[These excerpts are from BURNOUT, Book 1, Burnout to Bliss series.]
From Part 1: It’s Never Just One Thing:
Being the Target
On that night when my reality got such a swift kick, I was with Rena, a super-smart, non-traditional, former student. She had contributed a chapter to the textbook I would be using in my course about how to teach special needs students in the regular junior or senior high class room.
We met after work intending to hit all the bars on Main Street, having a single drink in each. As closing time approached, we ended up at a bar toward the end of the strip, because their clock “seemed to be slower” than the ones at other bars and my car was parked across the street from it.
While sitting at the bar laughing out loud about our outrageous evening, animated conversation from people sitting behind us suddenly interrupted our reverie.
“But our department isn’t like yours, or any other for that matter,” we heard one of them say. “In our department, because of this new bottom-up leadership, the chairman position is like God.”
“Bullshit!” retorted one of his companions.
“Seriously!” he continued. “We’ve lost three faculty members since she became chairman – three faculty members in less than five years – because you either bend to her or leave when she makes you the target. You watch. It’ll be Pam’s turn next.”
Rena grabbed my arm and tossed her head slightly, suggesting we get out of there pronto. We slipped off the stools and crept out in a throng of guys moving towards the door.
Outside, after we’d crossed the street away from the bar, she stopped. “Is it true?” she asked, slurring her speech.
I made a silly face like, “I don’t know. You know me…”
Rena snorted. “Uh huh,” she said. “Head down. Do your own job. Don’t hang out around the water cooler. Don’t drink from the department coffee pot.”
“Good student!” I said, and then shook my head. “She won’t come after me. We’re friends.”
“You were. What, 10 years ago?” she said.
“I don’t know. Can’t think right now,” I said, because I really couldn’t.
We got to her apartment door and said goodnight.
I walked the block to my car. It wouldn’t start. I went back to Rena’s building and pounded on her door, thinking I’d crash on her couch, but she didn’t answer. She was home; I guess she had passed out – understandable. I knocked again and called her name. Then a resident down the hall threatened to call the police if I didn’t leave. So I did.
I walked over to Jenny’s house because she was a musician and singer and probably had just gotten home from her gig. I begged her for a ride home. She obliged, but it was clear she was upset about it. I couldn’t understand why.
Jenny had been my friend for many years. I first met her when she was singing country-western with a band at a local restaurant and followed her from one venue to another as she performed with different groups. I liked her voice – low, like mine. Maybe that’s why I drank so much, because hers were not the only bands I followed. That, and the fact I also loved to dance. In the ‘80s, there were venues for live music all up and down Purgatory’s Main Street and at least three good places to dance.
I stayed up all night considering what Rena, my drinking buddy, and I had overheard at the bar and flashed back on the relationship I had once had with the woman who had become our new chairman – the same woman who supposedly was about to make me her target in earnest.
But she had once been my friend!
Chairman Witch, as I was now calling her in my journal, was a wilted flower with adult acne when she first showed up at Mount Purgatory College a few years after I did. Each member of the department interviewed her. When it was my turn, something about her broke my heart. Despite the way she moved her hands animatedly as she talked, despite the slinky sundress she wore, I pitied her. As she spoke, I heard a wounded child begging for a chance. And I convinced my colleagues to hire her.
All these years later, she had become chairman by default, because no one else wanted the job.
The previous Chairman, whom our dean had met at a conference and hired for the job, stopped at each of our office doors when it came time for him to step down and asked, “Do you want to be chairman?” One by one we had responded, “No, thanks.” When he asked me, I added, “I’ve just finished my second term as faculty chair and a three-year grant. Let someone else have a shot.”
“No sooner had I turned down the job than Chairman Witch jumped out of her office and declared: “I’ll do it! I’d like very much to be chairman.”
As I thought back even further, it hit me that the very random process by which she had been selected may have been at least partly my doing.
When I had first arrived at Mount Purgatory, our dean had stopped by my office to ask me what I would do if I were chairman. New at Mount Purgatory, I was still vibrating at a fairly fast pace. I had just come from the University of Texas. Even when still a graduate student I was hired as a consultant by other schools to help solve their problems.
It was late and we were the only ones on our side of the building shared with two other departments. I remember answering my dean’s “What would you do” question by saying something like, “I’d get rid of the deadwood and make sure anyone interested in making this the best department on campus gets the resources they need to do the job.”
“You can’t do that!” he replied.
Snap! All the pieces fell into place. That conversation might have been the reason he went off campus to find our next chairman! Clearly, I hadn’t seen the signs about his intention to someday change the policy in our department for getting a new chairman when we’d had that little chat after work. I wasn’t paying enough attention. When I first came, the chairman either died or retired before we got a new one. Because I was a workaholic introvert, I wasn’t aware of changes in my work environment and all the ways it might affect me. Huh. So that’s why people hang out around the water cooler!
But had she really become the powerful shrew everyone seemed to think she was?
Sure, I had experienced our new chairman’s nastiness occasionally. One morning she stormed into my office unannounced when I was in the middle of counseling a student. She hovered over us, arms akimbo, blathering about something she needed me to do. But I didn’t mind it at the time, because I knew she was overloaded and inexperienced in leadership and, frankly, not as smart as I was. Besides, we were friends. Or so I thought.
In fact, we had been best friends when she first came to Mount Purgatory. I’m thinking it was 1977 when she moved here with her artist husband. We were neighbors in a little community five miles out of town. We shared dinners and took walks to the pond, and she showed me her new scooter. Hell, we even went shopping together – in a real store! For clothes! I never go shopping, much less with someone else. But I let her convince me to go with her to a pricey place on Main Street, where we bought identical wool suits because she said “We’re sisters!” She was such a little girl then, giggling, playing dress-up and having so much fun!
It was now mere hours before dawn on Saturday after the drinking tour of Purgatory Friday night. I still couldn’t sleep so I sneaked downstairs for a snack.
Munching on hummus and crackers, I thought about what Rena had said about “Ten years ago,” and memories of how my relationship with Chairman Witch had deteriorated sprang forth like dandelions in a spring yard.
It was the first winter after my friend, now Chairman Witch, and her husband moved into the same subdivision where my husband and I lived. We were just two happy couples, enjoying life five miles from town and the college. We had each other over for dinner; we partied together; when it snowed I picked her up in my truck.
However, soon she and I were both going through rough times in our marriages; we were both mere paperwork away from being divorced. That’s when the first chink appeared between us, the two “sisters.” Her husband called me, desperately wanting to talk about their marital problems over lunch, because he knew his wife and I were best buds. I remember hesitating, because I hate it when people discuss my personal stuff. But he insisted, said he’d come up to the office to talk if I refused the invitation, so I agreed. What could it hurt?
The next week, she called my husband for the same reason – or so she said. When my husband arrived in our suite of offices, whatever slender thread of trust she and I still had at that time snapped instantly. Even though it seems like we did the same thing, we absolutely did not. I was faithful to my husband even a year or so after we divorced. She was having an affair with her boss the instant she moved here. I was trying to help out my friends. The Witch, however, had lunch with my husband to spite me. Maybe it’s a woman thing, but we know what’s what. Bottom line: this woman who once was my best friend had become my worst enemy.
And now she was Chairman Witch, my nemesis.
Shortly after that drama about our husbands, she and I attended a conference in her area of expertise at the University of Arizona. We went together because we were both on the program to give presentations, and our college would provide only one vehicle for such a trip. I remember that it was an exceptionally warm May. We were wearing sleeveless tees, shorts and sandals. As we crossed back into Colorado, we had to stop to put on tire chains before ascending a very steep pass that was still snowy from a late-spring snowstorm.
As I opened the door to get out, I said something like, “Brr! Chilly! Hope they included some directions for us with the chains.”
She made a face and said, “Us? Well, you can’t expect me to help you.”
“Why not?” I asked.
She made another face and waved her perfectly painted fingernails in the air.
Perhaps 30 minutes later, lying on my back in the inch or so of snow on the side of the road, I finally got the chains fastened. My white shorts were muddy, my shirt ruined. As I lay in the freezing snow clenching my teeth, I reflected on how I was not the only one she disregarded. I thought about the phone calls I couldn’t help but overhear in our shared hotel room at the conference.
She talked openly about the affair she was having with the man who was then our department chairman, the same man I’d introduced to my mom when she came for her visit in Mom’s House. This was the same guy who, when I’d come for my interview in 1976, had invited me to have dinner with him and his wife. I accepted with the caveat that I’d have to wear jeans, because I hadn’t brought another dress to wear. When they picked me up, both he and his wife were wearing jeans as well. I thought that was such a kind gesture and I considered them my first friends on the job.
The week after we returned from the conference in Arizona, I dropped by the dean’s office to talk about a grant proposal I’d been writing. His secretary came into his office and returned my report for the trip, saying I had to do it over. It was the standard form we filed after traveling on college business to get reimbursed for our travel expenses.
“Why?” I asked.
Before she could answer, the dean waved her off and closed the door behind me. He sat down and said, “Because you didn’t fill it out right.”
“Excuse me?” I protested. “I noted the amounts I personally spent on meals and hotel costs with receipts to back up every cent. Isn’t that what I was supposed to do?”
“In doing so you made your colleague look bad because she simply filled in the amounts allotted – as everyone does. What were you trying to prove?”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“This is a small school,” the dean said. “Our salaries can’t compare to those at universities. Claiming allotted per diem amounts when traveling on state business is merely honoring my gesture of appreciation for the work you do. Now do you understand?”
“Yes sir. Thank you, sir.” I said trying hard to control the quiver that ran through me like a lightning bolt.
I picked up my form and took it with me to do over, forgetting to mention, as I had intended to do when I went to his office, the huge federal grant I was applying for. I stopped by his secretary’s desk to ask whether it would be asking too much of her to please fill out that form for me. My cheeks felt hot, my chest felt so constricted I could scarcely breathe, and my hands were still trembling. I wanted to throw up.
Finally, I nodded off and slept til Saturday late afternoon. I wrote in my journal, while listening to music, trying to capture all the insights the “memory dandelions” had presented.
It was now Sunday morning and I woke up feeling such enmity for Chairman Witch – my former friend – that I walked to church so I would have plenty of time to chill before the service. It was 12 blocks away – not even close to being far enough. I tried to focus on the preacher’s message, but I could not. Then I focused on the light coming through the beautiful stained glass windows on either side of the sanctuary. The beauty of the stained glass and the light that filtered through them soothed me.
Still, after the service I felt prompted to talk with two people I trusted with my feelings – the preacher and an associate who had already been targeted by Chairman Witch. They confirmed my assessment of the situation – that she was just jealous of me. In that moment, standing with my colleague and my preacher, I found it easy to forgive.
Of course, it’s always easier to forgive when people you like validate your experience.
However, the truth is that when we’re into blaming someone else, as I definitely was blaming my friend, Chairman Witch, we will always be able to find whatever validations we require to justify our position. And the validation I got that Sunday was especially potent because it had come from the preacher of my church!
That night, sitting alone in my sanctuary upstairs with incense burning and a tumbler full of wine on the nightstand, I recalled one of Chairman Witch’s first assignments for me after she took over.
She asked me to observe a new instructor in a special needs program at the college. That teacher had been her best friend when they were graduate students together in Arizona. The program she was in had nothing to do with our department. Chairman Witch asked me, she said, because I had research experience in teacher observation and she wanted a formal report. I felt really awkward doing it. I couldn’t fathom how she had the power to make such a request. But I complied.
Right away I noticed how easily this teacher in the special needs program interacted with those students who have had so little experience of success, how she put them at ease. My report documented excellent teaching behavior in all areas and included comments praising teacher-student interaction. Despite my glowing report on the new instructor, her boss – the married man Chairman Witch was still seeing, even publicly – fired her.
As the sunlight entered my bedroom announcing a new day, I remembered what my mentor at the University of Texas had said when I accepted the job at Mount Purgatory College.
“If you go there, you’ll disappear,” he said. “You won’t get to do the kind of research you’re doing now, and if the job goes south, you’ll be screwed, because no one will know about you.”
He also mentioned that in academia, it was really hard to change jobs when you’re over 40, especially if you’re coming from a small school in an isolated, rural mountain town. And if anything happens between you and your chairman, you’re in real trouble, because no one will even accept your application without a glowing letter from your department chair.
“At the university level, your reputation in the field would go a long way toward mitigating any personal letter,” he added.
I remembered how upset my mentor was when I told him I’d taken the job in Purgatory. He really, really, really didn’t want me to! He had warned me about precisely the situation in which I now found myself.
But I was thirty when he told me all that, so I didn’t really pay attention. Finally, I got it and suddenly felt both ashamed and incredibly stupid for letting it happen to me.
But there wasn’t anything I could do about it now but go with the flow, make the best of it. In the shower, getting ready for work, I realized that I had done nothing but ruminate and worry since the extended bar-fest I shared with Rena on Friday night. I felt used and abused and trapped.
I hadn’t been in my office very long when Jenny, the singer friend who had given me a ride home Friday night charged into my office, closed the door behind her and, still standing, reminded me of that scene at her house – drunk me asking for a ride home. “You’ve got a problem!” she said. “Deal with it!”
I felt ashamed – not only by what she said, but how loudly she said it. Our offices were cheaply fashioned. Everyone in the department and beyond had no doubt heard every word Jenny said.
I quit drinking cold-turkey. No more drinks after work. Not even an occasional wine or beer, by myself or with the motley crew at home.
Tension along the war zone at work only escalated after that. I felt trapped wherever I went. At work I was trapped in a job that was getting harder by the day because some silly woman was on a power trip. At home I was trapped in a house I couldn’t afford with no way to sell it because there were no buyers.
Meanwhile, on the home front, it was almost Christmas, and significant changes had occurred in the house, my refuge from work. The motley crew, my sole support system, had moved on to greener pastures. The interior designer moved out of state with a guy she met at a bar. The roadie and the trust-funder managed to get their own houses. I was alone.
In bed that night, listening to the wind whistling through the window at the top of the stairs, I heard voices coming from right behind me. I turned slowly in the direction of the noise and saw two very handsome young men sitting in relaxed lounging positions in the air above my bed: Jesus and Satan! They were talking about me and my life and debating which of them should have me. Frightened and confused, I slid down in my bed like a child, cowering under the covers…
When I am overwhelmed by things I can’t do anything about, I respond by making myself busier, taking on more work. So, naturally, on stress-overload, I volunteered for the Community Christmas Project, manning a booth in the mall for donations and gift-wrapping evenings after work. I drove developmentally disabled kids to a special Christmas Party. I even took in a relative stranger, rent-free, when her trailer pipes froze and she had nowhere to go.
For a brief period, these make-work activities did provide some relief to the frustration I felt over my situation. But I still felt twisted inside. My mind couldn’t help but harp on the terrible “what ifs” even while lying in bed, reading A Course of Miracles.
What if I am Chairman Witch’s next target? What would I do if she forced me to leave, as she had those others? How could I manage my precarious financial situation without this job?
Suddenly I noticed how much my chest hurt. In the pre-dawn silence I could hear myself snatching air again, as if something wanted me to die and was smothering the life out of me. I had set the book aside and was about to drift off when it happened.
The house was so still and quiet, the time when night sounds prevail. I was alone because my rent-free housemate was out of town. I was so desperate for sleep.
Lying there in the moonlight, I listened to the sounds I never heard during the day – the draft whistling around the non-insulated latch-style window at the top of the stairs from the kitchen, the gentle moaning of that same draft moving in the storage cabinets on either side of the landing, and … someone downstairs pulling knives out of the holder.
But I was alone! There was no one here but me!
The metal scraping was familiar to me; they were my knives. It sounded like someone was examining each knife and then placing it back in the rack on the wall … until it stopped.
Then I heard footsteps moving toward the stairs and realized it must be an intruder! My breath caught in my throat. “What should I do?” I wondered. My mind searched for an explanation. “Maybe he only wants money, is looking for my purse. Where is it? Damn! It’s right beside me, on the floor by the bed. Surely he means no harm. He’s just some guy who noticed there was only one car parked around the house tonight instead of the usual two.”
I sank deep under the covers, choosing to pretend I was asleep, with my eyes barely opened as slits.
Suddenly, there was a large shadow from the open doorway. Before I could scream, he lunged toward me. I saw the glint of light reflected by the moon when he raised his arm and the knife slashed through my body, splattering my blood onto the walls. My bed felt wet and slimy as the blood soaked the mattress. I heard my voice mewling like a dying animal.
Then everything was just … finished … until I realized that wasn’t me being murdered. It was only my body. I was no longer there. I was observing from the corner of the room, looking down from the ceiling.
__________(end of excerpt 5)____________
About the Burnout to Bliss Series
With Book 1, BURNOUT — How a Desert Lizard Restored My Faith, was written to help educate others about extreme burnout. I wanted the reader to feel what I had felt in that time — a kind of madness that included psychotic visions which might occur even while I was teaching — and the chaos of doing my job while trying to understand what was happening through the lens of a spiritual seeker. I tried to achieve that by grouping events by topic rather than writing the entire book as a timeline story of this happened, then this, and then this.
The first get away from that extreme situation was to a “sanctuary” in California as related in Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY. That get away apparently was presented simply to heal myself enough to take the next step.
In Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY, I wanted to share the experience of “loss of self” — like not being able to do even familiar things like riding a bicycle after extreme burnout — and how I fought back, how I got my self-confidence and self-esteem back. That led to wanting to show others how they could make whatever change they wanted to make, so it ended up being written in two parts.
The real story of the ego surrendering control began when that sanctuary was no longer available and I became like The Fool (Tarot card, pictured here), jumping off a cliff with a tiny knapsack and a little dog for company… That story is told in Book 3, a full-length book, currently sitting at 70,500 words. It’s a tale of trusting God (or the Universe if you prefer), of letting go and trusting that life is good and safe and that all my needs will be met even before I realize I have them. It is the final story of an awakening experience, my two-year journey with one modest paycheck and no plans that was launched with BURNOUT. (Working title is “Practicing SURRENDER.)
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Click the BURNOUT TO BLISS tab on the far right at the top of the page and scroll down, and then follow the directions OR simply click the link below:
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Coming up next:
Part 1, “Chapter 5: Being on the Couch”
Till next time, please be kind to everyone you meet, for we all have our hidden sorrows. ~Tzaddi