Saturday, December 31, 2011

And Then I Went to the Mall...



Earlier this week, I did the after Christmas returning, which seems to be just as big a thing as the before Christmas shopping. I started at Sears because the sweat suit I was returning had been purchased there. What I didn't realize was that my brother had gone to Hagerstown to shop and not to Winchester, which meant that the person behind the counter was going to have to figure out how to process a return for an item which that particular store doesn't carry.

I always feel sympathy for people that work in retail. I know they see multitudes of unpleasant, stressed, angry people who want to blame them for everything that isn't working in their lives. So I try to be pleasant and laid back and not let my anxiety about being in hell at the mall show through when I get up to the counter.

There was a good line of people in the returns aisle and one woman on the cash register. She obviously had not been working there long and was clearly very anxious. I remember from working retail myself that returns were difficult and that was way before the days of computerized checkout. When I got up to the front of the line and handed her my returns, she totally blanked on what she was supposed to do. She had to call in a manager to help her.

Here's where it got interesting for me, because all of a sudden I saw the dynamic from the office where I worked for a year. I was the stressed out employee who couldn't remember what I was supposed to do and the manager who jumped in to help the poor cashier was the office manager who was in charge of me. It was like looking in a mirror.

The cashier was desperate to learn what she was supposed to do so that the next time this kind of return occurred, she wouldn't have to call in the manager. The manager was clearly frustrated, irritated, and not willing to show the woman what she needed to do.

In other words, the manager was not "teaching the woman to fish." She was simply handing her a fish and walking away.

The manager stepped in, her very presence forcing the cashier behind her while she hit keys and buttons and processed my return and handed me my refund. The cashier was trying to watch and remember what she was doing and the manager was clearly not wanting to show her. Wow. How familiar was that? She was trying desperately to learn the job and the person in charge of her didn't want her to know how to do it.

When I worked in that office from 2009 to 2010, I did everything I possibly could to help in whatever way was needed. And I really tried to learn how to do things "their way" (including being walked over to the filing cabinet to be shown exactly how far to push the lock in).  But, I could not seem to retain anything I was told when it came to dealing with the public aspect of my job. I had the technical part down pat, but my poor, addled, short-term memory simply could not process instructions. Then there was the fact that if I offered to do something, I was brushed aside immediately while the office manager did it. She not only wouldn't teach me how, she wouldn't let me even try or watch while she did it.

I look back on that job as a learning experience, but I don't think I learned whatever it was they were trying to teach me. What I learned is that if you have a control freak for a boss (and I had more than one), you are not going to be able to learn the job. Between my own memory problems and the fact that she felt threatened by my presence (for reasons I still have yet to fathom), I was there for over a year and I never learned how to do most of the things they needed me to do when she wasn't there.

My counselor tells me I now have post traumatic stress disorder from my experiences in that office and I don't doubt her. I am still unable to drive down the street on which the office is located without having a panic attack that feels like I should be having an EKG immediately. The fact was that I was never respected as a person in that job and, because of that, my anxiety got so far out of hand (like the woman at Sears last week) that they began to hate me pretty quickly.

It was only a matter of time and by September of 2010, I was already planning on when I would tell them I was leaving. I realized that the good things about the job (it got me out of the house, I enjoyed the field, etc.) were far outweighed by the fact that I was so stressed that I carried a box in the backseat of my car in case I decided in one dramatic moment that I needed to clean out my desk and go home. Surely this was a sign that it was not a place I should be working, but I just could not see that. I wanted to make it work until I was ready to let it go.

And being a nice person (as I like to think I am), I wanted to give them plenty of time to find someone to replace me. I also thought that the extra income would be a good thing to have for the holidays, so I figured I would give them a lot of notice after Christmas so that they would have time to find someone who could handle the job without the attending anxiety I simply could not control.

The sad thing was, they didn't value the work I did or the effort I was putting in that was becoming more and more desperate as time went on. I can see myself at that job and I pity that woman because of how incredibly anxious and terrified she was of doing something wrong. If I could go back and tell myself one thing, it would be that it was not a good idea to try to go back to work in the "real world."

I know now that the combination of personalities simply was not a good one. But I do wonder if the same thing would happen to me in a job where I was treated with simple respect, taught the things I needed to know, and had allowances made for the disability with my mental illness and memory problems instead of irritation and frustration. And whether working for someone who wasn't such a control freak would have made my working life bearable and, even, enjoyable.

The saddest part? The people I worked for were in the mental health field. And I felt like I could not tell them I had a mental illness because they would most certainly not have wanted me there. And because of my bipolar disorder, they very quickly surmised that they didn't want me there. They just didn't exactly know why because I could not summon the courage to tell them. (There's that stigma again.)

That year caused me such intense pain, anxiety, and depression that my therapist has recommended that I not try it again. There's a reason for the fact that social security agreed I am disabled by my bipolar disorder. Up until 2010, I always thought that I could at some point just pretend that I didn't have it and go back to my former self-sufficient self. Instead, I spent a year practicing learned helplessness and losing whatever self esteem I still had.

I felt really bad for that poor cashier at Sears, because she has no idea what she is doing wrong. And the fact is, she isn't doing anything wrong. It's simply that no one is willing to train her decently or do do anything to allay her anxiety in any way. Which is probably making her working life a living hell.

There's no moral here. Simply a flashback that comes with PTSD from a "learning' experience.

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