Illustration: Ashley Siebels
My boss stopped talking to me in April. I didn’t notice until July.
We were the only two administrators at a small private elementary school, with students between kindergarten and eighth grade. She was the founder and head of school. I managed everything else. Our offices were across the hall from each other. And yet, because I was so busy and stressed out by the job, four months passed without us meeting and I didn’t realize it until a parent volunteer pointed it out.
If you have worked for someone else, the chances are pretty good that you’ve encountered an abusive work situation—deeply passive aggressive behavior like this experience, outright bullying, or something in-between that makes your work life miserable. Work relationships are as emotionally intimate as family relationships and yet we have no language to talk about the kinds of devastating experiences we can go through at work outside HR-speak. What is the right way to capture the slow chipping away of your confidence? How do you talk about the reasons you have to pull over on your way to work because you’re on the verge of vomiting from stress? How do you respond when a boss treats you in a subtly different way because of your age, your gender identification, your race, your sexuality? No matter that workplace bullying is actually fairly common. We are terrible at addressing it.
I finally pinned my boss down for a meeting and we talked. There was a reason for all those months of radio silence: our working relationship had frayed and I didn’t even know it. She announced that she would be taking over my duties but holding me accountable for the results. I was devastated. To my mind, there was no option but to quit. I gave notice two weeks before the students returned to campus. She locked me out of my computer the same day. I thought I’d quit, but it certainly felt like I’d been fired. She refused my application for unemployment benefits. I didn’t have three months salary saved (who does?). I had student loans. I had car payments. I lived alone. My family was not in a position to help me. My mother was going through cancer treatments.
I was shattered, shaking, terrified of making the same mistake again—this was the second job in a row that had ended in flames. I had no emotional reserves left.
If this had been a dating situation, I would have been encouraged, rightly, to take a break from relationships for a while so I could heal. But we don’t have that option with jobs. We have to earn a living. All too often, we find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over again, pinballing from one terrible work situation to another because we can’t figure out how to take a breath, heal, and make better choices. In fact, one of the consequences of being in an abusive work situation is that your ability to make choices that are healthy for your professional development gets subsumed by your need to survive in the day-to-day experience.
So what did I do? I found a way to make ends meet while I regained a sense of self.
That meant not jumping into another full-time gig right away, but I still had to make money. I signed up with a few temp agencies in and around my city. I went on social media to let friends know I was available for babysitting and other short-term jobs. I ended up being an on-call emergency nanny and working with a real estate agent doing “move out” cleans as well as babysitting and, really, any gig that would help me earn enough money to pay my bills. My attitude is that any income is better than no income.
I also used the time to volunteer as an auction coordinator for a friend, which led to an auction coordinator contract with a different organization. I embraced the flexibility allowed by no longer being tied to a 9-to-5 job and quickly began to wonder how I’d ever had the time to work.
One of those temp jobs, a medical-leave replacement for a high school secretary, turned into a full-time job. Did I want to be an executive assistant? No. But my colleagues were warm and loving and it was a healthy, safe, sane work environment. That was exactly what I needed.
Three years ago, I found myself in another unhealthy work situation. I was conscious of the toxic work culture before I took the job but felt that the trade-offs were worth it. Waking up every night at 2 a.m. with a panic attack that I would be fired wasn’t normal, however, and eventually I chose to uproot my life entirely and make a fresh start in a new place.
And this time, with the wisdom of past experiences, and the guidance of a fantastic career coach, I consciously chose to hit the re-set button. I picked up a few contract jobs, which led to some bigger consulting jobs and then a few more. I eventually star