Last Tuesday I had an anatomy exam. I should have spent Monday night doing nothing but studying. Instead, I spent three hours writing an email to my lawyer detailing the emotional damages I had suffered at work. It was unpleasant, to say the least. He asked me to detail what my emotional life was like prior to being discriminated against and then after. It went a little something like this:
Prior to her return to work after the birth of her third child, Emily was happy at work and at home. She was content to work at Evil Corporation 20 hours per week and was balancing the demands of work and family well. When she returned from maternity leave she took on difficult projects and received good feedback from Evil Corporation’s customers, which is documented in emails. Emily was doing so well, in fact, that she asked for an increase in her work hours, up to 24 – 28 hours per week. She felt good about going to work and interacted positively with management and her colleagues. She felt, in a word, successful.
Immediately after the negative performance review that Emily received followed by the comments made by her managers, Emily became distraught and frustrated. She was very concerned about what her managers’ statements meant for her future career and earnings potential. After much stress and many sleepless nights, Emily came to the difficult decision to file a grievance over the performance review. As soon as Emily filed the grievance, her managers’ treatment of her changed. Her manager would park himself in Emily’s office for lengthy periods of time, insisting that she sign her performance evaluation, even though she disagreed with the ratings she was receiving. Several meetings which were set up to address the grievance were cancelled by management, and management started requesting private meetings. Emily’s manager, a superior with immense influence over Emily’s career, would literally stand over Emily, insisting over and over that she come to a private, closed door meeting with him and another manager. Unsurprisingly, Emily found it difficult to go to work and to concentrate when she was there. She started applying for transfers to other departments while waiting on the result of the internal EEO investigation. She felt like a complete failure. After years of education (and student loans) and work, she was now staring at a dead end. At about the same time, Emily’s projects at Evil Corporation began drying up and she found herself with much less work. Emily asked for more work and more hours, but was given busywork and non-committal answers. She did not see how she would get a positive performance review for the next year with no real work to do, which caused her more worry. Emily started to experience the symptoms of depression and anxiety. She had panic attacks walking in from the parking lot to work, and cried every night. She held out some hope that she would be able to transfer out of the group and that the EEO office would help her in some way, but they never did. As the weeks and then months dragged by, and she received no responses about the transfers she requested, she lost hope of ever getting out of the situation she was in. She began to see a therapist and then a psychiatrist. Eventually, her primary care physician and then her psychiatrist put her on disability. The first few months of disability were very difficult for Emily. She was diagnosed with major depression. She cried daily for hours at a time. Her husband missed a lot of work in order to take care of her. Luckily, she had family who could help her through, and, away from Evil Corporation she slowly started to get better.
This is the cold hard truth. If anything, it’s a somewhat glossed over version of what happened. I haven’t been to work in nearly seven months now. When people have asked what I am doing I’ve usually told them that I’ve been on a “leave of absence” and then changed the subject. The truth is, I’ve been on disability. I consider myself a strong person who’s survived a lot in life. Admitting to myself, much less out loud, that I was disabled is not something I like to do. As work spiraled into a shitstorm my union representative recommended that I take a few sick days here and there, “mental health days”, if I needed them. I resisted. No, I would come to work and do a great job. But I became more and more tormented. It didn’t help that the rest of my life was unraveling too. Middle was smack in the middle of transitioning genders. We were also juggling doctor’s appointments and worry for Older who had a suspicious bump on his leg which turned out to be an early form of melanoma. But I am quite sure I could have handled those other things if it hadn’t been for being mistreated at work.
I tried so hard to follow the rules, going though all of the company’s procedures for grievances. I received either no response or outright lies. It was absolutely crazy-making. Meanwhile, I had nothing to do. I asked for more work, more projects, more hours. I asked for permission to take a class. I got a smile and a “keep up the good work”. I was so incredibly bored. I literally left a screaming, distraught child (or two) every morning to drive for over an hour in traffic to come to work to sit there and then drive home again. It was torture with no end in sight. On one particularly bad day I told my boss that I had some health issues that I was dealing with and that I might be taking some sick time in the near future. I thought I might take a few days off, maybe a week, to regroup. Once I got home, all by myself, my career at a dead end, I thought some really dark thoughts. Thoughts that to the sane part of my brain sounded CRAZY, but to a growing part of my brain sounded reasonable. On that day I went to my primary care physician and asked for help. He told me that I looked too put together to be really depressed. He asked if I was drinking. [Side note: I have a new primary care physician now. A physician should know that a depressed woman doesn’t necessarily mean a disheveled woman in sweatpants with liquor on her breath.] I told him that I really was depressed, that I wasn’t drinking, but that I absolutely needed help. He asked if I was suicidal. “Depends on what you mean by suicidal?” I answered him levelly. I hadn’t gone and made any plans but I was thinking that life wasn’t worth living. Does that count? Eventually I wound my way through the health insurance maze to a psychiatrist. I was terrified of my first visit with her. I didn’t want to go on medication. Would she refuse to treat me unless I went on medication? Would I have to stop nursing Baby? Would she talk about sending me to an inpatient program away from my children? Much to my surprise, she was great. She thought that most of my depression was situational and wouldn’t respond particularly well to medication. She was also concerned that trying to find the right medication for me might result in my depression worsening. She was sympathetic to my desire to keep nursing Baby and to stay with my children. She told me that what I really needed was not to go to work and to get some sleep. She was right.
It took months but I slowly got better. Husband, my sister, and my mother were supportive both emotionally and with their time. I immersed myself in the kids and going back to school. The key to my recovery was deciding to give up on my current employer and career and move on. My disability ended a few weeks ago. Technically, I am on vacation right now. I have a lawyer working on contingency and we are trying to negotiate a settlement with Evil Corporation. My vacation will be over in a couple of weeks and even thought I have no desire to work at that company or in the same career anymore the lawyer thinks that I should go back in order to try to receive a larger settlement. As miserable as that will be, the difference in money could be hugely significant. I am better now; I am not not depressed anymore and I think I could handle it for a time. The company is playing games with me; when I talk about returning to work I receive back emails stating that “we will need to make some adjustments to your days/times in the office based on department and customer needs.” Translation: We know that you have children in childcare. We know that you have a long commute. We are going to are going to completely mess with your schedule. Now when I apply for transfers to other groups the managers don’t even call me back. I am persona non grata. In a way, this is a good thing. The company lawyer admitted to mine that they want me gone. They know that I will continue to be a pest (in legal speak “exercise my full rights”) and they don’t want to deal with me anymore. Hopefully we can come to a settlement that we can all live with. I told my parents about a possible settlement and my mother’s response was “Yea! Lot’s of money – that will really help.” We’re not talking about lots of money. At best, we’re talking about enough to make ends meet for a year or so. “Think about it,” I told her. “I am 35. I was planning on working for at least another 30+ years – the value of my salary and benefits over than time is several million dollars.” Money won’t give me back the last dozen (sixteen if you count college) years of my professional life. I can’t help but feel that all that hard work was such a fucking waste. Four years of college. Two years of graduate school. Thousands of hours away from my children. Trips away from my family and “poof” the value of that is just gone. I could go apply for another job at a different, but with few employment prospects nearby, a poor job market, no passion for the career, and no references it would only be an exercise in unhappiness.
As part of the negotiations my lawyer sent off a letter today detailing my emotional damages; with the passages about my crying every day included. I don’t cry in public and never at work. I can think of precisely one instance where I had to blink back tears at work and it involved the death of a family member. Sending work that letter was humbling; to me; it’s practically the same as crying in front of them. I don’t want them to know how much this has hurt me but letting them know is the only way to show them the strength of our legal case. The next few weeks and possibly months are going to be really difficult. There are daily phone calls and emails between my attorney and me. The specter of returning to work looms over my head like a guillotine. . I am trying to be very kind to myself right now. I am not exaggerating when I say that I’ve probably eaten more chocolate in the past year than in the rest of my life combined. Despite all of this, I do feel generally happy . I absolutely refuse to let this consume me again. I have come to accept that this is a David and Goliath battle and despite a biblical tale to the contrary, Goliath usually wins. I have a bit more fight in me and then I am going to let go.
By the way, I ended up getting an A+ on the anatomy exam. Go to hell Evil Corporation.