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A Toxic Workplace That Gave Me Panic Attacks Wasn’t Worth The Salary I Earned!

When I spoke of these experiences, I was told that it happens everywhere. I wondered, how does that make it any better? Just because something is normal, doesn’t imply that it’s okay.

When I spoke of these experiences, I was told that it happens everywhere. I wondered, how does that make it any better? Just because something is ‘normal’, doesn’t imply that it’s okay.

I was 24 when I accepted a job. It was my first and I was really hesitant to accept it. The interview was full of red flags. In fact, the first call I got had a huge red flag. The caller said – we would like to have a beautiful, young editor like you working with us.

I knew I wouldn’t follow up. Beauty and youth are not job requirements for a school book editor.

When I shared the news in jest, many people asked me to follow up. Money is important. No matter what it pays, take it. I wasn’t convinced. I went for the interview and it felt awful. I couldn’t exactly decide what was wrong and hence, failed to express it to people. I asked for a raise in the offer made to me, hoping I’ll use that as a reason to not accept the job. They raised it. I began working, so to speak.

Five months of complete mental torture along with sexual harassment every now and then followed upon my joining. I stopped sleeping because waking up was scary. Walking up to the office felt like a battle and my body felt like a battleground. I was the youngest person in that workplace and everyone had an opinion about how I should live my life, behave, dress, and be like a conventional woman.

The manager often stared at my breasts while talking to me and made sexist jokes expecting me to laugh at them. The only thing is, I spoke up for the harassment and returned the jokes with jibes rather than laughter. I received calls at 9pm for nothing but just to be ‘guided out of my incompetence as a young woman’, I made sure that they know I won’t take calls beyond office hours.

I fought. I wished women in leadership positions were confident and secure enough to not want validation from their male counterparts. I wished so, dearly.

Does salary make a toxic workplace tolerable?

It would all perhaps have been a little tolerable if I were paid on time or paid at all. I don’t know what difference money would have made. I didn’t feel any sense of content when I got my first salary. I was glad I could pay the rent, I won’t deny that. But there wasn’t happiness or excitement. I know that not being paid on time later helped me quit sooner than I otherwise would have. I began having panic attacks during that time and no amount of money would have helped calm me.

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When I spoke of these experiences, I was told that it happens everywhere. I wondered, how does that make it any better? Just because something is normal, doesn’t imply that it’s okay. The pain, the trauma, the constant manipulation, the harassment, the politics – none of it felt okay.

I didn’t know what I did to deserve that. The only thing that occurred to me was, I didn’t listen to my instinct and chose to take others’ advice because money is important. It is but at what cost? Losing one’s self-worth right when a person enters the so-called real world?

How does one recover? How does one accept that it wasn’t her fault that destroyed her in ways that people found ‘normal’? How does one begin to talk about it when financial security is a must for women to be independent in their domestic world? How do we talk about this intersection when conversations about women empowerment don’t go beyond education and job? When does one start talking about cultural change – shouldn’t everything be running in parallel?

I was scared of applying for jobs again

I don’t have anyone to blame. I got the help I needed to look away from this experience. I focused on academics again, planned to pursue research. I found much-needed guidance and support from people around me. Just that, I could not explain why I am not looking for jobs anymore. Everyone said, one bad experience doesn’t mean every experience will be bad. I knew it. I just didn’t have the confidence to make decisions again, not after being destroyed in such a way that I was scared of my own thoughts.

So, I did everything I could to not apply for a job again. It bought me time to deal with the damage. I realised soon enough that talking doesn’t help when you don’t feel heard. Also, I didn’t want to come across as scared or weak. I did the one thing I knew how to do – I wrote obsessively. I didn’t let anything stay inside my head. I put it on paper. There was no beginning, middle or end.

Over a period of time, I stopped letting people have a say in my life decisions. I listened to them but did not take their advice till it felt right in my core. I realised that I needed to see and hear myself. I needed to trust my experiences and balance them with everything else.

Money is important but it doesn’t decide in my self-worth

Girls are usually raised to be married. I was raised to be financially independent in case I needed to get out of a marriage. It didn’t quite pan out that way. Life, as they say, had other plans.

It’s been three years since I quit my job. I have not looked back or questioned that decision. For more than a year, I felt stuck. I couldn’t get out of the fear. I assumed it to be the fear of harassment. I now see that it was the fear of running out of strength and clarity. It comes when the world dismisses your struggle or expects you to jump right back in.

When I went for a job interview right before lockdown, my only response to it was – wow, there are normal people out there (as in, they don’t harass). Many people yet again told me that one bad experience doesn’t define everything. This time I didn’t explain anything either. I knew that I needed to get out of the loop created by that experience, a loop where I lived the trauma over and over again. I needed to feel safe in order to risk getting out there again. I needed time to recover

I was often reminded that I am growing older and won’t have many job offers. People younger than me will earn more than me and I won’t feel good about it. It was true. I needed money. I needed to be financially independent. I wasn’t immune to social checkpoints but I made a consistent effort to be not driven by them.

Money is important, it is. Earlier I believed that it decided my worth. Now I know, it doesn’t. If I had to create a pie chart, then 60% of my self-worth comes from knowing who I am. If I choose to be a housewife tomorrow, I know I still deserve as much respect as any other person. I won’t settle for less. If I work, then it perhaps carries 20% of my worth, and the remaining 20% is carried by my relationships.

I have been lost enough to understand that I cannot let an external agency decide my worth more than me. Sometimes I wish more people to get this. At the same time, I understand that my privilege allowed me the time to recover and discover myself. I might have jumped right back into another job had I not had financial security from my parents.

Image source: still from short film Feeling is Mutual/ Six Sigma Films on YouTube

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About the Author

Akankshya Abismruta

Feminist. Writer. Questions everything. Scribbles everywhere. read more...

6 Posts

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