We got word on the Monday. The top dogs were on their way. Something big was going to happen but we weren’t told what. We were in the business of communication. We didn’t like being kept in the dark. Our day was spent on the phones sluicing through contacts, searching for specks of gold. But no one was talking. They didn’t know, or they’d been warned off. Either way, the next day the hammer came down.
The suits arrived in attack formation, with an arsenal of laptops, briefcases and attitude. Modern warfare in the workplace. Restructure. Redundancies. No guarantees. Reapply for the new positions. Business not personal. Collateral damage. Friendly fire. Level playing field. Good luck.
Previously I’d worked in commercial radio, where contracts get torn up and announcers sacked on the turn of a survey. But I never thought the ABC would be this ruthless. Especially as we had done nothing wrong.
Some ducked and ran, some disgraced themselves, others took it on the chin. All of us were advised to see the corporate psychologist. By the time I got to her office she already knew the story. She’d been told about the underhand tactics, the lies and deceit, the sense of betrayal and abandonment.
She looked me in the eye and said, ‘So, Mary-Lou, what makes you think you’re so special?’
I was stunned. What had I expected? Sympathy perhaps, warmth definitely, but not this. I’ve seen countless counsellors and sat opposite many therapists. I’ve sat in their waiting rooms, staring at my hands until my name was called. The worst was a session with a clinical hypnotherapist. The police insisted. But that was a lifetime ago. A different life. For once I was not in a psychologist’s office because of my flaws or failings. I was there because I had been shafted. Big-time.
She leant across her desk and smiled smugly. With a counselling service provided for every contingency these days, she’d never be out of work. ‘Thousands of people lose their jobs every day,’ she said. ‘Workplaces are being restructured all the time. I’ve seen clients from at least half-a-dozen different companies this year alone. So my question is not why should this happen to you, but why shouldn’t this happen to you?’
I left without telling her. I refused to reveal my soul in front of her fake smile and polished spiel. I didn’t tell her my job was my only reason for being. I had no husband, no children, no other calling but this. My job. A job I had dreamt into existence. A job that had saved my life. And now I felt as though it was considered worthless. Everything I had worked for meant nothing in the face of this corporate indifference. My job was my world and my world was shattered.
An older, wiser friend was more helpful. ‘You’ve got three choices,’ he said. ‘Get out now and find another job, stick around and be resentful, or go with the changes. I’ve seen people come out of restructures with better jobs and more money, but only if they embraced the new regime.’
I chose option three. I couldn’t quite come at an embrace but I jumped through hoops and acted the part. My friend was right. The rewards flowed. By playing the game I came through the restructure with a better job. I thought I was safe.
I was wrong.
A few weeks later I was waiting outside the state manager’s office. A meeting was scheduled with the national manager. The suits wanted to know how I was going to implement some major changes. That’s when I first saw him. Dark-haired, smooth and self-confident, wearing a black suit and very pointy shoes. He looked like a shark.
‘I’m Elliot Purvis. I’ll be sitting in on the meeting today. You don’t mind me taking notes, do you.’
There was no point in saying no.
‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘What have you got planned.’
He didn’t ask questions, he made statements.
So I told him.
Fifteen minutes later, in front of an array of very important managers, he presented my entire plan as his own.
I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. When I could breathe again I directed my attention to the state manager. ‘Of course you’d be aware of these points already. They were in the proposal I emailed to you last week.’
It was true. I had gone over the major points with her beforehand. I smiled coolly at the shark – he’d bitten the wrong person.
Elliot Purvis wasn’t embarrassed – he didn’t even flinch. He examined me as if I were a specimen preserved in formaldehyde. In that moment the energy between us shifted and I knew my newly constructed world was in deep trouble.
It’s been over a year now, since that day. Over a year since Elliot Purvis became my boss. Some of his actions are subtle, but most are blatant, without a trace of guilt, remorse or regret. It seems he has no regard for consequences. I’m humiliated in front of colleagues and management. In private my work and worth are belittled. To protest or complain only brings more malevolence. I am not the only one to suffer. My colleagues and I discuss our torment but find no solution.
He confounds me. Sometimes he tells jokes and turns the warm glow of his smile on us, the next minute he will tear us and our work to bloody shreds. I am in a constant state of fear and confusion. And grief. Grief that my dream job has become the main source of my misery.
There is no prospect of rescue by management. To them he is their golden boy. He’s young, ambitious and very good looking. They pat him on the back at staff parties, laugh and call him Ness. They’re right, he is untouchable. We call him The Hideous Mr Purvis. The devastation he heaps upon us goes unreported. We are all too broken, made too dizzy by the destruction, to raise our heads.
I spent many years under the delusion that I could change other people. Indeed, thanks to my mother and her strong Christian beliefs, I thought it was my duty. She believed we were meant to change other people. It was for their own good. Missionaries went out into the world to tell the savages about Jesus, so the savages could be saved and go to heaven. And, although she didn’t go to deepest darkest Africa or the jungles of Peru, she did see it as her mission to change everyone she met into God-fearing Jesus lovers. Therefore any child of hers, especially her daughter, should do the same. I thought I could change people, but even more so that I should change people. I had a mandate to instruct them in the right way to proceed at every opportunity. To give them advice whether sought after or not. To imbue them with my deep sense of righteousness and to disapprove when they, in my view, transgressed. That was the correct procedure, according to my mother’s example, and my mother had taught me well.
But later I was taught something else. In my thirties, when it was time to recover from the lessons I’d been taught, from the things I’d done, I was introduced to the Serenity Prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.
When I was told what the prayer meant, I was astounded. It was a revelation to discover that I was powerless over other people, places and things. Contrary to what I’d been taught by my mother, I was not responsible for other people’s actions. I was not expected to change them. Indeed I couldn’t change them and I wasn’t supposed to even try. The weight of expectation, duty and diligence lifted from my shoulders. It was a physical shift, a distinct lightening of being.
Now, more than with anyone else, it is clear I cannot change Elliot Purvis. If I am to be free of this anguish I must attend to the only thing I can change. I must look within. I must change myself.
Excerpted from Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mary-Lou Stephens. Copyright © 2013 by Mary-Lou Stephens.
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