In my writing group, we give ourselves a writing assignment at the end of each meeting so that even if we haven’t been working on anything else, at least we’ll have our “homework” to share with the group. Last week’s homework assignment was:
Think of a time in your life when something happened that changed your perspective on life. It may have been a conversation, an experience on a vacation, a relationship, a death or birth that happened in your life. Write about it in 500 – 1000 words.
This is what I came up with.
It’s been my experience that true epiphanies are few and far between. You know, like the kind you see in the movies: the camera moves in, the music swells, and after some intense facial emoting, the heroine gets up and rushes away, off to take action on her new found insight. No, for me change usually comes slowly, sometimes stealthily, so subtle I barely notice it. But, there was once when I had one of those big almost cinematic epiphanies (except for of course without the close-up and the swelling music).
At the time I was working as a manager/programmer/data analyst at a small survey research firm in San Francisco. I wore many hats and worked many hours. When I had first started the job, I was working close to 70 hours a week. And I didn’t mind it, at first. Within that very month when I started, not only was I beginning a new job, but I had broken up with my boyfriend of 10 years, stopped drinking, and started therapy. Work became my refuge. I knew my role, I knew my value, and I had less time to sit at home alone and think about my lost loves.
The company was owned by a couple, Kathryn and Michael. They encouraged their staff to think of the company as family. Michael was the loveable, yet absentee dad. Everyone loved it when he was around. But, he spent a lot of time away from the office wooing clients, leaving Kathryn to tend to her flock, which was an interesting mix of the over-educated and street urchins. The Project Managers were mostly PhDs and the telephone interviewers were mostly students, musicians, artists and smart under-achievers. It was a lively, fun and engaging group.
Kathryn, unlike Michael, wasn’t entirely comfortable in her role as a company parent. Sure, on any given day, she could be the cool mom, just hangin’ with the crew, joking around and more than willing to take some of us out for a long lunch. On those days she was capable of immense kindness and generosity. And for someone like myself, who was using work as a life substitute, it was easy to get sucked in and start seeing her as boss, friend & mother. But then there were the Joan Crawford days where she stomped around the office throwing fits about the smallest things. On those days people hid in their offices, staying away from the common areas in hopes they wouldn’t run into Kathryn and become the target of her rage. For a small woman, she was capable of casting a huge shadow over an otherwise congenial workplace.
Over time, Kathryn changed her ways. Instead of terrorizing the entire staff on her bad days, she would single out one person to be in the doghouse for an entire week. If you were in the doghouse, nothing you could do was going to be right. She had a knack for finding the softest, most vulnerable spots in your psyche and then proceeded to take a sledge-hammer to them. If it was your turn in the doghouse, other colleagues would come up and offer solace, a shoulder to cry on, or a stiff drink after work. We all had done our time there.
For me, Kathryn’s form of torture was the silent treatment. She wouldn’t rage, or verbally abuse me. Those I could stand up to. But, she would stop speaking to me altogether. All I would get from her were looks of disapproval or a derisive roll of the eyes. How did she know? How did she know that this had been the way my mother had expressed her disapproval towards me? How did she know that this treatment hurt me more harsh words, ridicule, or even a physical beating? The silent treatment said to me, you’re not even worth wasting my breath on. You do not even exist. Those doghouse weeks were brutal.
Turnover at the company was high. Most sane people were able to see the insanity, and left when they could. Yet, I stayed for four years. My self-confidence had been pretty well ground down by the intermittent soul pummelings. My entire life was wrapped up in my work. I couldn’t see my way out.
That is, until one evening after work. I was on West 580, maybe a mile from my the exit I took to get home. It was dusk, just bordering on night. I don’t remember my thought process or if there was even a thought process. But there it was. My epiphany. I broke out in tears when I finally recognized that Kathryn was not my mother, and that it was not my job to make her happy. Her unhappiness belonged to her and it was not a reflection on me. And perhaps, the longest lasting insight was that work is not who I am. Work will never love me and I should stop expecting it to.
The tears continued into the evening. But, at the end, I felt free. Something had irretrievably shifted.
The next day when I went into the office, I started putting together my resume, made a few phone calls to other research firms with whom I had established relationships. One company had an opening for an Operations Director and they definitely wanted to talk to me about it. Kathryn could sense something was up, so I was squarely put back into the doghouse. This time it didn’t faze me. It was laughable.
After I submitted my resignation, Kathryn ceased to acknowledge me altogether. She refused to come to my going away dinner. It’s a pity. I really wanted to thank her for all that she had taught me, and the skills and lessons I carry with me today.