My Triple Crown of Sadness

I’ve been known to make jokes about things that make me sad or that are incredibly painful for me. This is why it should come as no surprise that I refer to this week as, “My Triple Crown of Sadness”. Because, let’s be honest, as far as weeks go, this one is pretty jammed packed with emotions. As with the story of my house fire, I find myself asking if I really want to share such personal thoughts with the World Wide Web. Again, I am reminded of two things:

1. Each time I tell my story, I find that I heal just a little bit.

2. I know that I am not alone when I refer to my “Three Crowns” and I hope that by reading my story, someone else will heal just a little bit too.

My First Crown was awarded to me on September 10th, 26 years ago when I suddenly, and unexpectedly, lost my father. While losing my father has shaped my life in more ways that I can even name, it is also a loss that is undeniably intertwined with the stories of my family and, for that reason; I will not elaborate any further.

My Second Crown was awarded to me when I, with the American Red Cross Disaster Action Team, responded to the attacks of September 11th. I started out in a service center where I would talk with each client as they came in, assess their needs, and help them in whatever way possible. Cut and dry, right? At least that’s what I thought going into it. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that, more than anything else, people needed to tell their story to someone. They needed to tell every single horrific detail. They needed to say the words and feel the shape of the words in their mouths so that they could let a piece of their story go. They needed someone to listen who wouldn’t come back with their own story of watching the towers fall. It didn’t matter that I was a 19 year old kid, or that my only real training was in how to properly fill out a form. It didn’t matter that I excused myself from the table, more than once, while they were telling their story, to go to the bathroom and throw up. It didn’t matter that I failed at my efforts to not cry as they sobbed openly before me.

No amount of training could have prepared me for what to say to a crying mother whose husband was killed in the towers and whose son was still missing, two months later. Or how to comfort the man who came in with one leg when he had two legs on September 10th. Or how to hold a child in my lap as they watched their parents struggle to shield them from their overwhelming emotions, the same way that they struggled to shield them from the falling debris. No amount of training….

All I could do was fill out forms and listen, so that’s exactly what I did, for 12 hours a day. I listened. I listened as they told me their stories in English. I listened as they told me their stories in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Italian. And then I listened again as their stories were translated into English. It was strange how listening to their stories in their native languages was somehow more emotional for me than when I heard a story in English. It was almost as if I heard a second story when I listened to a language that I could not understand. While they were speaking, I was listening to the inflections in their voice and the way their voice would catch in their throat when they mentioned the name of a loved one, and I knew that person was no longer with us. I would watch the rise and fall of their chest, or the way their chest wouldn’t move at all when they got to a particularly hard part of the story and were finding it difficult to even breathe. I would feel the shaking of the table or the chair as they fidgeted constantly, as if they were afraid to stay still because, if they stayed still for even a moment, the rest of the world would come crashing down. I would taste the saltiness of my own tears as I would suddenly realize that I had been crying without even realizing it. These were the stories that always seemed to last the longest. It was after each one of these stories that I would tell myself that it was okay to admit that I couldn’t handle this; it was okay to say that I wanted to go home. And then I would lead another client to my table and start all over again.

I managed to do this job for two weeks. This seems like no time at all in my current world but, in that world, each day was a lifetime. Throughout the course of each day we would get updates telling us the new cross roads that made up our territory of people we could provide aide to. As each day progressed, the line of our territory seemed to move further and further north and more and more clients would come in. One day I lead a gentleman who was only a few years older than me to my table. He looked completely crestfallen as he told me that he didn’t know if I could help him but he also didn’t know where else to go or what to do. I looked at his address and told him that he was one street north of the territory but that we could start filling out a form just in case things changed. An hour and a half later I took his file to a supervisor and asked if we could give him some assistance.

She gave me a dirty look and said, “Don’t you pay attention in the meetings?! We are only giving assistance to people who live SOUTH of that street?!”

I said, calmly and politely, “I understand that but the line keeps moving further north every hour and I can’t see turning someone away, who was embarrassed to ask for help in the first place, when you know there is a 90% chance that we will be able to help him in an hour. I’m just asking you to keep his file out.”

At this point she threw a stack of files on her desk and said, “I don’t need some bitchy little know-it-all kid trying to tell me how to do MY job!”

To which I replied, “Well, I don’t need some old fascist pig trying to be the lone spokesperson for the American Red Cross!”

I then stormed out of the room and sent my client home before I ran into the bathroom and had a total meltdown. When the manager came and found me I was sure that he was going to put me on the first plane home. Instead he said, “First off, I just want to say that I have worked seven disasters with that woman and she has treated people the same way at every single one. You are the first, and only, person who has every stood up to her and put her in her place, so for that I would like to thank you. However, we try not to walk around calling people “fascist pigs”. While you have been doing a great job, usually an outburst like that means that you’re getting burnt out, so how about we move you to a different department?”

I agreed that it was probably best for me to do something else as well. As he walked out the door he said, “Oh, and you might want to call your last client back. We just got the call that they moved the line north and we can assist him now. Keep up the good work and try not to tell her that you told her so.”

I finished the rest of my time in NYC working in the Duplication of Benefits department, where I would check each file to see that we gave each client as much assistance as possible without duplicating the assistance at multiple service centers.

My basic MO while I was in New York City was to avoid the pain at all costs. I kept telling myself that I was there to do a job and that I would have plenty of time to decompress when I got home. I think most of the people I was there with felt the same way. We would finish our day at work and then go straight to the bar and start drinking, sometimes without ever even eating dinner. We would drink until we could barely even make it to the subway; the whole time talking about anything other than what we experienced that day. We would get back to our hotel rooms, pass out, and then wake up and do it all again the next day.

When I eventually did make it home I realized that the rest of the world wanted to move on. They had been so inundated with 24 hour coverage of the attacks that, the last thing they wanted was to listen to my story. To be fair to them though, I don’t know that I would have been able to tell my story even if they were able to listen. To them I looked okay, so they just wanted things to get back to normal, and that’s what I wanted too. So I went back to my old job and went about my day to day life as if everything inside me hadn’t changed. I moved into my own apartment, mistakenly telling myself that I needed my own space. In truth, I wanted solitude, someplace to hide, someplace to escape to. I would go out to dinner with my friends but then catch myself as I completely zoned out of their conversations for unknown lengths of time. I would spend time with my family but feel like I was constantly on auto-pilot and simply going through the motions. I would find myself crying in the shower over nothing and everything all at once. I would make myself dinner and then stare at the food for an hour before simply throwing it away and going to bed. But going to bed was the worst part of all. I would struggle to go to sleep, only to wake up crying hysterically an hour or so later. I would find myself, a bold and brazen girl, screaming if I heard a sound in the middle of the night. It got to the point that I was actually afraid to go to sleep. So I got two additional jobs and would spend as much time occupied as possible. When I was home I would paint an old coffee table that I had. There was no design to it; I would simply paint it over and over and over again because I found the brush strokes to be very soothing. I felt like it was symbolic in that I could paint over it again and again and I was the only one who knew what was underneath each layer, or even how many layers there were.

After months of getting little to no sleep, I decided that it might help if I drank before bed. It did and it didn’t. I was able to sleep through most of the night but then I felt entirely miserable through the next day, until I would come home and do it all again. This lifestyle, if you can call it that, lasted for about a year, at which point it became apparent to my friends and family that I was not okay. With their love and support I was finally able to get the professional help that I needed. At my first doctor’s appointment I told him everything that was going on. He looked at me and said, very matter-of-factly, “Erin, you’re not crazy. You’re suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

We argued back and forth as I told him that that couldn’t be the case. I wasn’t in the buildings; I wasn’t even in NYC when it happened. I wasn’t a fire fighter or police officer or someone who had even lost someone in the attacks. He explained to me that none of those things mattered. There were people who suffered from PTSD simply from watching all of the news coverage. If they were experiencing it, why couldn’t I believe that my significant role in the disaster relief efforts would cause me to suffer from it as well? As he read me the signs and symptoms of PTSD I realized that I fit or experienced almost every single one. I can’t even explain to you the relief that washed over me that day.

I won’t say that my road back was easy because it was anything but. However, it was actually much faster than I ever thought it could be. Within a matter of months I felt like I was, more often than not, “back to my old self”. And it was real, I wasn’t pretending for anyone else. I still remember the first morning I woke up after having slept through the entire night. I was so relaxed and refreshed and I simply lay in my bed and cried because I didn’t realize, until that moment, how incredibly emotionally and physically exhausted I really was.

By the end of that year I felt like I had regained control of my life. I moved back in with my parents and admitted to myself that the stability and support that they offered was exactly what I needed. Each year, as the anniversary of the attacks approaches, I still find myself becoming increasingly anxious. I will avoid any news coverage from the actual day as I’m sure, like most people, I will always remember those images without having to actually see them again. And I will usually find myself crying for all that was lost that day, but that’s okay. I know that how I feel now is simply a normal part of the healing process and it is okay to feel this way.

This is the first time, in eleven years, that I have ever shared this much detail about this part of my life with anyone other than my doctor. And I choose to do it on the Internet. Ha. Go big or go home, I guess. I wasn’t planning on sharing this much when I first started writing tonight. In fact, I don’t even know when I made that turn. What I do know is that everything in my heart is telling me that it is time. There are so many people walking by us in our daily lives who are suffering silently with PTSD. There are people who I served with in New York City who I know are still dealing with the symptoms today. There are people who experienced their own personal tragedies, tragedies that had nothing to do with September 11th, who have PTSD that is going untreated. And I’m sure it is going untreated for some of the same reasons that mine did for a year. I was so ashamed of how weak I felt. I kept telling myself that I should have been better than that. I had no business going to NYC in the first place if I couldn’t handle what I was going to be confronted with there. These were the last lies that I told to myself, and I hope that they are the last lies that you will tell to yourself as well.

You are not alone!

You are not weak!

You are not a failure!

You have experienced something outside of your control and it is normal to feel helpless but, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

Today when I think of that day eleven years ago and cry, I know that some of those tears will be for myself, and the year of my life that I gave up because I didn’t know how to ask for help. Don’t give up another day of your life. Write an email, send a letter, scream it out of your bedroom window, but tell someone that you’re hurting. September 11th changed my life. But the day that I finally asked for help? Well, that changed my life too, for the better!

(I know that there was mention of a Third Crown but, after this epic post tonight, I don’t think I have the energy to delve into that one as well.  Perhaps I will save that for another night.  Perhaps I will save that for another year.  Who’s to say, really?)

And the Cycle Continues

I’m not a “shoe” girl.  I’m not a “purse” girl.  In fact, I’m not really the type of girl who hoards anything in particular.  I mean, if it were socially acceptable, I might hoard cats but…. well, we all know how those stories usually end up.  However, if we take a step back from the specifics, I think it would be safe to say that I hoard Target products.  It doesn’t matter what it is, I absolutely love anything from Target.  You could show me the same exact product at three different stores but I would loyally make my purchase at Target because I love the store so much!  I have no concept of their corporate policies.  I don’t know if they are “good” to their employees.  All I know is that they have the products I want, at the prices I’m looking for, and a setting which encourages me to buy things that I didn’t even know I ABSOLUTELY NEEDED before I walked in to Target.

Recently (I say that partly in jest as if I don’t wind up at Target at least once a week) I made a return to Target and it gave me ample reason to write an email to the store manager.  As someone who works for a “retail company”, my standards for other retail companies are exceptionally high, and I have no problem letting everyone know that.  However, also as someone working for a “retail company”, I know how often you can go above and beyond for a customer and how rarely they take the time to acknowledge your exceptional service.  So, as a rule of thumb, I try to celebrate good/great service every time that I experience it.  When I called my Target store and asked for the store manager’s email address he was hesitant to give it to me.  He said that they don’t usually give that information out but that I could call a 1-800 number if I wanted.  I told him that I did not want to call a 1-800 number as I wanted to send an email that could be printed out and put in the mentioned employee’s files.  He finally relented and gave me the information.

Below is the email that I sent him in it’s entirety:

R.,

(The purpose of asking for your District Managers email is to ensure that this information gets passed on to them as well.  There is nothing more frustrating than having a customer take the time to compliment your service and then to have that compliment go no where.  The following email is not just about the employees named, it is also a reflection on you and your leadership as well.  I sincerely hope that you will take the time to share this with your “higher-ups” so that they can acknowledge these employees for a job well done.)
I would like to share an experience that I had today to demonstrate to you why I am loyal Target customer.

I work in the retail industry myself.  I have the pleasure of working for a company who has, hands down, the best return policy in the industry.  However, every now and then there are certain situations that fall outside of our return policy.  As someone who has worked for this company for eight years, and has spent a good portion of my time dealing with customer returns, I know that the job can sometimes be frustrating.

There are times when a customer comes in and I have to tell them “no” to a return because it is against our return policy and it is my job as an employee to uphold our return policy.  Usually this results in a customer becoming angry and directing that anger towards me because they don’t know where else to direct their frustrations.  In these instances it becomes necessary to have a manager intervene.  I would love to tell you that every time a manger has intervened all parties involved have walked away happy.  However, in far too many instances, that is not the case.  Many times a manager will come up to the return counter, assess the situation, give the customer what they asked for in the first place, and then pander to the customer, pretending that myself, or my co-worker was wrong to uphold the return policy.  The manager walks away happy, the customer walks away happy, but the employee is left feeling chastised and embarrassed for doing exactly what the company has paid them to do.  This is not good management!

Today I made a return that fell in the gray area of your return policy.  S. did exactly what she was supposed to do and upheld the return policy as it is written, and I respect that.  I, however, was not willing to accept that as the customer, so I asked to speak with a manager.  When O. came over, he restated what S. had explained to me, but then allowed me to return my item for a similar item which I felt to be of a superior quality to the one I was returning.  At no point in time during my transaction did O. even hint to the fact that S. had done something wrong.  Instead, he understood a basic principal of customer service, “take care of the customer, or someone else will”.  He acknowledged that S. was doing her job in upholding your return policy, he acknowledged my frustrations as a customer, and he exercised his ability to make sure that I left your store as a happy customer.

I am certain that I could find the same products that I buy at Target at other retail locations.  I am sure that I could spend less money, in many situations, by shopping at other retail locations; if for no other reason than I would avoid your brilliant marketing which encourages me to spend far more money than I ever anticipated.  However, by shopping at other locations I would compromise on the type of employee that I would interact with.  And I am not willing to do that.

In closing, thank you.  Thank you for hiring employees like S. and O. Thank you for promoting an employee like O.  I have no clue what O. may have said to S. when I left, but I respect the integrity he demonstrated while dealing with myself and with S.  If all of your managers treat customers the way that O. does, you guys are on the right track.

Sincerely,

EE

 

As someone who has sent many a letter to many a company in the past, I was beyond pleased to see a response in my Inbox from R. later that same day.  His response was as follows:

Erin,

Thank you very much for your kind words and more importantly intelligent understanding of the business. These are exactly the types of situations I embrace with my team and most certainly with my leadership team. When I had the opportunity to lead this store two years ago these are the types of principles I wanted to establish. 1) Take care of the guest 2) Take care of the team member and 3) Make a good business decision all within the same situation. It makes me extremely happy to receive this feedback and you can rest assured that I will share it with all parties.  Thank you again for taking the time to e-mail me and share your story. I am very happy to have you as a guest at Target and my store. Thanks again and see you soon! R

So what, exactly did all of this accomplish?

1. I got what I wanted, which was to return my product for a better one.

2. Two employees received acknowledgements for a job well done.

3.  A manager received reassurance that he is doing a good job with his employees.

4.  A complete stranger was able to recognize my supreme intelligence.

5.  It was determined that flattery does get you everywhere, as I returned to Target today to spend even more money.

And the cycle continues!

Sometimes it is Inevitalbe

I told myself when I started this blog that I would never write about work.  In part, I wanted to make sure that I never posted anything on the Internet that could be misconstrued.  You know, job security.  However, I  am realizing today that it would be absurd to never write about work, Why, you may ask?  Well, this blog is supposed to be about my life and work is a huge part of my life.  I spend 40 hours a week working.  The only other area of my life that I actually devote that much time to is sleeping.  So how could I not occasionally write about work?  That being said, I will never “bitch” about work.  Partly because that would be irresponsible on my part; partly because I have agreed, simply by working for my company, to uphold their image; and party because there is nothing that I could say that you haven’t heard or felt for youself before, so why waste our time?

Okay, so now that the salad is out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this post.  I have “one of those faces”.  Maybe it’s the dimples, who really knows?  What I do know is that I have “one of those faces” that apparently says to the world, “Tell me things!  Tell me very personal things about yourself”. I have always been thankful for this, as it has allowed me to connect with people on a deeper and more personal level.  However, there have been plenty of times when I just want to scream, “Oh dear God!  Please, just stop talking, I don’t want to hear anymore.”  For the most part though, when it comes to my co-workers, I am thankful for this inherent trait.

I share confidences with many of my co-workers.  People come to me to tell me their frustrations, their career goals, seek career advice, and I hope to occasionally hear a different perspective on things.  What I’ve noticed recently is that a lot of people who share their frustrations with me, from my workplace and from other workplaces, is that they all have a common denominator: they are frustrated, not with their job, but with the people that they work for, or with.  At this point it is safe to say that I have listened to hours of these frustrations and, more importantly (to me anyway), I have SHARED hours of these frustrations.  This all amounts to a HUGE amount of negativity being released into the universe, and I no longer want to be responsible for that.  I am not suggesting that we all just stop talking about the things that bother us; sharing our frustrations can be an incredibly healthy thing to do.  What I am suggesting is that we refocus our efforts on keeping our frustrations in perspective and not allowing them to dominate our thoughts, words, and actions.

Here are four simple truths that I’ve learned from my fourteen years in the workforce, as both an employee and a manager:

1.  You will always work for someone who is “incompetent”.  I think it is safe to say that most employees have felt, at some point in time, that they could do the job better than their boss.  From personal experience though I can tell you, when I had my chance to “do it better” it wasn’t as easy as I thought.  I ran a coffee shop and I ran out of coffee, more than once!  “Incompetent.”

2.  You will always work with someone who doesn’t pull their weight.  Whether it is a family owned business, a large corporation, or a non-profit, there will always be someone who skates by doing less than everyone else.

3.  You will always have an employee who is a “complete idiot”.   Maybe they won’t be an idiot all of the time, but they will have moments that will force you to question their ability to pass an IQ test.  When I was 19 I was pleased as punch with my ability to be proactive by getting a commercial refrigerator into the dumpster instead of just leaving it next to the dumpster.  How was I to know that the fridge had to be disposed of differently because of the Freon in it?  My boss had to actually climb IN TO the dumpster and lift it back out! Whoops!  “Complete Idiot.”

4. At the end of the day, you have to find a way to “punch out” and go home.  I work in marketing so I am constantly thinking of ways to “go at things” from a different angle.  What could we tweak to increase sales?  I actually have a notebook next to my bed so I can jot down ideas that I have in the middle of the night.  For the most part though, this is a “positive” way to take my work home with me.  However, if you go home every day and spend the first hour with your spouse, or kids, or roommate bitching about your job, that’s not healthy.  You will always have frustrations, but you also have the ability to choose which frustrations you take home with you and which frustrations you share with other people.

September has a way of forcing me to reevaluate my life and the direction that I am heading.  I find myself asking if I have lived a life of purpose, meaning, and integrity.  I strive to find ways to show that I am worthy and deserving of each breath that God has given me.  I strive to find ways to improve my position in life.  And I strive to find ways to love more, to love deeper, and to love stronger.

So far, with only six days into the month, I have realized that there are only six questions that I need to ask myself at the end of each day:

1. Was I a good Christian?

2. Was I a good daughter?

3. Was I a good sister and Aunt?

4. Was I a good friend?

5.  Was I a good student?

6. Was I a good employee?

My focus, at the end of my day, should be on what I did, where I was successful, where I failed, where I have room for improvement.  I accept the truth that I will always work for, and with, a complete idiot, a lazy bum, and an incompetent fool.  The question at the end of the day is: was I a complete idiot, a lazy bum, or an incompetent fool to someone that I work with, or for?  If the answer is yes, then my focus is on how I can improve so I do not fulfill that roll tomorrow.

So in the coming days if you come to me with your frustrations, don’t be surprised if I interrupt you to ask if YOU’VE been a good employee.  It’s not that I don’t care about your frustrations.  It’s simply that, if I am allowing you to share your frustrations with me, you are obviously someone that I care for and about.  Therefore, I am more concerned with how you can grow as a person than how other people in your life have failed to grow as people.  I would also hope that you would be more concerned with my growth than with my knack for keen observation and ready wit which I utilize in dismantling the job performance of those around me.

I can be a better person, I want to be a better person, and I hope that you will support me in this endeavor.  Because at the end of each day, I only want to be able to answer “YES” to each of my questions.