The other day I wasn’t feeling so hot. The doctor called in a prescription and I headed off to Walgreens, still dressed in my jammies.
It goes without saying (or it should, if you’ve ever seen my jammies) that I wasn’t planning to get out of the car. But the drive-through line was 5 cars deep and I really wanted those meds, so I hopped out of my car and headed inside in hopes of finding a shorter wait.
When I re-emerged, meds firmly in hand, there was a homeless man stationed by the trash can – a popular spot for homeless men in this area. He asked me for cash. I walked by and remarked I wasn’t carrying any.
He then proceeded to heckle me, catcalling, whistling, making comments about “oh so sexy” all the way until I got to my car. He was grinning from ear to ear, watching me closely to see if I looked back or reacted in any way. Clearly, this was a man who felt supported by the culture we live in to behave towards me the way he was behaving.
Rather instantly, a memory emerged from middle school science class, when three of my male peers re-enacted nearly the same scene around a pair of laboratory microscopes. They weren’t quite so deft with their heckling, but I felt the shame just the same.
In that moment, hurrying to my car while listening to that homeless man’s catcalls and remembering my middle school bullies, it hit me – this is it.
This is the culture we are currently in the process of dismantling. Even as I went on about my day, pieces of it were continuously tumbling down around my feet.
And it still felt somehow sickening more than liberating.
My #metoo experiences started when I was six. I have blogged here in the recent past about the nightmarish encounter I had with a male babysitter who fondled and molested me and then informed me not to tell anyone. He said if I did tell, he would say it was all my fault.
In the same blog, I shared another #metoo experience from my early 30’s, a rape I only found the courage to take public after a dear friend did the same and asked for my support. At that point I thought, “If she can do it, I can too.”
But now it is time to tell a different #metoo story. This is one I have kept quiet about since I was 23 – so for nearly a quarter century now.
I’m not keen to tell it, to be honest. But after reading Salma Hayek and then Lupita Nyong’o’s #metoo stories regarding Harvey Weinstein, I couldn’t keep quiet about my own story any more. I just couldn’t. #metoo. #metoometoometoo.
If you had been a fly on the wall at that time, watching me work my way through college was probably a lot like watching a kid learn to hopscotch for the first time. There were lots of false starts. Lots of changed majors. Lots of changed colleges, for that matter. And a number of bruised palms and skinned knees.
But after some (lots of) time, I finally managed to graduate with a business/marketing degree. At that point, I discovered I had a knack for interviewing well and landed a number of plush job offers complete with benefits and perks.
The one I selected required a week of training in my home city of Houston, Texas, and then a permanent move to the West Coast…a dream reassignment if ever I had received one.
So when the abusive phone calls began around 3 a.m. on that very first night of my Houston training week, I tried hard to overlook them. The caller, a senior member of my brand new firm, had a very clear idea of what he wanted to talk about. My job was to listen at first, and then I found myself being not-so-subtly prompted to respond.
I got a call every night of that first training week, and then guess who was assigned to pick me up when I arrived in my new West Coast home? He met me at the arrivals gate, smiling, and then he bent down and whispered in my ear, “Don’t worry – I won’t say anything during the ride home. I’ve brought my wife along to meet you.”
Oh boy. His wife. It struck me even then that my abuser seemed remarkably good natured about the whole thing – he displayed the kind of calm confidence I later learned was not just accepted but was often fostered among male colleagues in that particular division at this particular company.
During the initial week-long training period, I had confided in another trainee, sharing quietly that I was receiving phone calls and asking her for advice. When I arrived in my new West Coast office, I discovered word had traveled fast. This fellow female trainee, who had accompanied me to my new office home, had already informed her new boss and everyone else she could find that I was going to sue the company for harassment (this didn’t in any way resemble what I had actually shared with her, by the way).
While it did make everyone else leery of working with me, this didn’t deter my abuser one bit. We often had to travel together out of town, and he would pick his moments for calls or late night hopeful knocks (which always went unanswered) on my hotel room door.
And just to clarify – he didn’t rape me. He didn’t physically force me to do anything to him. While he frequently propositioned me, he didn’t lay a hand on me. He simply continued to intrude into my life at odd hours both in person and over the phone, and because he was a supervisor and I was a trainee, when my work phone rang (this was quite before caller ID became customary), I always answered it.
If this had been the only crisis I was facing at that point, I flatter myself I might have had it more together and done at least a minimally better job of dealing with the whole thing. But the abuse re-triggered my eating disorder, and soon I was coping with anorexia, bulimia, alcohol abuse, insomnia, and chronic poor performance reports that all seemed to stem from my fellow trainee’s office gossip.
It seemed I was being set up to fail and to be let go in a particularly deft and practiced way that avoided any hint of my supervisor’s impropriety.
But I stubbornly hung in there. A couple of colleagues noticed what was occurring and surprised me by offering to mentor me through the conclusion of my training and the start of my first official job posting.
Thanks to their help, I managed to survive the initial plot to fire me and went on to win a permanent job posting happily located a few hours away from the office. To further stabilize my position, I then went on to win more than one award for outstanding performance. After a year or so, I even won myself a job promotion, which gave me further protection from my abuser by shifting me to a completely different chain of supervision within the firm.
But while opportunities to reach me became rarer, the abuser never completely ceased his efforts. As time went on, I learned that I wasn’t his only victim, and as more time went on, eventually a corporate attorney reached out and asked me to share my story.
I did so on the condition of complete anonymity, warning the attorney that if he made any attempt to share my story without putting a plan of legal action in writing behind it, I would publicly deny every word.
Not surprisingly, no further action was ever taken against my abuser. I remained at that firm just long enough to satisfy my college debts in full, and then I resigned and never looked back.
Or, I should say, I never looked back except in one area. Because I never forgot the abuse or my abuser. I never forgot the two-fold shame I felt – first at being chosen for the abuse (it must have been something about me, specifically, right?!?) and then second at staying silent after my first failed attempt to seek help backfired right in my face.
I never forgot my anger either. I was angry at myself for playing along with the office protocols out of fear of losing my job and adding yet another failure to what already felt like a very long list at a very young age. I was angry at the company for trying to get me fired rather than taking the trouble to hold my abuser accountable. And I was angry at my abuser for harming me just because – somehow – he knew he could get away with it.
By the time I made the decision to resign, I knew the names of a few of the other #metoo women whom my abuser had targeted similarly. But we never spoke. We never banded together, and I never knew if they knew my name as well.
Today, I would hope I would do things very differently – whether our culture had changed to support me in doing so or not. Today, I flatter myself to think I wouldn’t have lasted a day at that firm – and I would have left a trail of detritus a mile long behind me when I left.
Today, in fact, I believe I wouldn’t have even entertained working for that firm, or in that industry, or under those conditions. Today, I tell myself as often as I need to hear it, a situation like that would never have happened, because I would never have put myself in those shoes in the first place.
Today, I would have taken my abuser – any abuser – DOWN. I would be fierce, ferocious, a warrior. I would arm myself in every way on every conceivable level and go forth to fight the good fight for whatever time it takes, realizing that it isn’t how long I live or how comfortably I live but how I live that matters most.
But that isn’t my job today, other than to show my face and use my voice to band together with other women in telling my #metoo story. Today the statute of limitations for pursuing any damages in my particular case have long since run out.
Today, my chief and most important job is healing me-then, who still feels frail and fragile and fearful and forgotten – a sacrificial lamb at the alter of BIG BUCKS whose little life was viewed by my higher-ups as a more than fair price to pay in return for all the glitter my abuser brought into that firm each year.
Me-then and I are working on all of this, by the way. I care about her very much and admire the compassion she feels towards her abuser, particularly because me-now much prefers to focus on feeling compassion towards her….plus the satisfying thought that karma never runs out of patience or time.
Today’s Takeaway: I thank you for reading my #metoo story. I have highlighted the #metoo references throughout both to make myself feel better and stronger and in hopes that perhaps, as I have taken courage from other women’s stories as fuel to power sharing my own, there may be another person (female or male) who comes along and takes courage from my story and decides it is time and they are ready to share their story too. It is important. This is very important! My story matters and YOUR story matters. Our stories can keep us small and scared and miserable or they can elevate us to a state of expanded courage and compassion beyond our wildest imaginings. Right now I am somewhere in between, but I am not finished. #metoo.