It was just another ordinary day for me – an average performing, working-class sixth form pupil at an average comprehensive school in Northern England.
I had arranged an interview for a job at a manufacturers in Liverpool. Even though I was expecting pretty good grades at A Level, that didn’t matter to me. At that point in time, all I wanted was to escape and had been searching local newspapers for jobs for some time.
I was 17 and I had decided I had had enough of the general name-calling and homophobic abuse I had regularly received from other pupils at my school since the age of 12.
The interview was scheduled during some free space in the school timetable that I’d arranged with my form teacher and a social worker. My dad picked me up at the school gates to take me there. I was nervous, clinging on to my CV for dear life.
I can still remember the reception of the company building so vividly, with it’s bright and airy feel, a fake plant, a couple of chairs and a few leaflets thrown onto a glass table. An Investors in People certificate hung proudly on the wall. At the time I thought this was a good sign. How wrong could i be? I didn’t have to wait very long before my future boss came charging up the corridor and banged open the door to greet me with the arrogance of a man truly established in his power base, an arrogance I spotted straight away.
As we walked upstairs to meet with his underling who would be my supervisor he kept making strange little noises which gave the impression that he really couldn’t be bothered doing this at all. I’m quite sure that if i’d displayed the same mannerisms and tone, I wouldn’t have been given the job as office junior. However, I brushed these things off. I wanted the job.
We arrived in the boardroom where a woman was waiting. Introductions were made and the interview got underway. The only thing I can remember clearly, since it really shocked me, was when he asked: “do you not mind working under a woman?” I glanced at her, not quite believing that people asked these things in interviews. She didn’t say anything. “Of course not,” I replied, brushing his nasty little sexist question away.
I realise now that these little nuances I noticed at the time but brushed off were actually major warnings I shouldn’t have ignored. I’m usually a good judge of character and in this case my first impressions were not wrong.
I won’t go into the details of every single incident of psychological abuse and threats I experienced from one particular male colleague in this job, since I can’t remember all of them, and others I still find difficult to deal with.
I will not go into the precise details, either, of two physical assaults I experienced in the office, one by that ‘man’, the other by another co-worker, who grabbed me by the neck, practically threw me against either a filing cabinet or the wooden frame of a window, swearing at me in my face. Nor will I go into the precise details of an attempted assault I received outside of work in which the same ‘man’ wouldn’t give me time time off to report it to police.
He gave me one instruction the next morning when I told him what had happened, which stuck with me for the following years I continued working there. His advice was also part of the reason I did continue working for so long before suffering a breakdown and two hospitalisations following psychotic episodes in the same year.
His instruction was “You’re better off working through it”.
This supposedly ‘prestigious’ company, with its Investors in People award hung pride of place in reception, was telling me that I shouldn’t report a criminal offence to the police.
That was the attitude of the management at that place.
Sexism, racism and homophobia were rampant there, as was the bitchiness of other office workers. I worked there for two and a half years and am still processing the events I experienced, and the effects of the psychological and physical abuse, twenty years on.
That is complex PTSD. I was trapped, I could not escape, or at least
I felt like I could not escape (I was advised that if I left there without finding another job I would not be able to claim social security). To my mind there was no escape until I had found that other job.
“Keep working”, my abuser said. And I did. Not just as that particular company, but at subsequent organisations in numerous jobs for years afterwards. And that is what society also says. Keep working.
You turn one way, you make your health worse; you turn the other way, there’s no money to survive. Trapped. A key component of Complex PTSD.
The blatant disregard for the law at that place in Liverpool was obvious for anyone to see, or at least anyone who wasn’t tortured by the ‘man’ and his clique of fellow abusers.
That manufacturers in Liverpool has not left my mind for 20 years. When I worked there I cried myself to sleep every night for over 2 years. I’ve had nightmares, sometimes waking up sweating and screaming about it. Only last week I had flashbacks to that place, leading to ruminations that I should have called the police.
20 years on, some of those feelings are still strong, but not all. Thankfully, I have managed to process some of it. I even looked at Google Street View and saw the company was no longer there. That actually got me more frustrated, as there was nothing physical of it I could see, yet I can still see it in my mind every day.
Finally, this is a very big step for me, as I haven’t talked so openly or publicly before, so I’d like to do 2 things.
Firstly, I ask that people who are aware of the issue of workplace bullying, if they see it happening, or someone confides in them about situations like this, please show some support for the person being bullied and don’t sit back and let it happen. Tell someone. Help end workplace bullying.
Secondly, I’d like to dedicate this article to a very special lady who I only found out had died a few months ago, years before her time, who helped keep me alive when I was being bullied. We had some laughs in spite of that place. I will always be thankful for that at least.
If you’ve been affected by workplace bullying and need to talk to someone about it, you can call the CALM helpline on 0800 585858, open 5pm – midnight every day of the year. Calls are free from landlines and pay phones and won’t appear on your phone bill.
Alternatively, you can visit the Bullying UK website for support and info