I hadn’t thought I’d be doing a BADD post this year but the timing was impossible to ignore. As some twitter followers will have seen, I absolutely lost it on Wednesday evening after a conversation with my boss. I tweeted a full on screaming tantrum against him and against disablism in the legal profession (in my paticular case, predominantly arising out of the long hours culture but the need for a secretary is also increasingly frowned upon as unnecessary expenditure) and my experience of it. I can’t tell you how much physical pain I was in at the time of that rant. I was quivering with it. I’d been pushing myself to the brink of collapse over a period of months when my boss started a conversation (in the presence of another colleague) about formally increasing my hours. As much as anything, I think that after so publicly losing it and criticising my boss, it seems important to clarify what happened next equally publicly. I’ve since deleted the tweets because of my subsequent conversation with him.
I didn’t lose my temper then and there. I didn’t say much at all because my mind was racing as I was thrown back to all the things that had happened in the past. His tone wasn’t rude or threatening but he was asking me to commit to something that had been too much for me in the past. In nearly three years in this job, I’ve had one sick day and that wasn’t even connected to my back but on my old working hours it was rare to even get through a month without sick time because I was simply trying to do too much. I didn’t just see red. I felt overwhelming panic. I was already in so much pain. How could he ask this of me? People can be quite scathing over the issue of triggers and trauma but later I realised that I am still traumatised at a fundamental level by what went on in my last firm. The bullying and threats, the disbelief no matter how much medical evidence I produced, the criticism of my character. And most of it was delivered in “reasonable”, if patronising, tones. At one point six years ago I called the Samaritans. I wasn’t suicidal but I felt utterly worthless because I was being told I was. Pain Concern were supportive too but ultimately, after I finally got the courage to stand up for myself, demand the firm order an independent assessment from the Occupational Health team and put up, shut up or fire me and get sued, I ended up seeing a therapist to try to piece myself back together and I was still left doing too many hours.
I am a solicitor. It’s part of my identity. It’s not just a job to me, even though one partner seemed convinced I was a dilettante playing at having a job (seriously?? My parents are not that well off!). It’s a vocation and thank god for that because that keeps me going. They broke me and it didn’t stop hurting. It was made worse by the fact I’d worked there my whole career. Why couldn’t they see me as I am? Why couldn’t they see the determination and passion for my work that got me out of bed in spite of the pain? Why couldn’t they see how honest I am? On one level, I know now that they could see those things. They were threatening other people, unbeknownst to me, at the same time. It was two years before I discovered that in one particular instance, they’d been trying to manipulate me using my guilt and fear of losing my job, while at the same time pulling colleagues in and threatening them but without the shadow of discrimination. My disability was a stick to beat me with. On another level, I still believe them. I still feel that I’m worth less than the next solicitor, despite being more talented than most.
I know I’m predisposed to thinking if something has happened in one way once, it will happen again. Knowing that doesn’t change it. Three years, almost to the day, after the Occupational Therapist asked me:
“did a solicitor complete this form?… because they didn’t tick the box asking if you have a disability”
(“Yep. An employment lawyer”
“They don’t believe I have a disability”
“…but it’s obvious that you have a…I’ll answer the question anyway, shall I?”
I joined my current firm on the basis of a three day week. I explained my disability without having to give as much excruciating detail as some interviewers expected. There were a few teething problems but on the whole, they were respectful and I started to feel like a human being and not as a partner in my previously firm had once introduced me, “The One With The Back”. But the fear was there.
At first, I stuck to three days. Then I increased my hours for two to three weeks while a colleague was on holiday and dropped back down again. Then business started booming and I started doing more. Most often, I spend an hour or so drafting at home in my pyjamas first thing on my rest days and drop tapes off for my secretary so I can review them the next day. Some weeks there’s no need but I might have a long stretch of a couple of months where I do that on every rest day. I also frequently work until 6.00pm and sometimes 7.00 or later. If I didn’t have an excellent secretary who is dedicated, interested and has just the right amount of initiative, it would be harder but, fortunately I do.
The day after that conversation, I went in on my rest day and talked to my boss. It probably did me good to vent so much on Twitter the night before and a couple of people, together with my mum, helped get me to the point of going in to talk to him (thank you to them). I’d slept incredibly badly because of the pain and, having woken up at 5.30 with my lower back in desperate need of a walk, as well as the mid and upper back and shoulder pain I’d gone to bed with, I decided to go in first thing…just as soon as I’d drunk a few pints of coffee and stood under hot water for half an hour.
My biggest worry wasn’t that I’d fly into a rage. It was that I’d start shaking and become incoherent. I really don’t do confrontation well. I explained that I’m aware I’m an unusually private person in an office where a number of people talk a lot about medical issues and that I’m concerned that may give the impression I’m “fine”. On the contrary, being in pain 24/7, I decided quite some time ago that there’s no point talking about it. It’s always there. It’s an absolute given. So what’s the point? Then I explained I’m actually at breaking point after a long period of overdoing it and that I’m worried about him asking me to formally increase my hours.
He was shocked and mortified. It turns out it he never wanted to pressure me to do more and it just came out wrong. I told him very briefly in general terms what happened at my last firm and about one specific incident and he was horrified. He said he really didn’t mean to make me feel like that was happening again and that, if anything, he was trying to say the opposite. He’s been worried I’ll think the partners are taking the piss by not paying me for all the extra hours I do over my contracted three days because I don’t claim them all and wanted me to know he’d recommend changing my contract and paying me more as pure salary if I want to formally increase my hours by a couple of hours a week because I seem to work at least that so often. If I don’t want to do that, we talked about how not all overtime directly leads to fee income (eg because my secretary’s was off for over half of April) and that I can claim more than I have been. He also admitted (without prompting) that he’s personally been taking the piss a bit by assuming I’ll be in at some point every day and asking me to have meetings with him when I’ve only popped in to drop tapes I’ve done off for my secretary and asking me for urgent work when my secretary’s been off so that I ended up having to do all the typing myself.
We didn’t need to talk for very long to clear the air and then I left for a proper day off. I’m glad I decided to talk to him. It probably was good to tell him even one incident of what went on in my last firm. I came to this firm off the back of years of suspicion, bullying, threats and atos-style assessments and I haven’t felt that my job is safe here. I went into absolute panic when he said “formally increase your hours” because I’d been forced to put myself through that before. He gets that now and he probably gets me a bit better too.
On Friday, he couldn’t wait to push me out the door at the end of the day, saying he didn’t want to see me stay late again. He saw me pushing work in my bag to take home but (as I’ve said to him before), I often work best first thing so I’d rather it’s there so I can do it if I’m up to it. So far I haven’t been (maybe if I didn’t feel the need to write this to clear his name, I would!).
There are lessons in all this. I now know I’m far from over what went on in the past, although being in the state I was in in terms of pain and exhaustion probably amplified my panic response. And now I know that I am trusted here and that the energy I put in is appreciated. I had thought that was the case, which was another reason why suddenly hearing something that sounded like the opposite hit me so hard. In many ways, I’m a great employee to manage because I’m never any trouble and never even mentioned in the vicinity of trouble but this is something that has been lying under the surface. I didn’t want to talk about the past with him before. Judging by other people and the things I know they talk about, that may actually be quite unusual but I suspect quite a lot of disabled people come to new jobs quietly carrying the lingering shame imposed on them by other people in the past. Maybe the good employers who want to do right by us need an awareness that that’s a possibility, even though we’ve chosen not to say it, but there are good people out there who want to do right by us and, ultimately, that’s why I decided to blog this year. It was a misunderstanding and my boss deserves to be acknowledged as one of those good people.