There is a folder on my laptop entitled ‘flexible working’, that I stopped adding to in 2005. I often notice it when I am looking for other things, but never go there. Today (2019), I went there in order to read the files because I think my need to ‘deal’ with what happened to me then has now become urgent.
Quick presentation of the facts. I had a full time permanent post in academia (my absolute dream job!), and I applied for ‘flexible working’ to go part time after returning to work following my first baby. The bullying that ensued led to me resigning this post, thus signing away everything I had ever worked for.
I frequently say that I have ‘never got over’ what happened in 2005. Whilst I believe this, I don’t think I understand what is meant by ‘getting over’ something (I would appreciate any comments on this). What I can do is describe how I coped with it at the time: I did not cry, I spent every evening crafting reports and letters to union reps, colleagues, the Vice Chancellor, that explained my situation, as well as combing through documents for evidence and information. I acted strong, I fought, I was clear and rational. But being pregnant, and with a history of miscarriage, I decided to resign out of terror that I would lose the baby. So I was then pregnant and unemployed, and was busy applying for jobs and doing bits of freelance work up until I got a job as a research fellow. This new line manager was willing for me to work part time. I am so grateful to him for this. Having a job and two toddlers meant I was very, very busy. These facts probably go some way to explaining why I did not ‘deal with’ what happened at the time.
But I think there are other reasons why I just got on with things. I was hurt, and still am hurt, that almost nobody in the University seemed to notice what was happening at the time. A very small number of people, all old friends from afar (former tutors and others from a long way back), seemed to really understand, and were horrified by the way I had been treated. Locally, nobody spoke up for me, nobody lifted a finger to try to help (apart from the union, now called UCU, then known as the AUT, who were sadly ineffective). I totally understand that academic friends, especially people who, like me, were junior, were too scared to be seen to be supportive. But nobody even spoke to me in private to tell me they were sorry that I was being bullied, or that they were sorry that I had lost my job. Had I just been too successful at putting on a brave face and appearing professional though the whole thing? Or did they all hate me anyway?
It seemed clear to me that nobody wanted to know! I didn’t talk about it. I still don’t talk about it. Even fourteen years on I still bump into people who say: ‘oh yes, you’re a lecturer at the University aren’t you?’. I hate being in that situation. Now I just say something vague like: ‘Oh, not really. I work at xxxxxxxx now’, and try to change the subject as quickly as possible. I never let on that I was forced to resign that post that meant everything to me, and that my current post has never been secure and that I feel utterly pointless and worthless. Since it happened I have found it excruciating to have to say ‘what I do for a living’ when I meet people, and for several years I would freeze in panic if I met anybody who had any kind of connection to ‘the University’. I still feel this to some extent. Say a new neighbour moves to the street, and it turns out they ‘work at the University’. I find this hard to cope with. I suppose it’s the feelings of hurt – precisely what I never ‘dealt with’ or ‘got over’ – coming right to the surface. So just imagine how this was magnified if I met somebody with a connection to that same department, or somebody who actually occupies the post that I still feel belongs to me. All of the above have happened. But I don’t talk about it, I just turn away.
There are other reasons for not talking about this. I thought that dwelling on negative stuff was a both for me and unpleasant and probably boring for other people. Much better to focus on the positives, remain upbeat. I didn’t want to be the negative person who likes to talk about their own sorry story, who wallows in self pity, and drags other people down by making them listen to bad stuff. And also, says the voice in the head: get a grip! Get a bit of perspective! You only lost your job. Nobody died, you still have a roof over your head, and you managed to get another job that’s a bit similar to the kind of job you would like to have. Actually you’re pretty lucky, so shut up. Yes I am pretty lucky, and so I feel guilty for being anything other than totally positive, up-beat, happy.
But then something changed. In 2016 I had a very sudden very serious illness. I made a text-book recovery (physically). Surgeons must love seeing people like me on their lists: strong, healthy, recover quickly, good for their stats. But this illness has broken me, cracked something open, changed everything. When I was ill I put all my energy into appearing ‘OK’ despite the fact that my time in hospital was horrific. I know there is bullying in the NHS, so I can see why nurses might be cruel to patients. Several nurses were unkind, showed their irritation, were unprofessional. On the first night, at about 3am or 4am one nurse told me she had never had anyone as ill as me on her ward, and that I shouldn’t be there because I should be in intensive care. That moment has stayed in me. I carry that terror in me now at all times. Not only did she make me think I was going to die, but she made it sound like it was my own fault (because I was in the wrong place!). Turns out, of course, that her pronouncement was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the scales used to measure the severity of the condition. I had kind of guessed that, because I’m quite rational, but having no medical background whatsoever, I wasn’t sure until I was able to ask a doctor the following day. I then put all my energy into gaining the nurses’ approval, in order to minimize the likelihood of them continuing to be nasty to me. I put on my best small talk, and pretended to like the same television programmes as them (I don’t even watch telly, ever!), and pretended that my children had the same interests as theirs. It did work, but was exhausting.
Three and a half years later I think I have ‘dealt with’ the hospital horror. But I am still broken, and feel that my health has been destroyed. The whole time I was ill in 2016 (I was off sick from work for 9 weeks), all I could think about was another recent trauma. This was another episode of workplace bullying. I have hardly spoken about that bullying at all, and almost nobody knows about it. The reason for not talking about bullying is quite simply fear. It’s fear that the person might do even worse stuff. It’s also fear that other people will assume that you are making it up, or imagining it, or being weak, or being oversensitive, and that you are a negative, boring person that they don’t want to be around. So you don’t talk about it and you get on with things as best you can. The bully wins because you have kept your silence, you have kept their secret for them. They move on (usually to a new victim). You have internalized it. You think that actually it’s probably your fault anyway for not being assertive enough and for acting as a magnet for bullies. Can anyone else see the parallel between this and my 2005 resignation?
My reaction to my illness has been disproportionate. It was not the kind of illness that is meant to destroy the rest of your life, but so far, in my case, it has done just that. When I think about the 12 months or so that preceded the illness I am struck by how much stress I was under from various different directions. Just by co-incidence a number of difficult situations arose. I responded the same way to each stressful incident: took all the responsibility in the most professional manner possible, or took the whole blame for a given situation. I never spoke up for myself, or complained, or even talked about any of it at all really. I just got on with it.
Just getting on with it has stopped working for me. I was encouraged to tell the story of my resignation when I discovered this blog post http://dutchcourage-kirkegaard.blogspot.com/. Ingrid is somebody I remember from seminars, I was always impressed by her intellect, and we also had the same supervisor. I knew she had left academia, but had assumed this to be the result of some positive decision on her part, and so was shocked when I read her recent blog post. Not only shocked by the bad stuff that had happened to her (that kind of thing was all too familiar to me), but also by the fact that I hadn’t known the correct story, and had somehow formed my own incorrect version of it. Her post made me think that I could and should share my story too. It was about time. People need to know how hard it was for women who entered the academic job market in the late 1990s.