Sad But True
Tell us about the harshest, most difficult to hear — but accurate — criticism you’e ever gotten. Does it still apply?
In October or November of 2006, my long-term partner went to Melbourne with his new band, to record their next album. He was gone for two weeks, and those two weeks were the only time during our five and a half year relationship where I’d ever been alone in the house for more than a single evening.
It was an eye-opening experience. It turns out I was much happier when he wasn’t around – our relationship had well and truly run its course and it was only fear and friendship that was keeping us together.
I had planned on doing it differently, but thirty minutes after he returned home from his trip, greeting me with a smile and a “happy to be here” sigh, my mouth let go of the words that had been trying to find their way out of there since I made my decision a day or so before:
“I’m moving to Melbourne”, I said, unable to hide the excitement in my voice.
We didn’t need to discuss whether I wanted him to come with me or not. We both knew I didn’t, and we also knew that he wouldn’t leave his band, even if I asked.
Four months after this announcement, I flew into a city I’d never visited, with a single suitcase to house my entire life’s possessions. I was met at the airport by a dear and delightful friend, whose offer for me to stay on her couch happened to be my ticket to salvation, and the only way I could have left that relationship.
I had a job interview the next day, and was offered the job immediately.
It was a small mortgage broking firm located on St Kilda Road. There were four people already employed and I was to be their fifth. They were all quite young, the eldest being in his late 30s/early 40s, the youngest (besides me at 24) being 30.
I noted during my interview that they were all wearing extremely casual clothes – the boss, the owner of the company, was in board shorts, thongs and a t-shirt. The Manager was in denim shorts and a button-up short-sleeve, the other female was in purposely-torn jeans and a t-shirt with a sun on it.
“As you can see, we’re quite informal about dress codes around here – all our client work is done over the phone”.
I warned them – my casual wardrobe tended to feature a single shade: black. It had platform boots and a lot of buckles, spikes or skulls. They were fine with that – we don’t spend time with clients, remember?
It all began quite well. My job was to follow up with clients we had requested paperwork from. Our clients were really at the end of their tether – we were their last hope for them to keep their homes. We literally saved lives in that office, when people were able to help themselves.
That’s where I came in. My job was to be pushy with them – to tell them everything they needed to get to us, and to make sure they did it.
I never once felt confident. I didn’t understand mortgages. I failed maths. I felt useless. I didn’t know what the paperwork was that I was asking them to return because I’d never even seen our forms. When they would ask me how to fill it out, I would go into a panic, worried that I would say the wrong thing. I asked for help, but it didn’t matter how it was explained to me, I would fall to pieces the minute I had to call someone.
They constantly told me I was too quiet on the phone. I needed to be louder, stronger.
Then there was my drinking problem. I knew they were aware of it because I didn’t show up on my fourth day in the job because I was waking up in a random house in Fitzroy, texting my dear friend in a panic because three days living in Melbourne hadn’t been enough time for me to orient myself with the city or its transport, and I’d forgotten the address I was living at. Also the name of that suburb.
… you’d think these are the things they would have brought up in my probationary review, right?
Instead, they asked me why I wanted to look unattractive, like a 15 year old boy, with all those piercings and skulls and listening to that metal? They asked if I wanted to join them on the weekends when they did Self Improvement workshops, or played sport together. They asked me why I hate myself and whether I had someone who knew how unhappy I was. They asked me if I’d been molested or raped or beaten.
They offered to fix me. To help me fix myself.
“We fixed Erica*”, they all smiled, Erica included.
Apparently she’d been wayward, like me. She was into kinky sex until they fixed her. Now she didn’t hate herself and didn’t need that any more.
It floored me. I felt sick. Claustrophobic. I knew I wasn’t great at hiding my drinking, but what the fuck? Wanting to look like a 15 year old boy? Wanting to look ugly? Raped? If they think this is bad, they should have seen me in my Sydney days!
At the time this occurred, I thought I was doing quite well for a girl who was suddenly living alone after being in one long-term relationship or another for the vast majority of her life. I thought I was coping with it okay. Even my drinking was okay because it was only me putting up with it.
The moment they reached out to me, I ran in the opposite direction.
I ended up quitting my job by pulling yet another all-nighter and when they called me at 10am to find out whether I was coming in, I got my friend to answer my phone for me.
“Is she drunk again?”, my boss asked.
“Yes”, my friend answered uncomfortably. Probably because I’d forced her into answering my phone for me. We both knew what the end result of that decision was going to be.
Later that afternoon, seated in the 7/11 on Chapel Street to use their internet, I saw the ad for my job on seek.com.
“I should apply”, I laughed, like a hungover arsehole.
I hated them for pointing out the things I was trying to hide. For pointing out things that I couldn’t see about myself. For making me stop what I was doing and start to look at my life when I legitimately felt that I was doing fine, because all my anxiety had gone.
I had been in a very strange place. I was emotionally numb. There was very little that could affect me. I thought that was The New Me, being stronger than ever before.
It wasn’t until I met Sid, and he spent the weekend at my apartment, shivering in the cold, and he asked me why I didn’t buy a heater, that I realised there was something very wrong with my mental state and my current inability to recognise danger.
I guess I did recognise it to some extent, but I really, really didn’t care about it.
When Sid asked me why I didn’t just buy a heater, it terrified me. I realised it had never crossed my mind that I could warm myself up by doing so.
Instead, I spent every moment in that apartment wrapped in a dressing gown, wearing a beanie, laying in my bed, drinking Jack Daniels, smoking cigarettes, and talking to strangers on the internet until 4am.
I would open the oven door to heat my apartment, or sit on the toilet underneath the Tastic for 10 minutes.
It wasn’t until later that I realised I just never felt as though I deserved to be warm. It wasn’t something I’d consciously decided, and that’s what scared me most – Sid’s appearance in my life changed a lot of things.
It was a few years later when I sat down and sent an email to my old boss.
I apologised for letting my personal circumstances affect my work. I apologised for letting them down. I explained that their desire to help, their desire to make me part of their family had terrified me, and I wasn’t ready for it, nor had I been ready to get better.
I thanked them for putting my feelings aside, and telling me exactly what they saw. I know it was easier for them than people who loved me, but it still wouldn’t have been easy to sit across from someone and tell them bad things about themselves. To see me cry and continue to tell me what they thought, regardless.
It wasn’t done maliciously, it was done out of a genuine desire to help, and over time, I was able to get past the humiliation, and start to look at the criticisms they had made.
They had been right on many of their points. Wrong on some, but right on most, and without them sitting me down to tell me about it, I may never have addressed those issues, or looked at them close enough to see what had caused them.
I thanked them for giving me the opportunity to do that and received a reply from my former boss, saying he was speechless, but very pleased to hear that I was doing well. He filled me in on the changes that had taken place there, but I don’t think either of us were keen to keep in touch.
It had been horrible to hear the things they said to me, but it’s also something I consider myself very lucky to have experienced – I was in quite a dangerous state at that time, but oblivious to it. They had every right to straight up fire me based on my work performance. Instead, they reached out to me.
There are plenty of people in my position who haven’t had that kind of care or charity. They have been ignored, left to suffer alone, or just watched from a distance as their life fell apart.
I would never wish for another person to sit in a small glass room, with all your coworkers staring at you, each telling you the ways in which you negatively affect their life, but should that scenario ever arise, well, take comfort in the fact that in some way, you mean something to them.
I think that’s exactly what I ran from.