Monday, September 9, 2013

Workplace PTSD

A few incidents this week reminded me of how TERRIBLE a workplace I left, and how incredibly fortunate I have been to find a relatively healthy workplace. I knew that my former job was soul crushing, largely because of an abusive boss. And by abusive, I mean sexist & verbally abusive (threats, intimidation, put-downs). The abuse took a toll on me, both during--and apparently after I left!

Two incidents served to remind me of this during the week:

(1) My boss came into my office with pursed lips after I'd made and fessed up to an error earlier in the day. My thoughts: "This is the end. I'm going to get canned for a minor error, or he's going to tell me that he's reported me to the chief, or that I can't go to my conference any more." Reality: Boss sat down & shared with me that he had applied for another position and wasn't selected, and that he was kind of disappointed.

Like a normal. dang. person. Having a normal conversation.

(2) My boss called me this evening after some shit hit the fan with a case I'm working on. My thoughts: "I must've messed up my documentation. I must've left something incomplete. Something terrible must have happened with the case and he's calling to give me the bad news." Reality: Boss called on his commute home to say that he missed saying goodbye to me and knew that I'd had a really heavy and emotionally trying day, and that he wanted to check in on me & make sure I was okay.

Working for my old employer, I gained over 20 lbs. I felt depressed and hopeless: Living for weekends and then devoid of energy when they finally rolled along because just going to work every day sucked the life out of me. In addition to being constantly sick, I was at the dermatologist 2-3x/monthly to burn off warts that just wouldn't go away. My blood pressure went up 15 points. All of these things have resolved since moving. ALL of them.

But the emotional sequela is going to take a bit longer to clear.

Did you know that workplace PTSD is kind of a thing? It's under the umbrella of workplace bullying. This site has user-friendly descriptions (, and the following really spoke to me:

"Targets are independent. They refuse to be subservient. Bullies seek to enslave targets. When targets take steps to preserve their dignity, their right to be treated with respect, bullies escalate their campaigns of hatred and intimidation to wrest control of the target's work from the target. According to the 2007 WBI-Zogby Survey, 45% of targeted individuals suffer stress-related health problems. Additional findings regarding targets' health can be found in WBI research and the PTSD-related research by others posted at this site."

Any time I stood up for myself, I was smacked down. My requests to be treated like a human being were never outlandish, but on several occasions were met with open laughter during staff meetings, where my boss would proceed to spread himself out in a power-position and mock me.

I wish I was kidding. I wish I would've written about this sooner, because it feels GOOD. Honestly, I was afraid to. I was afraid he'd come after me and sue the pants off of me, even though I would never directly identify him publicly (frankly, due to this fear). And I was ashamed. And frankly, I was too fucking traumatized. I turned my boss in to the EEO reps on campus after the millionth degrading statement about women came out of his mouth. He had already befriended this person and they turned me away. I turned him in to HR--3 separate people on 3 separate occasions. Minor behavioral changes ensued and then he would up the ante as soon as they turned their attention onto other matters. I felt incredibly alone.

Since I have left, he has turned his bullying behavior toward the next most senior person in the clinic. He now gives large gifts and privileges to the lowest employees and refuses this individual a raise despite her being the lowest paid psychologist to work there in the past 5 yrs.

My husband is the kindest, most compassionate man I have ever met. When I came home from work sobbing one day, he said that he's never wanted to hurt someone so much in his life. This was about 1.5-2 yrs ago now, and don't worry, he never did anything to my former boss. But this man literally took an intelligent, independent woman and just did everything in his power to fucking break her. And toward the end, I was too broken to want to do anything but crawl into a bathtub, and then into bed.

For the first time in my life, I started an antidepressant. If you've gotten this far into my blog it's because either (a) you're a friend who cares, or (b) this is happening to you and it feels validating/normalizing to know that someone else went through it. So I'll try not to be shy about the fact that I never publicly announced this. I kept it pretty private, because I was ashamed of it, too. But I had fallen into such a dark hole that I needed a way out. I was plagued by vacillating sadness and panic attacks. I couldn't continue in that way. So I went to my doctor, and then I went to a psychologist and began talking about how I would begin rebuilding my confidence so that I could go look for a new job.

I don't want this to turn into a pity-party story, because although there will still be moments where I am "triggered" and must remind myself that I'm safe, and happy. I feel like a victor. I can feel myself getting angry as I write this, and that feels wonderful because for so long I was just scared. He had me convinced that I was no good in my profession and couldn't work anywhere else (see verbal put-downs...)! I am proud to announce that I know for a fact: I MAKE MORE MONEY THAN HE DOES. God that feels nice. But even nicer is knowing I have something he never will: The respect and admiration of my colleagues.

When my former coworker tells me stories about him (often--she's miserable) I encourage her to get out because there is no fighting against this bully. He's borderline corporate sociopath with the way that he's managed to build connections that prevent any of his employees from seeking support externally, in order to ensure his abuse can continue. And then I remind myself that I DO believe in Karma, and Karma is a real bitch.

So that is the story of how it is that I came to catastrophic thinking this week while at my lovely job with nice people. It is going to take me a while to really heal from the experience of my former job.

Imagine all of that happening, and then planning both a formal wedding and a move and career shift. I am one strong woman. That is what I've learned from all of this. I may have been broken down temporarily, but I came out stronger than ever before. And when I left that God-awful job, and my boss mumbled some apology for his behavior, I was able to say, "Honestly, it was the catalyst that propelled me onto bigger and better things. I probably would've been content to just sit in this job and I wouldn't have ever known what I was capable of."

And it's been true. :)

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