Last week at work, I was bullied. I've been working in some sort of job since I was 19 and I'm now 50 and somehow I've made it this far without being bullied. The bully was a colleague, not a boss. We share supervision of some of the staff on my team and I was trying to set a boundary about something that the person on my team didn't like. The staff member and the bully have PhDs, and I have a Masters. I mention that, because I suspect it is relevant. I needed to be put in my place. The details leading up to the bullying incident probably aren't relevant. Suffice to say, I made some mistakes, i certainly wasn't perfect, but I was trying to do what I believed was the right thing for the program I run in a challenging system and a challenging situation. I'm pretty sure the person on my team was an inciter. She wanted something, I said no, she turned him against me and pulled everything she could to fuel the fire. I don't know that and I suppose it doesn't matter. None of it gave him a right to bully me. I know that in my head.
But my head doesn't seem to be in charge at the moment. Here's the thing about bullying - it isn't the same as critical feedback about how you're doing your job and what you could be doing better. it might seem that way, all that criticism coming at me sure did - I was accused of getting in power struggles and being a gossip (I shared one bit of gossip with him once, just to put it in perspective), and not wanting people on my team to thrive (this one I can challenge too, as most of my team members frequently express the opposite to me), he repeatedly shouted that I was "drawing a line in the sand, drawing a line in the sand." He never said it just once. Always at least twice. I can still hear it in my head in a voice full of venom. He brought up every thing he'd ever thought I did wrong and after throwing it in my face said, "What kind of person does that, what kind of person does that." His face was a twisted up mask of rage. He was in my face. I tried to defend myself when I disagreed with what he said, I tried to reason with him, he said, "You can't draw a line in the sand and expect people not to be angry," and I said I didn't expect people not to be angry, but I didn't expect to be attacked. Then I tried to back down. I tried owning everything he said. . Finally, he said, "This can't go on. I can't keep working with you. One of us will have to go and you may be confident of your position here, but I'm not so sure." When i assured him I wasn't confident about my position here, for some reason that seemed to calm him down. Now, mind you, we both work in government jobs. Being a gossip or getting in power struggles or not wanting people to thrive on my team, even if they are all 100% true, will probably not get me fired. My head knows that. But I still keep waiting for the axe to drop. I'm a wreck. I'm 50 years old. i'm a professional. I haven't been able to stop crying since this happened. I have begun to doubt myself. I feel ashamed and full of self hate and afraid to stand up for things or take action at work for fear of being seen as getting in power struggles and "drawing a line in the sand." The night after it happened, I curled up in a ball and sobbed and sobbed and prayed to die. And I didn't even know I'd been bulllied. I thought I'd been given some hard feedback that I needed to hear. I still feel that way, even though I know it isn't true in my head. You see, I was also bullied as a child.
Fifth and sixth grade, I was a small girl, nothing but eyes, thin and one of the only Jewish kids in my school. I was put in a class of underachievers and I was not an underachiever. I was excited about school. Even the fifth grade teacher hated me and mocked me in front of the other kids. The worst thing that happened was getting the same damn teacher again for sixth grade and the same classroom full of the same kids. A group of boys bullied me and my one friend. They surrounded us at recess and taunted us. She was fat and I was skinny so we were called Laurel and Hardy. They chanted, "Don't be wise bubble eyes, cut you down to midget size" at me over and over and over. I wore my coat zipped up and tried to pretend I was yawning so they wouldn't see me cry. They threw rocks at me and I told the teacher on playground duty and she said, "I don't see any bruises, so that means it didn't happen." This was before anyone wanted to deal with bullying. It happened EVERY SINGLE DAY. I think about that now - every single day for two entire academic years, I was ruthlessly bullied and nobody ever did anything. By the end of sixth grade, I was beaten down and full of shame. I was told they did it because they liked me. I had no tools to know how to fight back. If that's what being liked felt like, i hoped nobody ever liked me again.
Imagine my surprise when one of those boys approached me and said his friend wanted to "go steady." I don't think any of us really knew what that meant in sixth grade, but it was a good thing, a popular thing. I was going to be given a ring. A ring that would symbolize my popularity. I was to meet this boy in an empty classroom after school on the last day. I went to that classroom. I smoothed my hair. I tried to look pretty. Of course, you dear reader probably already know what's coming - it was a set up. I actually have never remembered walking into that classroom or what exactly happened other than that there was not just the one boy there to give me a ring. I remember the excitement of getting ready to go in and the shame and despair as I ran out. I remember deciding not to tell my mother when she asked how my day was and saying it was, "fine." I remember forgetting it ever happened and I remember remembering the bits I do when I was about 22, all in a flood after a creative writing class one day. I also remember how the bullying affected my life.
I was frightened of men, I hated myself, I couldn't get in a real relationship for years and years and years. I have anxiety. I get depressed too easily. I have good friends now, yet I still frequently feel very alone and I think I'm not very good at the friendship thing. I often wonder if I'd really be missed that much by any of my friends. It's probably irrational, but I fear I don't give enough. I have had years and years and years of therapy with a variety of different therapists and different therapeutic modalities. Hell, i became a therapist - how many more hours of therapy can a person give themselves? And here I am, fifty years old and I was bullied and it has thrown me right back there. Right back to sixth grade. Today in a meeting the bully and another colleague - one he accused me of getting in power struggles with - were all chatty with each other and went to his office together after the meeting. I immediately felt devastated. I had to close my office door because I couldn't stop crying. It was like I was 10 years old again. What were they plotting against me? What were they saying? I just desperately want to get out of that job. I did file a report of action, but it's just going to sit there in the human resources office, because I was too afraid to bring it to my supervisors who are acting in their role and are pretty much children with very little real skill or experience in handling this sort of thing. I fear it would lead to more, not less bullying. I just want out.
Part of me is asking questions like, "how does one run a program without sometimes drawing lines in the sand?" "How can any gossip I share be ruining the organization when the place is a cesspool of gossip?" "Doesn't it take two people to have a power struggle?" I know this is the healthy place I need to be. I know that nothing he accused me of qualifies me for any worst person of the year award. I know anyone who sees me in such black and white terms doesn't see me clearly. I know all this. But I'm crying as i write this. I feel like I need to fix myself. If only I can fix myself enough, then I can protect myself and maybe be liked.
I know this diary probably won't actually go anywhere. It isn't really political and it isn't breaking news and it doesn't make anybody important look bad. It's just, well, personal and I needed to write it, so for anyone who came along on the journey, thanks for listening. Maybe some of you have your own bullying stories. Maybe we can share and support each other.