There is a memory I can never forget. One that changed everything for me, and for my family. A memory of Monday, 11 October, 2010. The day I got the phone call. It wasn’t just any phone call. It was THE phone call. The one that ends everything. I’ll change some of the names, so no one has to worry that I’m pointing any fingers at them. I’m not. I’ve long over that.
I remember it so well. My boss being on the other end of the call. “Mark, they don’t want you to return to work on Tuesday. Instead, you’ll have to come here, to the office. And we’ll figure out what’s going on.”
It was one of those moments when you panic. When the only thing you can do is panic. Because you know when you hear those words that your going to be fired. That no one ever hears those words, and doesn’t get fired.
Hell, I didn’t even know what I’d done. I’d done my job. I’d done everything I was asked. If someone had a technical question about the program, I answered it. Happily. I had no problem with the work. The work was what I liked. It was what I was paid to do. I did it.
There was more to it than that. My summer had gone to hell. Complete and total hell. Two of my friends at work were having very hard times. Now, you have to understand some things about me. About the way I am. You have to understand that to me, people that I work with are not expendable. They’re not acquaintances. They’re not “someone I work with”. To me, those artificial lines in the sand that people draw, those invisible walls that they put up, that sort their lives into compartments, don’t exist. They never have.
I had few friends. I’ve never had many friends. I likely never will. But I had friends that I worked with. People that I trusted. People I would have gladly helped if they’d ever have asked me to. Two of them did. Two of them had problems in the summer of 2010. And I helped them. As best I could. In the only way I knew how.
One was Barbara. Barbara was a few years older than me. She’d been in a downward spiral for a while. It was easy to see that. She had days she called in sick. With her back in great pain. And with back spasms. You remember those Cymbalta commercials? The ones that ask, “How much does depression hurt?”. Well… Barbara was an example of that. She’d reached a point where coming in to work each day caused her headaches. Caused her back to ache. Caused her back spasms. Where her body would literally prevent her from showing up at work.
My heart said to me, “You can help her. Even if she doesn’t ask. You can help her. Give her a reason to smile. Every morning. Find something funny to share with her in an e-mail message.” And that’s what I did.
The most everyone seemed to do was watch. Sit on the sidelines, and watch as Barbara spiraled down into the hell that depression is. Everyone sat on the sidelines. Behaving the same way. Watching, and wondering to themselves, “What’s wrong with her now?” And making the declaration among themselves, “She should pull her act together, and fly straight, like the rest of us, before she get’s herself fired.”
That’s one of those things that people do that drives me bonkers, you know. When they look at you and take the same approach as Pontius Pilate did with Jesus Christ in the Christian Bible. When he washed his hands of the whole topic, and declared, and let an innocent man be murdered by a mob. It’s one of those cop-outs that people use. Like a crowd on a street in a big city somewhere that just keeps walking past like nothing is happening as some guy with a gun and a knife rapes some woman, and then murders her in front of everyone. And no one does a thing to prevent it.
I found I couldn’t be that way. I couldn’t behave as if nothing was going on. As if there was nothing I could do. I had to help. Barbara was my friend. What else could I do? Stand by, and pretend everything was OK? It wasn’t. And I knew it. And I knew exactly what was happening to her. And I knew I could help. I knew I had the ability to help. And that’s what I did.
The way people reacted to her, and the battle she was fighting with depression, made me angry. It was as if they all were part of some machine. Some unified, uniform structure. Where everyone did everything the same way. To me, they all became the same. It was as if all the life in the place was gone. As if nothing real was left there anymore. As if no one cared for anyone. As if the only thing that mattered was the paycheck. And if the person they worked with five days a week for ten years got shot one day, and died, well. There was nothing to be done about that. Just replace the missing piece with another piece. And continue earning that paycheck.
They’d become inhuman to me.
Then there was Cynthia. The one that talked with me one day, and said she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
You know what burned me up? What made me angry? What made me think that no one cared about anyone except themselves? What I was told to do. How I was told to behave. “Mark. Don’t care about Cynthia. There’s nothing you can do.” That’s like telling someone watching a friend hang out the window of an apartment building that’s on fire, and telling them, “Oh, well. If your friend falls from there, and hits the ground, and dies, that’s life. Don’t try to help.” We me thinking, “Where the fuck’s the air mattress? How about cardboard boxes? Lots of boxes? I gotta do SOMETHING!”
And that’s what I was told. It was unanimous. Every single person that I worked with said the same thing. Maybe in different words. But it all came down to one thing. One essential idea. Protect yourself. Protect your job. Learn not to care.
I couldn’t. To me, that was just flat wrong. To me, sitting back and not saying anything was wrong. To me, coming in to work on a day when Cynthia was so ill that she couldn’t work at all, and behaving as if everything was normal, was heartless.
After what I’d seen happen to Barbara, seeing what was happening to Cynthia was too much. My heart refused to roll over and play dead. My soul cried out to God and asked what He would have me do. My sense of right and wrong screamed at me that everything was wrong. I could not sit back and say to Cynthia, “Here’s hoping you get better,” and then behave as if she was expendable. Another part in the machine of work. Of life. And that if that part failed, well… You do what you do with any other machine. You replace the broken part. The part that failed. And the machine goes on.
I knew I had problems with all of the events that were going on. But, you can’t tell someone that’s having problems, “You need help,” and expect them to listen to you. I hadn’t tried to tell Barbara that she needed help. I’d waited for her to figure it out on her own. Because I understood that she knew something was wrong. And that she understood what she had to do to get better.
She had to figure out for herself that she needed help. And then she had to go find the help she needed. And I had to support her. To be her friend. And when she did get help, I had to ask how it was working. How things were going. If she’d found what she was looking for.
Unlike the people that said, “It’s about fucking time she got help.”
I’ve learned. People are heartless. Their souls are cold, and lifeless. And their hearts no longer beat. They’re dead. And grey. And their lives have no color any more. As if they’ve become machine, programmed to do the same thing every day. And they are all programmed to do the same thing the same way. None of them is different. And that’s how they want to be.
And they said to me, “How’s Barbara doing? Is she doing OK? I’m concerned for her.”
I tried so hard to not laugh when they said such things to me. I tried so hard to not push people that said such things through the wall behind them. Screaming at the top of my lungs, “LIAR!” Because I knew. I knew. I knew that no one cared. Not really. I knew that what they were really saying is, “It’s sad what’s happening. But if getting involved. If caring. If doing anything other than watching from the sidelines puts my paycheck, my career, my image at risk. I have my family to think about. My bills to pay. My home to take care of. I knew why they said they cared. Why they said, “We are concerned.” And at the same time, why they said, “Don’t care about Cynthia,” to me.
It was almost an instant change for me. The rejection of how things were. My declaration that nothing at work was real any more. That nothing there mattered. And of course, that’s how I began to behave. I behaved like I felt. I behaved as if everywhere I looked, I saw people lying. As if no one spoke the truth any more in that place of work. As if everyone knew no one spoke the truth. As if everyone knew that saying, “You’re my friend” was actually saying, “I have to work with you.” As if everyone would wink at each other, and do their best to keep the secret safe about how things really were.
I never saw the phone call coming. I never saw the end. I never expected that I would be told by each of the people that I worked with, “You’re disrupting our carefully crafted machine. We can’t accept that. We have to get rid of you.”
And when it happened. When that phone call came. For anyone to think that I could fee I had not been betrayed by the people I’d worked with for so very long, simply proves that no one there cared about anyone. That everyone there was a replaceable part in a machine.
That phone call was a knife. Slammed into my chest. A deliberate action by people that I trusted. People I learned I never understood. People that claimed to care for Barbara. For Cynthia. And even for me. And ever action they took only showed me more and more how false their statements, and their lives were.
On the day I got that phone call, I knew. I knew that I would never speak with any of them again. That I would never work with any of them again. That there was some imaginary wall in life that they had carefully, and forcefully placed me beyond. So that they were once more safe. In their machine. I knew that no matter what anyone said. Or how anyone acted. I had worked my last day in that job.
I didn’t know that I still had 9 months of lies to wade through. To put up with. Before the people that I’d worked for made their decisions clear.
Did I do things that were different? Yes. I did. I remember laughing to myself as I left the workplace. With people watching me. Not out of concern. But out of fear. I remember the headaches that I used to get the instant I parked my car in the parking lot. I remember the inability of 420 milligrams of Sodium Naproxen to even dampen the physical pain I was in, each day I worked in that place. From the first of July, 2010, through October 6th, 2010. I remember burning every day of vacation I had. I remember burning every hour of sick leave. I remember my hands shaking like the tines on a tuning fork. I remember buying cheap ink pens to replace the cheap ink pens I’d bought before. And I remember throwing the remains of more than one ink pen in the trash. Where it has been destroyed in my hand. And I remember punching the back of a steelcase 5 drawer file cabinet. Hard enough to bruise my hand. Even though I pulled the punch. Even though it was thrown off balance, and off center.
It was part of me learning how wrong everything was in that place I used to work. Learning what it really was that mattered in that place. Learning that in such a place, everyone is expendable. And that the only thing that matters is the work. The end product. And that if people get sick, or ill, of have problems in that place, they get removed. They get replaced. With people that haven’t been destroyed by the work environment yet.
And that the people that survive in that place only give the appearance of having survived. Of being OK. For inside, their hearts no longer beat. For they are frozen. Harder than any ice. Colder than any stone. And they care for no one. People that are dead inside can no longer care.
All of this.
Because of one phone call.
On Monday. 11 October 2010.
They say God works in ways that mortal men cannot understand. I find I can’t argue with that. Because that phone call, on that day, started me down the path that I’m on now. A path where I am free to be how God made me to be. Free to look around, and see the other people in this world. And how wounded so many of them are. And how dead inside so many of them have become.
And in doing so, my heart cannot help but ache, and my soul can not help but cry tears of pain, for the hurt I see in them.
That one phone call changed everything. And in the days to come, I’ll have much more to write about the things I have learned. The things I see. When I look at the hearts and souls of so many of the people around me.