Exit Lessons

I’ve long dreamt of what I would say if given the chance to tell all. I fantasized about using several swear words that never cross my tongue. I imagined a drama-filled moment made for Hollywood. A microphone with gigantean speakers was another thought. No matter the means, I knew what I wanted to say. And I thought I should stay true to my character—be professional, be polite, be honest. I wanted to beat around the bush, do a soft sale; not an all-out nuclear attack.

The moment was scheduled for two days after I had resigned. I was surprised at the speed in getting it arranged and it caused me to wonder if HR was eager to hear what I had to say. The first question out of the gate set me up. “We’d like to know if you’ve been unhappy.” I wasn’t going to lie and say no. Saying yes would require more than just a one-word answer. Perhaps pushed by a burst of adrenaline, along came a burst of courage. I admitted my reason for being unhappy was the fact that I had a manager who should not be allowed to manage people. That got their attention.

I stayed calm, stayed true to my character. I didn’t lie. I was respectful and polite. I know I said too much but I couldn’t help it. Once I started talking, one thing led to another and another. By then I had already said so much that I just kept on going. The flood gates were opened and the river was swift. As I shared all that was on my mind, my body began to tremble in tell-tale symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It was then that I understood how toxic this experience has been. The HR director took copious notes, and partway through I mentioned that I had some emails to confirm what I had said. I agreed to turn those over. Well, the logistics of doing that were complicated so instead I printed out all of the emails and then scanned them into one PDF document. It ended up being 52 pages long.

I doubt the HR director is going to read all of those emails. But I want to believe that their volume will speak words. I want to have hope that this time, with “proof” that this manager should not be managing people, maybe some change will happen. I want to believe that it will be better for the depressed people I am leaving behind. I want to feel I made a difference. Time will tell.

I have two days left on the job. Today my manager was only in the office for a couple of hours and then he headed for the airport and will be gone the rest of the week. He came over and thanked me for all the work I’ve done and gave me a hug, something completely unexpected and something I’d never seen him do. I kept waiting for him to say some sarcastic comment or “just kidding” or something along those lines. He didn’t. He kept it simple and respectful. So the rest of the day I fought guilt indigestion. And I kept telling myself I didn’t make up all those terrible things he said and did. One hug does not erase all that history. But it does serve as a reminder that I need to forgive and let go.

Late Friday afternoon last week I learned a temp would be coming in this morning and I needed to train him in on my job. Not a problem. I greeted him at the appointed time and away we went. He’s a quick learner and I feel confident that he’ll be able to learn the job given time. About two hours into our day my manager surfaced and introduced himself to the temp. That’s when I learned they had never spoken. HR is the one who picked the temp, not my manager. That was a change in process. A coincidence? Or a result of all that I had shared in my exit interview?

I’ve had so much work to do for this transition—writing down processes that no one knows and instructions for how to run specific reports. The time has just flown by! It’s been so liberating to not pay attention to the daily bullying, telling myself I’m so over that. Why couldn’t I let go of it before now?

Perhaps the greatest surprise has been the overwhelming freedom from depression. I knew it had held me captive for some time, but I didn’t comprehend the grip it had on me and for how long. Now that I am free of it, I can see it’s been with me for more than seven years. It gives me a new perspective on all the biblical plagues that lasted seven years. What a test of determination, patience, faith. My husband says I’ve gone from one extreme to another, a swing of the pendulum from depression to mania. Suddenly I have energy, and I only sleep four or five hours a night. I awake with the energy of a much younger person. I keep waiting for my body to scream for a good night’s sleep. So far, it’s still running on adrenaline and courage. Eventually it will find a balance.

Two more days on the job. Then two days off and the weekend. Then a new beginning. “Monday, Monday. So good to me. Monday morning, it was all I hoped it would be.”

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Results Are In

I got the job! I still can’t believe it. What a roller coaster ride! And I cannot express the wave of relief that has come over me and the joy that has returned to my soul. I feel twenty pounds lighter.

I started looking a year ago but didn’t put all my effort into my search until about five months ago when I reached a turning point and knew I could not continue on in my current position. I was fortunate to have jobs to apply for; that was not the case in 2008 (and up until 2011) the last time I found myself searching for a job.

This search was a test of my faith and patience. It was a test of the love my husband and I have for each other. And it was a refresher course in what I want in life and whether I believe in myself enough to fight for that.

Searching for a job is such a challenging experience. You have to overlook your faults and find a “bragging” comfort zone; accept your imperfections while at the same time figure out a way to gloss over them in a ninety-second “elevator” speech; face the truth about what you’ve accomplished as you put together a resume; honor yourself at a time when you are dealing with depression, anxiety, fear; practice patience; allow yourself to hope and dream; remember that you are not the only one on this earth, and your spouse needs affirmation of your love.

At times I felt the process was similar to being placed naked in front of a full-length mirror under spotlights. Other times I felt I was buried to my waist in quicksand and my life depended on my ability to get out. Some days, I never recognized that the sun rose. I had to assume it was there even though I was so mired in depression that I couldn’t see it.

Faith. Hope. Love. They sustained me. And once again I feel I’m a survivor.

For the record, I got the job that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. First I wrote about preparing for a phone interview and then about how I had completely blown the editing test that was part of my in-person interview. It turns out, I did blow the test. Technically. But I passed it in how I responded when I learned I had blown it. Tricks of the trade, I’m told. Brutal, but effective.

When I told my current manager I was leaving, he was shocked. I don’t know why he didn’t see it coming. Then he proceeded to tell me this was an inconvenient time for him because he’ll be traveling most of the rest of the month. He asked if I thought his secretary could fill in for me for a few weeks until he can get someone in the job. And then for the third time in less than a year, he asked me what it is exactly that I do. I have to admit, I fought the urge to ask him, “Why do you care?”

It didn’t take long for the news to spread. Soon I was getting calls and emails from managers in all of the divisions that I interact with. “What are we going to do? How are we going to replace you?” It was wonderful to know there were indeed people who comprehend my value. And it was fascinating to sit back and watch the flood of email conversations coming through, co-workers holding my manager accountable and making demands that this time he takes action quickly because without someone in my role things will unravel faster than anyone can imagine.

Several mantras started repeating in my head. Be humble. Be grateful. Be professional. Be respectful. Honor this gift and give thanks.

I still have the image in my mind of the day I sat in my car, hyperventilating, waiting for my cell phone to ring so I could have a phone interview with my soon-to-be manager, when a lone cardinal appeared. It was a powerful spiritual moment for me. And now that I know the outcome, that moment has taken on even greater importance in this whole journey. Without faith, I am nothing. With it, I have everything I need to survive.

Grief, the Uninvited Guest

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross authored the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying. Someone gave a copy to my mother in 1973, when she was battling stage IV cancer at the age of 45. I have no idea where the book came from, only that it showed up one day. Was it a member of the clergy who gave the book to her, perhaps hoping to help her face her mortality? Maybe a friend or neighbor gave her the book, not knowing any words of comfort to help my mom deal with the vast emotions she must have had knowing she was leaving behind a husband and eight children and a half-lived life.

I never liked that book. The title alone scared me like nothing else. I was twelve when my mom got sick, and the thought of her dying was not anything I wanted to dwell on. To me, that book represents the cruelty of cancer because that’s what I was dealing with when the book came into my existence. In truth, I’ve never read the book. Although I have researched and experienced first-hand the theories that Kubler-Ross introduced on the five stages of dealing with grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And for some reason still unknown to me all these years later, I took that book when my mother died and hid it in my bedroom. I didn’t want anyone to have it. When I went away to college and our family home was sold, I packed that book up with the rest of my belongings. When I married and moved into a house and started a family, that book came with me. And many years later, when I was divorced and remarried and moved into a new home, that book followed. It is somewhere in the house where I live, sitting on a bookshelf or packed up in a box in the storage room. I have no idea where it is. I could probably locate it if my life depended on it, but it would take me a while. Funny thing is, I don’t want the book. But I can’t bring myself to throw it or give it away. Someday in the future when I move again or if someone is going through my belongings, the book will show up once again. Maybe I should ask a specific friend who is a therapist why I cannot bring myself to get rid of it. Maybe I don’t want to know.

For not ever having read that book, I know everything about it. Grief is a repeating process. And it strikes whenever you have a sense of loss in your life. You don’t have to be dying to feel grief. Children can experience grief when their parents get divorced. Teenagers go through it when they break up with their first crush. Adults go through grief during a job loss or financial hardship or divorce. Even those dealing with alcohol or other drug addiction experience loss and grief. There are many different ways we feel loss, and unfortunately for some of us, we experience loss many times in our lives. No matter how many times we process our emotions through the loss, we still have to deal with the grief. If we don’t, it festers under the surface and comes out in myriad unhealthy ways. It isn’t like the chicken pox in that it comes once in your life and you’re done with it. No, it’s a cruel and twisted thing that can happen many times, striking when you least expect it and often in a time of great stress.

And so it happens that Grief showed up this week while I was on vacation from work. In hindsight, I’m not surprised it showed up. I’ve been shoving down my emotions about my current job for months. This week off was a break from all that, allowing feelings of loss to sneak to the surface. An uninvited guest, I ignored Grief at first. Then I was pissed and tried to show it the door. Please go away, I begged it. But it wouldn’t go. And now I’m in a funk. It’s all because I so desperately want to find a new job and no matter how hard I try, I cannot land a different job. I had a really great series of interviews in the last month, and with each one I could imagine myself in that new role. I allowed myself to dream about the possibilities. But I haven’t been able to close the deal on any, and so I am experiencing the loss of those dreams. Now that my week off of work is coming to a close, I’m reaching the point of accepting the fact that I’m stuck where I am. Five stages of grief in the span of a week. No wonder I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.

One thing I do know—I must face that Grief. Head on. I must acknowledge it now that it’s surfaced. I must feel it. If I don’t, it will multiply and fester and fill every pore of my being. And then I truly will not be able to function in an interview, if I’m lucky enough to get another. The few ounces of confidence I’m hanging on to will dissolve. All the things that are right in my life will go wrong.

So I will face it. And I’ll be gentle to myself in these last three days of my time away from work. Whatever tasks are left on my to-do list will take low priority. Instead I will spend my energy consoling, nurturing, being patient, forgiving, honoring. Hopefully when I return to work, I’ll have the strength and the courage to face the madness without getting stung by its viciousness. Any maybe, just maybe, I’ll have some energy left over at the end of each day to keep looking for a different job.

Hidden Treasure in the To-Do List

I’m off of work this week, taking a much needed break. It would have been nice to go on a vacation but money’s too tight. My husband was actually a little miffed that I was taking a week off. “Why?” he asked. “Why not save your time until we can take a trip?” At our current rate of making ends meet and saving anything left over, we’re never going on a vacation ever again. This week off was my gift to myself; a reward for showing up to work every day even though I hate being there, even though no one bothers to be respectful to each other anymore, even though my own manager has mentally checked out. This was going to be my week to do what I wanted, when I wanted, all in an effort to feel good about life and not have any stress.

Since we weren’t going anywhere, I decided I’d get a bunch of things done that I’ve been wanting to do but never can find the time. So I began my week off with a to-do list of 18 items. Over the course of the week I added 8 more, and by Thursday night I had managed to scratch off as completed 10 items. I still have the weekend and Labor Day to whittle away at the 16 remaining tasks. I knew at the beginning of my week off that I had more on my list than I would be able to accomplish, and I was okay with that. The list was meant to give myself permission to be creative and do things that I enjoy, but don’t require traveling or a lot of money. In reality, the list is a testament to how pathetic my life has become. Clean out the junk drawer. Clean the cupboard that has our school and office supplies. Sort through the food storage containers and toss all the pieces that don’t have mates. Defrost the freezer.

My to-do list was an exercise in liberating myself. I started writing the list a week before my time off, writing down all those “one of these days” things just so I could get them off of my mind. Even though I wrote down the tasks, I decided I wouldn’t plan anything ahead of time and instead would wake up each morning and decide then what I felt like doing. I told myself I could sleep as late as I wanted, eat when I wanted, move or sit still when I wanted. As the week passed, I found the lack of structure inviting at times, and other times I was frustrated at my inability to get motivated. Sleep late? Ha! I woke up at four each morning. It took until Thursday before I found myself crawling back into bed at 6 to sleep a couple more hours. Even so, I embraced the absence of structure. I did get a book read. I did get the junk drawer cleaned out. And I did toss at least 3 storage containers that didn’t have lids and 12 lids that didn’t have matching containers. Already my stress was reduced.

There were a couple of things on my list that I considered top priority. In fact, I even told someone that if I could get those two things done, then I would be happy. So what were those two things? Replacing the weather stripping on the top of our front door and replacing the weather stripping on the top of our garage door. I know, pathetic, right? Well, maybe not. Every time I walked by the front door and saw the sunshine coming through the top of the door, all I could think of was the heated or air conditioned air going out that crack. It was annoying and a waste of money. And it’s been driving me nuts for months. I was determined to fix it before winter arrived. The garage door weather stripping was a different problem. Every time I drove my car into the garage, my eyes would catch a couple of places in the weather stripping that had worn and torn away and were hanging down, just begging to be cut away like a loose thread hanging off a shirt sleeve. It looked tacky. No matter how beautiful everything else about the front of the house looked, all I could see were those hanging shredded pieces of rubber.

The problem, I knew all too well, was not that these tasks were too challenging. The problem was that these are the kinds of things that once started would require at least two or more trips back to the hardware store for the right part or for additional parts to finish the inevitable “other thing” that needed fixing in order to complete the first thing that needed fixing. These are not tasks that you can accomplish on a regular weekend off of work. These are the simple things that take an entire week to accomplish.

I felt very proud on Thursday afternoon when I could finally cross off those two things from my list. It had taken only four trips to the hardware store and spanned only two days. There is no more sunlight coming through the door frame on the front door. Makes me smile every time I walk by it. And there is new weather stripping on the top of the garage door, along with a new bottom seal on the door, and a fresh coat of paint on all of the trim around both of the garage doors. Oh, and the flag pole holder has a fresh coat of paint too. The front of the house looks wonderful, so long as I ignore the weeds that sprouted in the flower gardens.

My daughter Kate called to check in with me and I was sharing my excitement at having completed these two tasks. As I finished telling my story, I apologized for getting so excited about such mundane, pathetic tasks. Kate laughed and said, “Those are great accomplishments! I love hearing how women take on those kinds of tasks and do them. It shows independence and determination. Women strong. Way to go, Mom!” In that moment I realized why I felt so much joy about replacing worn weather stripping. I understood why I felt so empowered by such simple tasks. And I understood another reason why I am so proud of Kate.

The Interview Sting

I went on an interview a couple of days ago. I had a great conversation with the hiring manager, another great conversation with the team, and then was given an editing test. I’ve taken (and created and handed out) a lot of editing tests over the years. It’s customary practice when interviewing for an editor job, so I wasn’t surprised by the request. But I was surprised that it was more a math test than an editing test, and that it was in PowerPoint not Word. Only four slides. Thirty minutes to complete it.

It took me five minutes to read the instructions. I was working on a laptop with a very small screen, which means I wasn’t able to view a whole slide and still be able to read the words. I had to keep zooming in to see the words, then move around to another part of the slide. And each slide had three charts or graphs that were cross-referenced in the copy on the slide. It was a struggle to do a cross-reference review.

But the worst part was you needed to have knowledge of math formulas in order to edit the copy.

Being that I work with words and understand punctuation, grammar, and style rules, math is not my strong suit. And I don’t use it enough in my current job to have total recall of math formulas. I could recognize that numbers were not correct, so I made note of that. But I didn’t have the knowledge to correct the mistakes. And I wasted valuable time trying to figure it out.

Maybe that was the point—that I could see a mistake and knew to query it and move on. But in the moment, I felt set up to fail. I hate timed tests. And this particular test had so many errors that I could have easily spent the entire thirty minutes on just the first slide. I know I overlooked things. And I only completed two of the slides.

When my time was up, I had a few minutes to talk with one of the team members. I admitted the test was challenging and asked if the slides were representative of the work performed on the job. I thought if these were actual slides that I would be working on every day, then I wasn’t qualified for the job. The team member chuckled and said, “I made up this test. It’s our reports on steroids.”

I am fairly certain that all candidates seriously being considered for this job were given the same test, the same laptop to do the test, and the same amount of time. Did other candidates get flustered as I did? Did other candidates have recall of math formulas or did they struggle as I did? Was I the only one who felt set up to fail?

At times the process of searching and interviewing for a different job can be intimidating and humiliating. I work so hard to build up my confidence, to find a comfort level to brag about my skills and accomplishments. As a woman I also have to make a good first impression without setting off other women on the team. I don’t think guys struggle with that issue of personality clash. Despite the challenges involved, usually I can feel energized by the process and hopeful for a new opportunity.

That day I came home feeling deflated. All that afternoon I asked myself why I couldn’t just settle and be grateful that I have a job. Why do I need to reach for something different? Why can’t I just learn to deal with being bullied and manipulated in my current job? Why can’t I turn a blind eye to the toxic environment in which I work? Why do I care so much?

I’ve been reminding myself that no one has told me I’m not getting this job…yet. I’ve been repeating the message again and again that I am a smart person and capable of finding a different job, maybe not this one. And I’ve learned from the experience. If I’m ever given a test like this again, I will focus on the editing skills that I have and not allow myself to be thrown off and flustered by the math. I don’t want to get stung again.