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If you feel distressed or you’re at risk and need to speak to a mental health professional, please call your local mental health line or if in Australia visit here for resources and contacts.

Finding The StrengthTo Leave a Toxic Workplace With The Help Of My Psychologist

Healing, Mental Health, Story Series, Workplace

Last September I left my secure, full time, well-paying job. I had been with the same employer for nearly 15 years. But I was fed up of being treated with contempt and condescension, by someone old enough to be my father, and someone I had trusted.

It was a small, ‘cosy’, family business with only three of us. My employer was not easy to work with, or for. I left once because of his behaviour, but came back, like a marriage that you think is going to be better the second time around, but doesn’t turn out that way.  

His behaviour changed radically mid last year and didn’t subside. This behaviour wasn’t that out of the ordinary though; he was always having mood swings, periods of silence, then aggression. We constantly walked on eggshells around him, trying desperately to placate him.

I was afraid to ask, to confront him, he knew how to intimidate.

I was afraid, I couldn’t lose my job. I was the only income earner and had to survive. I had a mortgage and my elderly mother depended on me. I felt that I was strong and could take his passive-aggressive abuse. I thought I would be OK with being ignored, with him turning his back to me, the cacophony of slamming cupboard doors and banging of equipment to demonstrate his frustration, his questioning every aspect of my work, interrogating my techniques, threatening me with part-time hours, suggesting I go back to school, turning off the heating/cooling when he left and leaving me to work in the heat or cold. I thought I could cope with the palpable loathing, and with the hostility he attempted to hide.

But the time came when I was no longer OK. I left with the intent to take couple of days off to calm my nerves but soon realised I could not return as I knew his behaviour would escalate, and felt sick with this knowledge. For months I had lost weight, not slept and felt like a tightly wound ball of nerves. Curiously, I didn’t recognise I had an anxiety attack that day until much later when my psychologist explained it to me. 

From then on, I learned to cope with my newly diagnosed anxiety and not surprisingly my pre-existing depression escalated. I distorted from an independent, strong woman to a mess who found it difficult to get out of bed or contain my rage, to feeling hopeless and helpless and guilty; this was interspersed with periods of staring into space, my brain working furiously to try to find solutions, or not thinking at all because I could no longer function.

I felt incapacitated, sinking into a dangerous depression, with fleeting thoughts of ending it all. I thought I had lost everything. I couldn’t just go to another job as it was a specialised field. I felt I couldn’t move because of my personal situation. I felt trapped in these excruciating moments. But I held on. I trusted my psychologist when she spoke of ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’ and ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ and tried the techniques and read articles and bought books. And I held on. I ‘ugly-cried’ which is what happens when you let it out. And I felt better. Somewhere a bit of my heart broke. And I survived. I had an outburst where I felt I would blow the roof off from the anger that was threatening to erupt. And I came out alright.

I descended into the putrid ugliness of depression. And then crawled out. Slowly. 

In the months after, I continued to follow my wonderful psychologist’s teachings, listening to her words, increasing my anti-depressant medication, using mindfulness apps to focus, breathing for calm when anxiety pounced unexpectedly, taking time out for self-care, walked, observed nature, paused to acknowledge the small positives I discovered, breathed some more and started studying really hard, even though due to my mental state, my head performed like a sieve!

Now, I am happy to say I have nearly completed my Diploma in Counselling! Slowly, things changed. I saw the future in a slightly more positive way, I was lucky to be able to sort out the practical stuff when clearer thinking prevailed. I applied for any jobs I thought I could do. I got rejected. I am still applying, and am still getting rejected, but I am good. I am OK. I am optimistic about setting up my own private practice to help others who are struggling in their own lives.  

I still see my brilliant psychologist. Thanks to her I have a greater understanding of my own thought/feeling processes and how to do what is best for my mental health. She gives me great reading recommendations too! My studies have been vital in this also as I learn more and understand myself and others more.

I found hard to accept my failure in giving up my work, but have learnt over time that this was not a failure on my part but a survival reaction to the environment I was in. There is only so much harm the mind and body can take.  

When I left, I did not leave ‘just a job’, I left a part of my life. I left people who I thought were friends. I knew his family, and saw two grandchildren grow up from babies. We exchanged Christmas and birthday presents. There were good times amongst the bad. When I left, I left behind so, so much more. Through my psychologist, and studies in Counselling, I understood that I was experiencing a grief; a grief for all the things I had lost. My work, clients, my social life, my purpose for getting up in the morning, financial security, my next holiday! My part of something larger, of contributing to the world, my self-esteem and independence. I had to painfully accept these losses, and the extremely distressing emotions that unfurled.

And I have accepted the heartbreak, the loss of friends, the pain, anxiety, anger and resentment. The unfairness. I continue to recognise and allow all my emotions now, something I did not do before. I learnt all emotions need to be acknowledged and felt, otherwise they will smother you. You can push them away, but they will push right back, with more force. This for me was critical to comprehend fully. 

The truth was that it was best to leave and that my mental health is far more important to me than I ever appreciated. And I accept I that I need to take care of myself as if I am taking care of a family member of friend. Self-compassion is essential. Determining your values, pursuing your passions, and following these as you go through life.

So after spending more of my life at work than at home, to appease another, now I have re-discovered the pleasure of reading, something for which I did not have the energy nor time before. I even started writing a story, letting my imagination run free and playing with words, something I had enjoyed in high school. It might be done sometime in the next 30 years or so! But I do not care because I write for myself, I also draw, paint and take photos for myself, to get better, for myself.

All those things I loved to do in the past I am re-discovering. When you focus on something you love to do, all else is forgotten. I also volunteer to do good, and feel part of my community. There is no crystal ball, and I don’t want to know what lies before me, but I need to forever remind myself to do what is right for me and to pursue the things that add richness to my life.

And hopefully in my future counselling position, or in any other career changes which may occur, I can help others unearth their own richness too.

If you or anyone else you know is being affected by workplace bullying and/or is experiencing psychological distress, as a result of your workplace, there is help. Like a physical injury, you may be entitled to compensation through a ‘Psychological Injury’ Claim. Check Fair Work Australia or click here for more information.  

 

Dominique Zorec

Dominique Zorec

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