She was perhaps the most negative person I have ever met.
Don’t get me wrong. I have met worse people: people more vindictive, more morally devolved, or people who I suspected were actually sociopathic, such was the degree of their callous disregard for, or malicious undermining of, the wellbeing or rights of others. I have been unfortunate in my life to come across one or two people who destroyed others for the sheer giddy nihilistic joy of it. In terms of applied spite, she wasn’t in their league.
When I say she was the most negative person I have ever met it is because she was permanently sunk into a state of discontent and apathy that sapped her energy and spread a miasma of gloom around her, like a permanent fog of psychic fart.
Everything was a complaint. If her account was to be believed, and I never saw why not, she was a physical collection of aches and stiffnesses. “Oh, my knee… oh my back… ooh I just had a twinge…” Perhaps this deserved sympathy, and – God knows – I did my best to muster some, but my condolences were drowned in a litany of grievances about everything else – the weather, the rude man on the bus, young people today, the state of the world.
If I complimented her on something – a scarf or a new haircut – I got a disbelieving grunt in reply. Her opinions about other people outside our office – other tenants in our organisation’s building, stakeholders from funding bodies, even our clients – were coloured by vague but, for her, compelling paranoia. Recently when I attended a masterclass on analysing workplace culture, we did a quiz on signs of incivility. Of the ten signs listed I was surprised – but not – to see that she exhibited every single one, every single day. In the nine months I stuck it out as her direct report I didn’t hear her say one positive thing, about me, about anyone else, about anything.
So, she was not a fun person to be around. But I undertook not to buy into this, reasoning that that was her problem, and I didn’t need to respond in kind. Until I found another job, my responsibility was to turn up, act civil, and do my best to perform my work as directed. I was more bemused by her constant nurturing of the grumps than seriously upset by it; I just chose not to give the situation more emotional energy than I had to and, if anything, I pitied her somewhat.
The thing that changed this, that inspired my darkest and truest contempt? She gate-crashed my grief. I cannot forgive her for that.
My mother was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, an aggressive cancer, on the 1st of April 2019. She requested of her oncologist that he not give her a prognosis, understandably not wanting a deadline (her pun and intended) hanging over her. We hoped she’d have a few months, perhaps until Christmas. By the 19th of May she was dead. I was away from work for three weeks overall: the last week of her life, the week after she died and during which she was cremated, and a further week to get a grip on myself.
When I returned to work something had changed in the dynamics. Suddenly it was no longer enough for my boss to sit in her own puddle of discordancy, she started actively targeting me. Perhaps it was the hiring of a new employee – a lovely man with terrific skills, but his appearance was a change, and this lady didn’t do change well. Perhaps it was the thought of her impending retirement, something long overdue considering her lack of productivity and her constant running down of our organisation but which she, nevertheless, resisted because she had no idea how to be anything other than a rusted-on appendage to our work. Certainly, she was challenged by the idea that had been mooted by our Committee of Management that I take over her job. She had been in the role for so long that she viewed it as an extension of herself; the complete and utter lack of progress of our organisation and its projects under her ‘leadership’ was an externalisation of her own bereftness. The very idea of anyone else being in her role and, therefore, doing things differently (and perhaps better) was an affront to her carefully cultivated sense of insecurity.
And perhaps, in addition to all of this, when I returned from my three-weeks’ away of nursing my dying mother and witnessing her death, I presented an enticing target – a focus – for her irritation with the cosmos. Up until then I had successfully brushed off her lack of graciousness with a cheerfully non-committal manner. There was nothing cheerful about me when I came back, although my new colleague kindly reassured me that I presented as calm and professional as ever. But still, she had to have known that underneath my grounded manner I was shaken and raw by Mum’s death. Under pressure by her impending retirement, unsettled by change in the status quo, poisoned and disorientated over the years by her own staged retreat from the world, my status as newly bereaved might have just been too obvious to resist.
A nasty month culminated in an act of breathtaking treachery where she somehow persuaded the Committee of Management to acknowledge her as retired in name only, but also to grant her continued pay, the right to work on a vaguely defined and scoped vanity project at home – and therefore without their scrutiny – and also to have the right of continued oversight of myself and my colleague. We were to continue at the same pay rate performing the same ill-defined and rather pointless duties. It was a ridiculous state of affairs.
During that month I endured relentless and unreasonable scrutiny of my work. This resulted in a barrage of baseless criticism of everything I did, right down to the individual sentences I wrote in my emails or spoke out loud. Her manner was patronising and sneering. Attempts to discuss this with her were met by gaslighting that was so obvious and crudely applied that it added a further layer of offence.
Particularly upsetting was the fact that she challenged my right to take compassionate leave to deal with my mother’s dying. I easily proved that I was legally entitled to it, but to have to even argue the point was distressing.
As I stated at the top of this piece I have been shafted by experts – dealt blows that could have seriously ruined my career and reputation, and which did, for a while a few years ago, damage my mental health. This woman wasn’t capable of that, thank God. The carping was mean and petty, and my pride was certainly offended at having to deal with it. But writing this now, I am struggling to recall specifically what she might have actually said, even though the effect she created still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It was remarkable how, the instant I departed for good, my spirits started to recover and my memory started to jettison. Her insults were nasty enough, but, of themselves, they didn’t leave much of a mark in the end.
But the one thing she took from me that I can’t recover, and the one thing that really hurts me as a consequence, is this: she took my time and energy and focus during that last month I was with her, which overlapped with the first months of my grief. I coped with her, but I coped because I made sure I did. This coping required an investment of emotional and affective labour. And, at this time, I badly wanted these things for something else.
Grief is interesting. It is not an easy process, but it is an essential one. It is the gift – I will call it that – which helps you to adjust to the space a person leaves behind when they die. In the book, The woman who fooled the world, oncologist Mark Rosenthal is quoted as saying that the time before someone’s death is “a special time, not an easy time, but a special time.” I think the same about the time just after death.
It is special, for the first little while after someone dies. We all grieve differently so I can only speak for myself but in the first weeks the world even literally looked different to me: the light was different, colours were sharper, more heightened. Feelings were more intense, alternating with equally intense states of exhaustion. Thoughts took on more significance, memories were viewed from different angles. Grief isn’t fun, but it is rich. I haven’t enjoyed it, but I have valued it.
But crashing into this special time came this woman, with her lumbering states of paranoia, her self-centredness, her pettiness, her meanness of vision, her shrunken scope of living. With each bit of carping, each demand on my ability to stand my ground, she pulled me towards her bullshit and forced me to focus on it, even if that were just to brush it off. Each act of reasserting myself and of recovery, still cost me time and energy. I was forced to be resilient when I didn’t want to be. When I wanted to open myself to my grief and let it scrub me raw and clean, I was forced to build defences and hold myself together.
I soon left the organisation. The situation there was absurd and was leeching energy I should never have had to expend. I have recovered quickly, an indication that all of that workplace melodrama was nonsense – rank, putrefying nonsense, but, in the final analysis, just mere stupidity all the same.
But when I emerged from this, when I fully reclaimed my focus, those sharp heightened colours of grief had faded. The grieving feelings were still there waiting under the surface, but now I had to sort through a jumble of more workaday thoughts to reach them.
I had a sense that that special time which should have belonged to me, where certain sensitivities and perspectives that aren’t available at any other time in our lives, had passed and closed off. My grief was interrupted; I won’t ever get that special time back.
If witches were real and I were a witch, I would call down a curse upon her.
Images sourced from Public Domain Review.