that familiar feeling of being exposed. How could someone around me not know? Not see that I’d just spoken of such things? That it was still for the most part secretive, or my name would be on this blog? Did I not bear a scarlet letter, letting everybody know that I was this person? I’d let this happen to me? Was there not an obvious marker, to seperate me from the normal people who dont have to do this shit?
Now logically I can talk myself out of this state to some degree. ‘No, self, these strangers in the city do NOT know anything about you and probably couldn’t care less. They are just doing their thing. Thinking about their own shit. No one can ‘sense’ your heightened vulnerability and skittishness. No one is looking at you!’
What if I have been monitored? Recorded? In a very real sense, followed? I removed all trace of my real self from the Internet. You’ll only ‘catch me out’ at a professional’s waiting room – I really do live the life I have described over and again. I didn’t pay it much mind when the lawyers warned me because it seemed, well, a bit ridiculous. Someone watching me. Who did I think I was? Erin Brokovich? Real life is not a John Grisham novel. Nothing like it. Is it?
I believed these thoughts to be almost self indulgent. Like, how important did I think I was in the world? I worked to train my mind to let these thoughts go. Was this thinking a sign of psychological disturbance rather than based in fact? Let’s say it together – paranoia. Surely!
But gently they warned me. And suddenly, very loudly, I am hearing the warning now.
I understand the concept of investigation as it applies to falsely claiming a physical workplace injury, though that seems like a movie script also. To notice the same car at the end of your street. A camera. Eyes watching, waiting for you to pick up a bag of cement or renovate your house when you claim to have hurt your back at work. But this is different, people.
What are you looking for? What would ‘prove’ I was making false claims? Where are you? WHO are you? Have you been there all along..?
Will pictures surface in Court of me laughing, proof I’m not devestated? Out with my child, proof I can sometimes, (with Valium), go out in public like a normal Mum should? Should I not make an effort to dress well, do my hair (most days)? Even now, would this be used against me? What about this blog? Stringing sentences together and being proud of it. Wanting to talk. Is this proof I am not as damaged as I have had to describe so intimately, to my shame and continued embarrassment?
Is it fair or even reasonable that I should face the prospect of being ‘monitored’ or watched, after having my boss try to rape me (I repeat: in the known presence of another employee who ignored me fighting him off and in fact made jokes about it), after having HIM follow me, hack into my computer files, change passwords, email me, call me, text me, demand that I ‘smile for him’ or ‘beg like I should’ in order to be granted a day off or another professional due. After he made unwanted visits to my house, groped me, tried to kiss me, mocked and shamed me amongst staff. And after I was told I would be ‘marked’ if I took official steps to stop him, that I would ruin my own career.
After all of that (and I just cannot be bothered to really itemise the experience), I would be watched? Someone looking for something to use as evidence I do not deserve protection, as various laws and protocols (let alone moral understandings) would suggest?
If you do exist, Monitor, and you have taken on the task at any stage to look for me to trip up – I could save you so much time. I HAVE ALWAYS TOLD THE TRUTH. I WILL ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. THAT IS THE PAINFUL PART, YOU IDIOTS.
Here’s the thing, when you’re telling the truth. The whole, pitiful, frustrating truth about something shitty…You can’t really fuck it up. It just IS. You can’t catch me in a lie. I don’t have one. You won’t see me being the person you tried to ruin and shut up. SHE’S GONE NOW.
The smile has morphed more into a frown on the hardest days but my outside is pretty much the same as before. Though I’d like to be in disguise at times. I look the same and I will keep putting one foot in front of the other. I will even continue to *gasp* DRIVE my car, and more often than you’d like, I will in fact USE MY INTELLIGENCE. To help myself. And others told to shut up. The audacity of me!
It’s not what you will see me doing that you should worry about, faceless Monitor. It’s the fact that you will always see me. Despite the inner urge to hide, and the real struggle to fight exposure, on the other hand I’m only going to become more obvious and candid. As this goes on, I will keep talking. I will write and I will jump through all of the stupid legal hoops that a certain Liberal government deemed appropriate some years ago. I think it no mistake that the same leader became the ‘face’ of depression awareness down the line. Oh, the bittersweet irony…or sheer ignorance. It doesn’t matter.
Keep watching, monitoring me, if it is your will. It’s creepy. Humiliating. Degrading. But ultimately a waste of your time.
See you at the finish line, assholes.
Photo credit here