Time and again I have considered sitting down and writing this out–not only to finally put people in the know, but for myself, and my sanity. But each and every time, I stopped myself for one reason or another. Either I was feeling too emotional or confused, or I just couldn’t find the words. To say that I am over how the following has impacted my life would be a bold lie; you don’t just bounce back from a year and a half of poisoning yourself by enduring a toxic environment. But for the sake of catharsis, as well as for any of you who have ever experienced something akin to what I did, I am invested in finding the right words to articulate what led me to my unemployment.
Yes, unemployment; I was let go from my job back in March.
There you have it: the reason that I have been “off” for the past few months, why my posts and articles are infrequent, and why I have been asleep more than I’ve been awake. At this point, you can do one of two things: exit out of this article, because the news of someone having lost their job is juicy enough gossip to form your own judgments, assumptions, and opinions on the matter. Or, you can read on, and (hopefully) understand why this is the best thing to happen to me since I was hired in September 2015.
First, I need to preface that while my work environment was toxic to me, not everyone felt that way, as different atmospheres affect different people accordingly. Additionally, the environment is not the be all and end all of blame, especially considering I knowingly accepted a job at a place where I knew I would not thrive. Being an introvert with a good deal of intuition with regard to places and situations (INFJ, to be precise), my very first clue that I was making a big mistake was when I took the call from my soon-to-be boss to come in for an interview. I can’t say exactly what it was that twisted my stomach in that conversation; it was brief and to the point, nothing I haven’t heard from previous interview-calls in the past. But there was something about the cadence of her voice that set off alarms at the back of my mind. Of course, anyone would easily consider it irrational to turn down a job due to getting ‘bad vibes’. I was fresh out of my Masters degree and eager to get back into the working world like a real adult, so I put it out of my mind, went in for the interview, and was informed that I got the job hours later. I started the beginning of the following week.
I can recall clearly my very first bus ride on the morning of my first day. It was sunny and warm for late September, but I couldn’t shake this ominous voice at the back of my mind, whispering, “Smile now, but it won’t last.” And it didn’t last.
The first few months were fine. I worked with some awesome colleagues, thoroughly enjoyed the kids (incidentally, I worked with preschool and school-aged children at a daycare), and didn’t think much of the bumps along the way. After all, no job is without an obstacle here and there, right? Even the days when I came back with bruises and scraped knees from my efforts to mitigate violence, I figured it was all part of the job, and that it wasn’t a big deal. I had only been there for a couple of months, so I had nothing to compare to what I eventually internalized as ‘normal’. It wasn’t until I heard other colleagues comment that they don’t come to work to get hit, kicked, and punched that I began to wonder why it was okay that ‘I’ experienced all of these things on a daily basis.
But that was far from the worst I experienced; in fact, the cuts and bruises were negligible, and believe me when I say the children were NOT the crux of the problem. Around the beginning of November, when I had barely been there for a full 2 months, my main colleague and counterpart was offered an extraordinary job elsewhere, and informed me she had put in her two weeks’. I was more than happy for her, and honestly, I did not anticipate the degree of the downhill slope that I would experience following her leave. I took things a day at a time and worked with different substitutes until the center hired my colleague’s replacement a month later. That was when I began to notice a dire change in the atmosphere, and my place at that centre. In hindsight, I know now that it really had little to do with my new colleague; we had our differences, but amidst the unique stressors that we were both experiencing, neither of us at the time was in a decent place to be open to one another (this did change, down the road, and ultimately she ended up being one of the few people I could trust).
Like any work environment, there was definitely a hierarchy, and I don’t mean in terms of seniority. The truth is, everyone (my new colleague included) had a relationship to my boss in some light, either from already have worked with her for years, or through friendship. Being an introvert, I was not one to try and garner respect by schmoozing or befriending, but rather, through my hard work and dedication to my job. Not to say I wasn’t friendly; anyone who knows me is aware that I am terribly committed to people-pleasing, and if there was something I could do to make someone’s day easier, I’d do it. But I would later come to learn that that did not mean anything in this work environment. I was quiet, I largely kept to myself, and as a result, even with new people getting hired from time to time, I found myself perpetually at the bottom of the food chain.
Whenever I find myself in social nightmares such as what I faced here, I can’t help but question the legitimacy of the events taking place. This is because I have suffered from anxiety for as long as I can remember, and as such, I make it a habit to challenge my beliefs when I encounter scenarios where I’m not sure if it’s ‘just me’, or if something is really going on. When confiding in one of my colleagues (who I’d come to know through school), even she insisted that I was probably overthinking what was happening, which only further put me off from seeking help. But after a few more months of consistently feeling singled out in situations, and treated noticeably differently by my boss, I sought online counseling for a couple of weeks. While I couldn’t afford to keep it going, my counselor was able to confirm for me, after I gave her the run-down of what was happening, that the best thing for me would be to leave and find another job. This was not the first time I received this advice, and she was right, but at the time I had it in my head that leaving would be akin to giving up. Not to mention, I have student loans and bills to pay, so just up and leaving was much easier said than done.
Unfortunately, I still needed help and strategies to cope with the anxiety I was feeling from work. So after a few weeks of spending my lunches crying into my coffee at Starbucks, I managed to register with a free counseling service through my work benefits. I did find it helpful at first; the counselor gave me a lot of great resources for dealing with my anxiety, but unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to take care of myself, it did not change the fact that every day I got up and went to work, that place would take a toll on my health. At one point, a trusted colleague confided in me that some things were being said behind my back, and luckily, I happened to have been scheduled to see my counselor again on that day. So of course I explained what had gone down, through gross sobbing and a lot of Kleenex, and she listened intently like all counselors are trained to do. But when I was finished, and it was her turn to divulge her thoughts, I was surprised to find myself being gaslighted by someone who was supposed to be helping me. “But you don’t know that it happened, just that someone told you it did,” she said, as if trying to be reassuring. I went on to tell her that had the message come from anyone else, I might have thought otherwise, but there was no reason why this particular person would tell me something that isn’t true. “Still, you don’t know for sure,” she maintained. So, once again feeling invalidated and unsure of myself, that was where the benefit of my talk-therapy came to an end, and I was once again left feeling very lost and alone.
Things did not get better as winter progressed into Spring. Once again, I found myself working with a new colleague, right before the busy week of March Break. That put a lot of pressure on me to plan and schedule events, and ascertain everything kept together (needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that week). Despite the work I was putting in, that I was going above and beyond to plan for an exciting week for the school-agers, you’d have thought I was sitting around playing Candy Crush the entire time for the treatment I got. Something I became accustomed to expecting at that point was that my boss was not only not very good at careful planning, in terms of time and kid/teacher ratios, but she frequently forgot about the plans she made. I wish I had a dollar for every time I followed specific directions, and got shit on because a plan that had NOT been mine didn’t work out (or because she forgotten she’d told me/hadn’t told me something crucial). Certainly, everyone experiences this from time to time; life’s not about running smooth and without hitches. But I experienced it so frequently that it was not long before I came to expect having blame fall on me for things that were not my fault and/or out of my hands. My work days soon became fixated on planning for disaster and vitriol, leaving little time and energy to plan for the children–ergo, my job became about survival instead of actually doing my job. Later on, I found out that it was no secret that blame was reserved for me; it even became an inside joke between me and a few colleagues that if something were to go wrong, “Just blame Sarah!”
I do need to make a disclaimer that I was not the only one treated poorly; I just happened to be the only one treated poorly who was stupid enough to stick around and keep taking it. My colleague who I knew from school experienced mistreatment from time to time, as had the new colleague working with me in school-age, who was sent to the elementary school to serve lunch while suffering the stomach flu, because my boss had taken some vacation days, and did not want to be bothered. As unfortunate as it was, I can’t help but admit that I took comfort in not being the only one completely singled out–for a while, anyway. Both of those colleagues eventually left, and I was still there, because somehow, I was determined to stick it out until things got better. Yes, I really, truly believed that things would improve.
I stuck it out throughout the summer. I went to my doctor to discuss upping my dosage of anxiety medication (the dosage was increased twice in the time that I worked at that centre), and took it a day at a time. As busy as it was, the summer offered almost a reprieve from the usual crap I’d been experiencing. I was working with two colleagues who were easy on the head, and since we were out and about all over the city with the school-aged children, I saw my boss considerably less frequently than before, and was able to focus on having fun with the kids. Not to say that July and August were entirely flawless months, but they were better than being stuck in the centre where I could do no right. In fact, I actually got my hopes up that my situation was improving, that I could stick it out and everything would get better.
But summer came to an end, and my hope, along with it.
Yet again, I found myself working with a new colleague, and a slightly different group of children. I shouldn’t say that everything went dark as of September 1st; the transition into fall and a new school year was largely uneventful, and having been working a full year at that centre, I knew the ropes well enough that it went off without a hitch. My colleague was pleasant, and was open about having a difficult experience at her last centre, where she felt bullied and singled-out by her former boss and other colleagues. It gave me a glimmer of optimism that I wasn’t the only one to have experienced workplace toxicity, though as time went on, her intentions began to appear more and more questionable. Once again, other co-workers would confide that she would speak with my boss and put her own spin on situations to make me look bad (or for her to appear more favourable). In hindsight, I do wonder if I should have confronted her, or spoken to my boss on the matter, but that was the thing with my standing at that place. No, I never said much either way, to anyone, but it is difficult to bring yourself to say anything when you already know you are not taken seriously. I had brought up issues and concerns in the past which were ultimately only acted upon when someone else brought up the same issue; so what would give me pause to think I would be taken seriously were I to divulge I felt bullied, by the very person who had already long decided I was incompetent?
Winter came once again. Nothing changed, except my mental health, which had gotten much, much worse. I was tired all time, and didn’t have it in me to even put on a little make-up to cover up the bags under my eyes. I dreaded getting on the bus in the morning, and when I was at work, the only thing that got me through the day was knowing I got to go home at the end of it. When I got home, I was lucky if I had the energy to eat and shower, before I made a beeline for bed. On weekends, I didn’t want to get out of bed, and 3pm would easily roll around before I’d so much as put pants on. The situation at work was getting progressively worse. Not only were more issues cropping up with the children, that we didn’t have the manpower or resources to deal with, but I began to find myself facing outrageous accusations. At one point, my boss stated that she was very upset that ‘someone had seen me on my phone’ when I was with the children. Not only did that astound me because I’d only ever taken out my phone to check the time, but on the flip side, she’d become owly with me in the past whenever I was off-site and didn’t answer her texts; I was damned if I had my phone, and damned if I didn’t. (Not to mention she had zero problem with other select individuals being on their phones–her included–any other time, but I think by now I’ve made it clear that some ‘rules’ seemed to only apply to me). Regardless, I had no say in these instances, when it was all just he-said, she-said bullshit, but it left me feeling completely helpless and bereft of anyone to trust.
In early February, I began to have anxiety attacks again, for the first time in years. The quiet ones would keep me awake at night, or crying early in the morning, loathing that I had to go back to that place one more day. At my worst, I’d find myself shaking uncontrollably on the couch, nauseated, my heart racing and with no means of calming down. My partner was extremely supportive during this time, but even he was reaching a breaking point in not knowing how to help me (because, frankly, I couldn’t be helped). We had just recently moved into our first house, 2 months into what would be a 4 month renovation process, and as much as we both knew I needed to leave my job, it just wasn’t feasible to walk away when we had mortgage, oil bills, student loans, and more to contend with. Since December, I had been applying like mad to every possible job related to my field. My partner tried to find me opportunities through networking, but as we all know in this day and age, a Masters degree is not enough to guarantee a foot in the door of employment that pays a living wage. I did toy with the idea of settling for less and working minimum wage somewhere temporarily, but my partner was not working at the time, and I just couldn’t justify the pay cut.
I went to see my doctor again in March, and she was deeply concerned at my sluggish demeanor and how ‘sick’ I appeared. I explained my situation at work, and immediately she told me what everyone else had been telling me from the beginning: “You need to get out of that place. Can you go on E.I.?” Heeding her words for no other reason than because I was desperate, I investigated that possibility, but on realizing I’d only be getting a small fraction of my wage IF they approved me for sick leave, it wouldn’t be worth it any more than working part-time at minimum wage. Again, we had just bought a house, and I did not want to be the reason it went under.
It was in March that shit finally hit the fan, and the centre saw fit to let me go. Before I explain, I need to emphasize once again that the behaviour of certain children had taken a turn for the worst, and it just so happened that those two children were in my group after school. Since we had almost 30 kids and no room for all of them (which in itself begs the question–why???), I took fifteen of the older kids down to a dance studio that the centre rented out for the sole purpose of accommodating numbers. It was less than ideal for a lot of reasons, but the biggest concern was that there were 2 exits, and several children had presented with the potential to be flight risks, running or wandering off because they were in a mood–and being in a basement underground, my cell phone did not have reception to call for help if needed. I also need to preface that my boss was both aware of the fact my cell phone was unreliable in the dance studio, as well as of the children who time and again would run off. I lost count of all the times that it happened that winter, but each and every time it occurred, I was simply instructed to write down what happened and sign it, and the report would be tucked away into the child’s file. Fortunately, I was able to gather up the other children and go after the child that would take off, and defuse the situation so that they’d feel comfortable coming back–except for one time, when I was not able.
To make a long story short, we were preparing to go outside when 2 children had an argument and both ran off, in opposite directions, at the same time. I called after them and they told me they were going upstairs to my colleague’s other half of the group, and since I could neither make a phone call nor go after 2 children at once, I made my way upstairs with the rest of my group to take them outside. I was off early that day, but before I left, I checked in with my colleague to explain the situation; she in turn said that one of the children had told her, and that everything was fine. I mistakenly took the ‘everything is fine’ as it was all good with both children, but would soon come to find that was not the case.
Early the next morning, my boss called me into her office, where I found my colleague and another co-worker already seated. It was clear the second I stepped in that they had already had a discussion and come to some conclusion, and that having me say my own piece was little more than a gratuity. (EDIT: I can confirm this as fact because not even a week later, while looking for jobs, I saw that my position at the center had been posted the day before this happened. They had already decided to let me go before I could weigh in on what had happened). But this was just following my second March Break at this centre, and I was already so numb and exhausted, that I played the game and heard them out. One of the children who had run off hadn’t gone with my other colleague like he’d said, but had rejoined my half of the group after another co-worker had taken over for me because I was off. No one was hurt or lost, but since he had been stewing in his mood alone for 15 minutes, it was my neck on the line. All I could do was explain what had happened, and reiterate that I’d wanted to call for support, but once again, my phone doesn’t pick up a signal in the basement. And, once again, I should mention that my boss was (or should have been–it wasn’t the first time I’d mentioned it to her) aware of both my cellphone troubles, as well as the fact that children were taking off from my group almost every single day. Yet, all I got in response was an irate, “Well what should we do then, Sarah?” As if this was my problem; my own, personal issue. Not a dire safety issue which could have occurred on anyone’s watch, which should have been addressed long ago, when (if not before) kids had first started running, but specifically a me problem. To make matters worse (and I should have seen this coming), my colleague further decided to misquote me, stating that I had offhandedly told her “Oh, child-X is somewhere”. As if I didn’t give a damn where he was. At this point, I did call her out, but it was too late in the game. Like I said, they’d already come to their conclusion before I’d even arrived.
Whatever was said next was a blur, because my mind was buzzing. Something about getting walkie-talkies or an intercom for the basement (what a fan-fucking-tastic idea, eh?), and I went through the rest of the day feeling even more numb than before. I didn’t know what would happen, but I couldn’t bring myself to care anymore. And when the end of the day rolled around, and my boss told me not to come in tomorrow, I felt relief for the first time in over a year. I was disappointed, of course, because I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to the children or the colleagues I could trust, not to mention I’d never been fired from a job before. But the heaviest thought on my mind was the fact that I never had to walk into the building, into that centre, ever again.
And I am 100% certain that this is precisely what needed to happen. Because as much as I knew I had to quit that job for a year and a half, I also know I never would have had it in myself to boldly put in my two-weeks and await better horizons. Again, this was due in part to the fact that I didn’t want to lose the house, but also because that millennial fear that I might never find anything better had gotten the better of me. I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person, but for over a year, I prayed and I prayed that I would find a way out of that childcare job; and this is how the universe responded. Since I was let go, I was able to get sick leave, which my amazing doctor has been backing 100%, and when that is up and I feel adequately human again, I can apply for regular benefits while I look for something else (it helped that I kept VERY detailed notes of what I was experiencing at work, and that I have a record of visits to my clinic that I made with regard to workplace stress).
Initially, I had only divulged this to a handful of people, for fear of being judged, and I don’t have it in me to recap what happened to everyone that matters, which is partially what drove me to write this post. I’m still not 100%, but I’m getting better, and feeling more and more human every day. It wasn’t until I found myself outside of a toxic situation that I finally began to realize just how much of ‘me’ that work environment had stolen from me. Slowly but surely, I feel like I am coming back to myself. I’m taking pleasure in dabbling in make-up again; I’m writing again, and for my birthday, I got an easel for my oil painting. I started up this blog initially to try and find a way back to myself after leaving that shitshow that was my workplace, and with the support of my family and friends, I am well on my way to reclaiming what I had lost amidst the chaos of one and a half years. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a way to go; I’m still having frequent dreams where I’m suddenly working back at that place, and wake up feeling panicked, and for that my doctor believes the whole year and a half ordeal has left me with a touch of PTSD (which, hopefully, is transient). On the bright side, I wake up every morning, realize it was only a dream, and take comfort in the relief.
I recall a sappy-motivational Facebook post that stated something along the lines of, “Everything in life is either a blessing or a lesson”, and I truly feel that that applies. I know where I went wrong for myself; I made a mistake, I got burned, and I learned from it. With that knowledge, I am now confident that I can push forward and put my mental and emotional health at the forefront. For the first time in what feels like eons, I am excited for the path ahead, and the options that I have. My biggest regret is that I didn’t realize all of this sooner.