Bullying: it’s not just for kids

It was tempting to call this blog “How the Smite-y Have Fallen” because funny is what I do. Unfortunately, this blog is about the un-funniest thing I have ever written – which is, of course, why it is tempting to deflect that with humour.

Like most people (hypochondriacs and Poor-Me’s aside), I would prefer to be known for my accomplishments rather than my misfortunes. Most of my friends and acquaintances say they think of me as someone who’s accomplished, smart, funny, and all those good things I try to remember when I’m, say, PMSing. To admit that I was bullied, at the hands of a group of socially challenged mouth-breathing Neanderthals, no less, is right up there on my to-do list with “root canal” and “undergo rectal surgery in the woods with a stick.”

And of course there is always the fear that someone will pipe up and say “You asked for it, Weirdo” and proceed to tell me how.

But because bullying – and the number of young people killing themselves because of it – is in the news so much these days, I feel like I need to take a deep breath, step up and say, loud and clear, that bullying is not something that magically stops at graduation: adults do it too. And it was done to me.

In my case, I was bullied more or less constantly at a job I held for three and a half years, until my contract recently (mercifully) ended in September.

I will say that this was not part of a pattern for me; I was not bullied at school as a child (despite being a bit of an oddball, and despite being abused at home, which often sets kids up for a lifetime of victimization), nor was I a bully myself, and the vast majority of my work experience has been positive.

Also, in the case I’m talking about here, I actually did (very reluctantly) what all the anti-bullying texts say to do: I went to my supervisor and talked to her about what was happening – not just to me but to a couple of other people who were getting picked on and excluded. She smiled and nodded but told me that the two women who were at the centre of most of the incidents had been an “ongoing” problem for years and, sorry, there was really nothing anyone could do. Shortly after that, someone told me that she is actually good friends with both of them, so I probably inadvertently made things worse for myself – sadly, one of the reasons that people who are being bullied don’t often speak up.

I will not name the place I worked, or the people involved; those details are not germane to this story. My point here is that when we talk about bullying, we need to remember that behaviour that is not dealt with in childhood simply carries on into adulthood, into offices and onto factory floors. The people who bullied me at work were probably bullies when they were younger; I don’t know, and I confess I don’t really care.

Regardless, whether you’re nine or 59, being bullied makes you feel helpless, ashamed, angry, and achingly lonely. We humans are social animals, and being excluded from the herd, or having the herd turn on us, is painful, often beyond bearing. A friend of mine killed himself after being bullied at another job; I came very close to taking my own life this summer.

What follows here, by way of illustration, is an excerpt from my journal, written the day after my contract ended. I have thought long and hard about including something like this in a blog. Even my friends don’t know much about what went on in my head during this time, although they knew I was unhappy, and I am a bit nervous about the results of this little exercise in “coming out,” as it were.

But every time I hear about another young person ending their life because of bullying, every time I think about my friend who walked out to the O’Connor St bridge early one morning and jumped, every time I hear my friend K reminding her young teenagers to be kind to their classmates and not join in mobbing on MSN or Facebook, I realize I need to speak up and add my voice to the discussion.

And so, here goes.

September 3, 2011. A friend just asked me if I had a nice send-off from work yesterday. Ha. No. … No one really bothered with me.

I am hard-pressed to say what I feel about this. Sad probably. Humiliated at being so flagrantly ignored and discarded like that. Unsure of myself again – as much as I try to be brave, rejection (and such a cruel one) really makes me feel awful about myself.

What a terrible experience. It made me feel like a hooker, staying there for the money ….

I honestly don’t know how to frame any of this. All I know is I feel very low. Maybe angry too. Ashamed and possibly afraid like when people laughed at me when I was a kid. You know people are picking on you and that a computer-like “Bullying Sequence” has started, but you are powerless to stop it. They don’t even see you as human, as someone with feelings or a brain, or things to offer: now you’re just an It.

[At work], I was something to be “put up with” because I got the work done. But I was not someone to be included in parties or birthdays, no matter how I asked. (And then I stopped asking.)

It really hurt when I’d go in on my own birthday and no one even acknowledged it – while everyone else’s got celebrated. It reminded me of being a kid and having my birthday ignored [by my parents].

And I would feel so foolish and angry when they wouldn’t give me a desk and I had to stand there like a beggar every morning, holding my coat and my papers, asking for space to work, while people acted like I was a real pain in the ass.

And S., C. and K., giggling at me (and, let’s face it, a lot of others) behind my back.

It is hard to have people hate you, mistreat you, and make fun of you, and not know why, or what to do about it. …It just makes me feel like such a loser because I can’t imagine [any of my friends] getting bullied like that. Or putting up with it.

…[Another friend] told me today that it had little to do with me. In my head I know that, but it hurts me and makes me ashamed that I let them do it, and for so long.

But they are the ones who should be ashamed. They knew what they were doing – to me, to the others who didn’t quite fit in – and they kept at it. S., C., K., N. and even do-gooder L. who tried to be everyone’s friend….

I don’t know whether it’s a [media] thing, whether that industry attracts big egos. It does, but I did fine at [another media outlet] because I was valued for my work: writing and research.

I guess bullying can happen anywhere. I was privileged to work at [my previous job], where bullying wasn’t even on the radar. There, again, I was valued for my work and my sense of humour and my intelligence, and our department was close-knit and no one got excluded or left behind. Maybe that’s because it was a charity/non-profit. I don’t know.

All I know is that the people at [this place] are evil…. They’re hurtful, childish and nasty. Even I, [who was never the Prom Queen or head cheerleader], know better than to hurt people the way they did me. … I did my best to try and figure it out – being friendly to them, asking about their kids, vacations, home renovations, house hunting… and no one ever asked me about myself in return.

And no, I wasn’t overcompensating or being obsequious – my overtures worked with lots of people in other departments there, and I made some good friends who also asked me about myself, asked me to do things with them, seemed to care about me as a person.

But the [people in my own department] closed ranks on me almost from the outset. I attended meetings and eagerly pitched stories, many of which were turned into on-air segments. But I was never asked to work on those segments, or even learn how, and on the one occasion I did ask to go along on a shoot (at my own expense, on my day off), I was not “allowed.”

They knew my skill set – but did nothing with it.

When I had that awful bike accident, I had exactly one day off – without pay.

Three of my birthdays passed with no acknowledgment from anyone, even though they have all my info on file. “Oh, we don’t celebrate contract birthdays,” [one producer] told me snottily when I asked why I kept getting ignored.

The rest of the staff would leave early on Fridays to go drinking together. I’d poke my head up out of my cubicle and realize I’d been excluded again.

The staff got Olympic goodie bags – shirts, mugs, pens, mouse pads. Nothing for me.

Basically it’s been three and a half years of being told “fuck you” at every turn. Passed over for [a promotion] last summer, laughed at behind my back, told my job was being downgraded to overnights and weekends….

Sure, it paid the bills, but at what cost to my (always precarious) self-esteem and my pride, letting myself be treated like garbage, like a nobody; going in day after day knowing they were laughing at me, and that a high-school-level job was the best they would ever grant me. I thought I could ignore being ignored and shunned, but I was painfully aware of it, every minute of every day.

And how humiliating to have friends ask why I put up with it, and to say “it pays the rent.” That’s no better than prostitution. And at least with prostitution you don’t have to see the person who fucks you, ever again.

So shame on them, and I guess partly shame on me for letting them. For whatever reason, it was a match made in hell, and I hope I never put myself in a situation like that again. Those people will keep on doing what they do best…and ganging up [with management’s tacit approval] on anyone who doesn’t fit into their creepy, empty-smiling ranks.

And I will go (limping a bit) back toward the people who like me, who want me in their herd, who value the work I do and actually seek it out.

I will try to forget it, all of them. I will try to forget quietly slinking out the side door, alone, at the end of my last day. I will try to forget all the lunch hours I spent crying in my car or walking off my frustration out in the woods.

And I will try to learn from this. It’s easy to say “Run from a red flag” but hard when that red flag has cash attached.

Is any job worth being treated like that?

Probably not.’

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