I left my last work role because of decisions made by others, for reasons*. Unpacking the trauma and resulting disequilibrium around that has been the ongoing challenge of my last 16 months or so. Today, I’m not going to write about that unpacking process specifically, but I do want to write a bit (for my benefit, mostly, but also for others who might be curious) about where I sit today vis-a-vis that process.
(And, for clarity, I’m still not writing in terribly specific terms — at least not publicly — about what precisely happened. That will come later, probably, but I’m not there yet… and there are still open investigations. Far be it from me to jeopardize potential future legal action by writing about all that too prematurely.)
Back when all The Troubles (TM) started unfolding, I was so thoroughly taken off guard that I was in a scramble for information — ANY INFORMATION PLEASE — to understand what on Earth was happening. Enneagram 2s are notoriously people-pleasing, so I had spent the foregoing 5.5 years trying to ensure everyone around me absolutely loved me. I hustled for acceptance and words of affirmation; I volunteered for every committee and wanted to help every single student. I lived, breathed, obsessed over doing my job the best that anyone had ever done any job, simply so I would know that I was emotionally safe.
When it all started to crumble around me, I was bereft. It made no sense. I’d given my everything to this institution and this job, and what I’d always understood to be a perfunctory step in my career suddenly became an opportunity to … banish me??? How had I let this happen?!
The answer, of course, was that it had nothing to do with anything I’d “let” happen. It wasn’t within my scope of control, because it was a decision made by others FOR me, and the unraveling that happened taught me a lot. Most importantly, it led to my diagnosis as an autistic person. That diagnosis has reoriented how I think about myself in the context of work and my relationships with other people, and it has proven invaluable to understanding what happened when everything fell apart in 2022.
Last night, I pulled a bright blue jump drive out of my backpack, from a pocket I rarely use, making it easy to forget it’s there (along with its contents). This jump drive contains a small number of PDFs that are the collected emails responsive to a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) I made of my former institution not long after the unraveling. I asked for emails from the people whom I knew to be the key players in my banishing, covering roughly six months — those leading up to and immediately following when I became aware of what was afoot.
I received that jump drive in December 2022, just before we left for our holiday travels. I knew it was a ticking time bomb, one that had the potential to wreak havoc on my already precarious ability to cope with All Of The Things. I waited to read the first PDF until I’d hit a major milestone in my book manuscript writing project (zoom back to 2019 to read about when I was first starting that project!), lest reading the jump drive halt my momentum.
We were at an Airbnb in Atlanta for several days, hanging out with my completely delightful stepdaughter during her final exams at the nearby high school. I’d been writing hither and yon about town while she was at school, and after closing out a particularly complex chapter and sending it off to my book mentor/editor-ish person, I thought, “Well done, Liz! Now let’s see what’s on this jump drive.”
It was a mistake. It was a HUGE mistake. I started with the person whom I’d most trusted with my career trajectory, and the betrayal I found in those emails was devastating. Unfortunately, reading that person’s emails meant I also learned to whom they’d turned for advice on how to navigate their takedown. In one particularly difficult-to-read (because it was so prescient) email, they’d written to another person I’d trusted to have my back, “it just seems that my alone [sic] opinion could sink or save her job.” That person responded, “If there are any nails in a coffin, Liz put them there.”
I cannot describe how deeply betrayed I felt reading that message. I resolved to squirrel away the jump drive until I was sure I could withstand the flood of feelings that would inevitably wash over me when I dug into the other PDFs, the ones from people I saw firsthand trying to oust me. If the people I trusted and who were saying supportive things to me at the time could write those things about me, I shuddered to think what the people saying nasty things to me would write.
I finished the book manuscript, eventually. I interviewed for and accepted a new job. We bought a house two states away, a place for me to live while I worked in this new role four-and-a-half hours away from my whole entire life. I traveled to see beloveds, because I knew starting a new job would make doing so harder. I read voraciously. All the while, the little bright blue jump drive sat in my forgotten backpack pocket. I rarely remembered I had it — but when I did, I just thought, “Not yet. Not quite yet.”
Until, last night, I thought about it and felt ready to dive in.
After five days in my new role, spending most of my week two states away from my entire life (except I had both dogs and a visit from The Math Professor and his daughter), I felt prepared to wade into the unreasonably hostile judgment of those I’d left behind at The Bad Place.
I’ll confess, reading those emails did make my heart rate spike; they probably resulted in an elevated blood pressure. But mostly? They left me feeling grateful.
I am so grateful to be out of that den of backstabbing colleagues, people who hustled for my trust only to violate it in the most injurious of ways.
I am so grateful that they no longer have the power to determine where I go in life, or what I’m able to do.
I’m grateful that I’ve learned that work won’t love you back, to borrow Sarah Jaffe’s book title.
Aside: In the description of this book, the publisher writes, “You’re told that if you “do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Whether it’s working for “exposure” and “experience,” or enduring poor treatment in the name of “being part of the family,” all employees are pushed to make sacrifices for the privilege of being able to do what we love.” HELLO, HIGHER ED!
I’m grateful that I’ve landed in a place that draws on the skills and experiences of my entire career, in ways I didn’t anticipate and that throughly delight me.
I’m so grateful for my new colleagues, who empower and trust and assume the best.
I’m grateful beyond measure for friends and a life partner who promise they won’t forget me and will always be a source of support. I couldn’t have made it without them these last many months.
And I’m boundlessly grateful that I have survived this test, all while writing a book (eeps!), growing and learning more about myself, and fiercely advocating for myself, even when it didn’t turn out the way I wanted.
Reading the electric blue jump drive now feels like closure. A putting to bed of the uncertainty and the not-knowing. Because the truth is, I’ll never know what was in the hearts of those who betrayed my trust.
Today, sitting here, I’m not even sure I want to know. Hurt and anger and loss of control and fear drove their betrayals. Their efforts to hurt me, in some misguided chasing of a greater good that I will never, ever understand (nor want to), were successful, but I will not give them any more of my hurt. I will not allow hatred or bitterness to take over my life, because that will only cause my own suffering. They don’t deserve the real estate they’ve occupied in my life these last 16 months.
I’m almost done with my rituals of closure — I will finish this week, in fact — and I’m moving on to the exciting adventures ahead, supportive community at my back, a clear conscience, and a stronger-than-ever resolve to let work be work … and ensure my life is something meaningful beyond what happens there.
* the reasons are the not-knowing in the headline.