Saturday, August 04, 2012

More Conference Revelations

Ahh, this has been a short, busy summer plagued with fatigue. More on the fatigue later because, as with many things, it has its own story.

Conferences seem to benefit me not so much on the professional front as on the personal front. I've been exposed to many examples of the ways one should NOT behave if one cares at all about professionalism or even common courtesy. I've had revelations that I do not have to be the person that I used to be (and despise), and I don't have to slip into her patterns of behavior. I've found my own voice in a presentation and realize the ways that I should cultivate it. So this latest brought another round of epiphanies; or, if not epiphanies, reassurance and reunderstanding of decisions that I made long ago.

I met two people who either just recently or still work in places where I used to work. These places were so unfathomably toxic and I felt so shockingly isolated in both that they warped me in ways that I am still undoing 10-20 years later. Granted, the raw material that was me in those situations didn't help matters, but the situations were poisonous to the point that people outside of academia hardly believed my stories, then used them as examples that the academic world isn't the "real world." Worse yet, some within, who witnessed both, dismissed the situations as "just the way things are" or "just the way that person is." In both cases, the lightening rod person has significant amounts of power both over me and in the institution, so everyone -- even most of the people in a position of real power to do something -- tended to back off. So I washed happy pills down with cheap wine on our way to therapy when we weren't applying for every job on H-Net and plotting alternate career paths.

Well, obviously, I worked my way out of both situations; but when you find yourself alone, with people questioning the extent of the inanity (not "insanity" but "inanity") or accepting abuse as simply business as usual rather than something to be stopped, and with the consequences of your path out of the inanity making you question your own intelligence, you pass some biblical levels of judgement on yourself. You end up cycling through shame, depression, anger, forced optimism, fatigue, and back to shame again, even as you tell yourself, "that was then, this is now." You also become very aware how that decade of existence in snake pits has trained you to be entirely unfit as a professional or even a  social human being. You have no idea how to behave properly in any given professional situation because you are painfully aware that all of your learned responses are seriously fucked up; and you keep yourself isolated in order to protect yourself from further inane situations because you trust no one, really, and thus you don't learn new, proper ways to respond to inanity.

So, I worked my way out of both situations physically, but I'm still working my way out of what they did to my head. Sometimes, I think I'm getting better.

In any case, I met these two people, one who works at one of the toxic places and one who worked with the other toxic place and had quite a bit of inside dirt on how it has affected the person who last held my old job. Oddly, they seemed to want to know if the places were as bad when I was there as they are now. Of one, the only thing good I can say is that they seem to protect the underlings from much of the overling dysfunction and warfare better than when I was there. Some restructuring seems to permit this. Overall, however, that world is every bit as fucked up as it ever was, cranked up to 11. The same for the second place. Indeed, the second place seems to have added several more notches on its amplifier of "self-destruct."

This is dreadful. I feel so much sympathy for the rational people stuck in, if not wholly victimized by, both places. They would go elsewhere but, these days, there isn't any elsewhere. In fact, a sort of market of professional environments seems to be at play. When the job market is good, and faculty, staff and other employees have the option to go elsewhere if their current bosses are abusive or their current job fosters abuse, then their potential migration might force some changes in order to keep the best skilled people around. If skilled people have no options (and the overall economy lacking options heightens the anxiety and therefore the nastiness of any workplace), then they have to stay put while they wash happy pills down with cheap wine on their way to therapy when not applying for every job in existence.

Hearing these two people's stories, which were almost to a word my own from back when I worked in those places, did console me, much as I hope my affirmation to them that they are, in fact, working under endemically warped conditions with unquestionably disturbed people gave them a touch of relief that "it isn't just me." That's what I always wondered, at the time and since: "Is it me? Was I too weak or stupid or unprofessional or" fill in the insecurity "and caused or escalated the problem? Did I make a rational choice in leaving or in isolating myself?" I always beat myself up on the answers in an attempt to be honest, to use time to reassess my options and to learn from my pattern of behavior. In the end, I always felt that shame, depression, anger, forced optimism, fatigue, and back to shame.

Now, I think, if I behaved in any way that seemed irrational or ill-conceived, well irrationality and poorly conceived plans tend to be reasonable responses to irrational and dreadful situations. They made sense at the time. I took the road not travelled because I wanted to and because it was the only one that opened at that time. I have regrets about it; but the focus of the regrets seems to have shifted away from following the path in the first place. I isolated myself and became very bitter, angry, ambivalent and unfocused because, in an environment in which people know that someone violates ethics and laws and in which they have the job protection, numbers, and institutional power to stop that someone but do not -- well, why wouldn't someone isolate themselves, become bitter, angry, ambivalent about participating in a profession that lacked such character and start looking about for other things that might lead to a more fulfilling career or sense of empowerment?

So, as I hope I conveyed to those two people, the problem was not me. I had problems, sure, but the real problem was the place and the people in charge.  My life in escape has been long, winding, and perhaps could be interpreted as "flaky" to unkind eyes scanning my c.v.; but, it makes sense as more than my own character flaws. As I keep telling myself, "I'm scrappy." I may not look or sound it, but I do act it. I do find my way. That's a powerful feeling.

Then, I looked about me. I have a group of people (not the least of which is the Gentleman Companion) who set an example for proper professional behavior, for disagreement without abuse and destruction, for figuring out peaceful solutions to conflicts. I can trust these people, too. So, I don't have to isolate myself, and I can learn some constructive interpersonal skills that I lacked because I was trying to survive.

I have survived. I can do more than that now.


Anonymous said...

This is a lovely story. I, too, have left my share of crazy places.

The hardest thing to really know, to believe deep down, is that YOU are not the cause of abusive situations. You might contribute, you might not be perfect, but you don't cause it. How funny that this applies to abusive relationships of all types, from personal to professional.

Academics need to know that abuse is not worth whatever value is to be had in being an academic. So many other jobs exist, in industry, in government, in just plain old making life work, that "being stuck" is a choice, not a foregone conclusion. Whether personal or professional, the abused do always have more options than they can see while inside the abuse.

Anyway - yay you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for so beautifully expressing what it likewise took me 20 years (from the first work abyss) to the last travesty (7+ years ago) to see-- that nothing I did / did not do was to blame for the physical & emotional toll both jobs took on me...

Yes, I chose to self medicate in a number of ways to cope. But gaining distance from both situations has shown me that not only was I lucky to reach the other side & eventually find new work (even though both jumps meant leaving confortable career tracks), I came out alive.

I made it, you made it, as have countless others... And for those who read this post & who are still mired in workplace poison, yes its scarey to jump into the unknown-- but I can promise you, staying stuck is far worse.


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