My job was the most toxic relationship I had

“You’re not being treated right,” girlfriends would say. “You should just leave.” The situation was getting unbearable. I was being ignored, mistreated, and was unappreciated. I wanted to leave, but couldn’t get out. How would I support myself? If I stayed, I wondered if I’d eventually be replaced with someone younger. I felt stuck — I needed the financial support yet was worried what it was doing to my normally very solid self-esteem.

From the time I was young, I often heard things like “marry rich” or “marry a doctor,” from outsiders who deemed this little girl worthy of those ‘prizes.’ My mother always chimed in, “No, she’s going to have her own career, she won’t need anyone else’s money. She’ll make her own way.” Coming from a generation of women whose only choice was to get married to a guy from the neighborhood and have kids, she emphasized college and career to ensure my freedom, self-worth, and happiness. “Just find a man who loves you and treats you well. I don’t care if it’s the garbage man.”

Feeling ignored

When I first got involved, I had that nagging feeling I had made the wrong choice. Hearing “You have such a pretty smile” was lovely, but I wasn’t sure I was really being seen for more than my blonde hair and red lips. When I spoke or offered a suggestion, I was ignored. Over time, I felt hostility directed at me; late-night emails criticized my ways. “Why can’t you do things like so-and-so?” ‘So-and-so’ was the one who came before. I couldn’t compare. I didn’t want to.

Once, after a difference of opinion, things escalated verbally. Doors slammed and voices raised. The words “Everything you do is useless!” came at me with anger. “How do you want me to communicate with you? Smoke signals? You don’t listen!” I volleyed back, keeping my tears in check until later when the words hit me even harder. It was clear I wasn’t valued.

I tried to get out, but my options were limited. I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own and there weren’t many other offers out there. I needed the financial stability, but even that became tenuous when I was told I couldn’t have as much anymore. Being stuck in a situation for so long where I wasn’t respected, I was starting to feel useless.

I knew the end must be near and wondered if I’d be cast aside for someone younger. Perhaps a flirtier girl who had not yet learned to stand her ground; one with a pretty smile and lower expectations, too shy to nag? Now that I was 40, would anyone want me? I admit, I put on my best dress and looked outside for validation — and found interest wasn’t there. I was old school. Old.

Intersection of Notorious Employer, Downfall of an Industry and Middle Age

Finally, one day, I was dismissed. Set free with an “alimony” of sorts to get me by for a bit.

Having braced for this, I was actually relieved – now I could spread my formerly bound wings with a safety net until I could figure things out with a clear head. I laughed at the news, slightly giddy while I quickly packed.

I had taken the advice my mother gave me so long ago, yet ended up in the exact spot she warned me about. But instead of a strict husband, I was dependent on a bad job.

I started in the publishing industry young and ambitious and created a career I loved and where I had gained respect. That is until I reached the intersection of Notorious Employer, Downfall of an Industry and Middle Age. At first, I experienced little annoyances I could tolerate, like inefficient systems or co-workers not trusting my expertise. But as time wore on, bad management, frequent and draining late nights and a feeling of being on the hamster wheel, exhaustingly going nowhere fast wore on my patience. “I’ve never seen people work so hard for mediocrity,” said an ever-changing array of disgruntled staff as they passed through the revolving door of employment. I wasn’t happy, but I stayed because I needed the money.

And then that stability was shaken. Like a controlling husband reducing his wife’s allowance, my salary was cut significantly, and not long after another large project was thrown upon me. After the initial shock and some budget tightening, I tasted a tiny bit of freedom. Whereas before I was hesitant to entertain the same job with a different brand of craziness for significantly less money, now it was all the same.

I turned 40 while working there, a milestone that didn’t really phase me in my personal life, as I still felt and looked the same. There was no magic ‘middle age fairy’ dropping crow’s feet, spare tires and a “get off my lawn” attitude at midnight on the “Lordy, Lordy!” birthday. But at work, I started to feel like a dinosaur. Getting a new job used to be the solution and an easy one at that, but with the shift in the industry, salaries were decreasing while workloads were increasing. Even my reduced salary wasn’t helping, as eventually there were fewer jobs in print while online seemed to look for excuses not to hire folks from ‘old media.’ I was a short-armed T-Rex and all the opportunities were on the unreachable top shelf. “Ohh, this is what my mother warned me about.” After being in demand for most of my career, I now felt like the middle age woman who was losing her looks.

Sweet freedom

When I was finally laid off, I was set free. The stress, responsibility, and exhaustion was no longer my problem; I’d have time to recover with a little financial help from severance to keep me on my feet. I felt like that moment The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy wakes up in Technicolor Oz, leaving black and white Kansas far behind. Until, of course, the reality of unemployment and the challenges facing my industry set in. But still, the weight of being mistreated was off my shoulders.

The thought did cross my mind that if I had been married, I might have had some financial stability to walk out of the job on my own terms; but that scenario negates all my solo happiness and accomplishments. Plus, just because you’re a damsel in distress, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed your knight in shining armor. And there are those who would argue I could have walked out at any time; but as the product of a blue-collar upbringing with no trust fund safety net; that was not an option. You simply don’t leave an income, for no income — it’s irresponsible. But I have no regrets on the personal choices I’ve made; and I frankly have no regrets on the professional ones either. What can you do when things get tough beside have integrity and hope and figure out a way to work hard without beating your head against a wall? Because of my experiences I’ve gained so much knowledge I’ve been called the ‘wise woman on the mountain’ in my new position — a job that’s the “good guy,” where I’m appreciated, valued and make a difference. And like most jerky exes, I hear mine’s still struggling, which feels pretty good.

Tara Cox has appeared in The NY Post, Newsday, among other places.  She is the author of Airstream: The Silver RV, a book New York magazine’s “Approval Matrix” dubbed “Highbrow/Brilliant.”