I was listening to a podcast this morning about how to handle workplace bullying, it was next in my queue of HR podcast that I listen to on my way to work – you know, to set the mood. The broadcast hit closer to home than I realized it would, as I listened to Catherine Mattice, author of Back Off! Your Kick-Ass Guide to End Bullying at Work, talk things started to click.
Initially, I hit play on the podcast because it was next inline from the Human Resources for Small Business podcast and given some comments team members have made to me at work, I figured it was worth a listen. I wasn’t prepared for the gut wrenching, eye opening truth is was about to have me confront – I had been bullied.
I had been bullied for years and never even realized it, I had brushed so many things off as nothing that apparently allowed the bullying to continue to happen. As I sat in the car listening, I recounted how the instances being described resembled elements of my previous professional life and personal life.
At TWT I had a boss who would strive to set her team members up for failure, someone who watched and ridiculed every move I made, who scorned me for not being happy enough and never seemed to have the ability to balance or overcompensate that with praise. At home I had a boyfriend who made fun of my body, who didn’t see the importance in things I held close to my heart, and controlled a lot of how I lived my life.
The one place that I had found that was my own, my place to begin to rediscover me was roller derby.
Four years ago Henry told me I needed my own friends, that I couldn’t keep “claiming” his. (Side Note: It turns out for a good part, this might have actually been true.) So, I set out to find something of my own to do and stumbled into roller derby. I joined a league, bought all the gear, and started becoming part of something greater than me.
I loved going to practices, even though I could bearly skate to save my life, because the people were amazing. Never before had I experienced such camaraderie, such support, positivity, and from such a diverse group of women. I began developing friendships that would have never been established if it weren’t for derby. I started to find my voice again. At practice, in games, and around the team, I felt like I could be me.
Derby helped me give my life balance, it shed a positive light in some of the negativity that I kept tucked away. It made me feel strong. It gave me confidence in my body. It made me push myself to new limits. It got me to travel and try new things.
In my first season, I skated in all but two games; though, in all fairness, the first few were because they didn’t have skaters who could travel and I was more than willing to. I eventually took on more roles within my league, acting as both head of Media and the Interleague Coordinator. I made it to just about every event. I made the state All Start team and the first ever All Start team within the league. I spent my last season skating as a Co-Captain and began to take on even more personal responsibility for the league. I traveled to Ohio to skate with and against some of the best skaters in the world, and in my third season of skating, I got my first MVP.
Over the years though, the dynamic of the league and the relationships I had developed in it began to change.
For the record, I do not regret a moment of it; even with some of the tear filled nights, there isn’t a fraction of me that wishes I never joined the league. The end result is what really matters, and in the end I found the love of my life, my derby BFF, and a circle of the best friends a girl could ask for. I met some really amazing people along the way, and hope that one day I will have the opportunity to do it all again.
In my second season of derby, as a “league” we began to start taking things more seriously. We had never been a recreation league, but we watched the teams around us and traveled to new places we wanted to get better, we wanted to step up our game. That desire, the drive to be competitive, to be the best, may be the callus for the sudden spiral down hill.
Kevin and I started dating in the midst of my third season of derby. He had been the announcer for the league I was with (hence how we met; Kevin tells the story best, you should ask him sometime), so we took the first steps of our relationship with an extra level of caution.
That season I had gotten to know Kevin and others in the league better. But, with Kevin I started to see something I hadn’t seen before, something I had missed for the two years we had known each other prior – I started to actually see him. So, hot off the end of the “relationship” with Henry, I asked Kevin if he would take me to dinner sometime and he said yes.
With the circumstances, I wasn’t ready to reveal to anyone that we had started talking as more than just friends. The night I asked him to take me to dinner, I had my arms wrapped around his neck as we stood in the dark empty parking lot after practice. I am sure I smelt fantastic. Looking up into his caring eyes, I couldn’t help but to kiss him. It was electric, filled with passion, warmth, and desire. I didn’t want that connection to end, but alas it had to as the evening began to grow to morning. That night I went home to my newly empty house and spent my second night alone in my bed. My stomach turned in knots and I felt nauseous; I was so excited about what was happening, but I couldn’t shake this feeling of regret and guilt. The next morning, among a flurry of joking text to Kevin, I tossed in some “real talk” and asked him if we could keep things on the down low as we figured everything out and things with Henry faded.
That was me feeling guilty for being happy, me feeling like I shouldn’t have found happiness so quickly or even at all. That was me fearing what everyone else would say. That was me reliving the shame and guilt I had felt before when I casually had a date or happened to kiss someone when Henry and I were on a break.
To say Kevin was understanding of my feelings would be an understatement.
Then, four days into everything, among the craziness of my breakup, I realized I had fallen in love.
I was the absolute worst at keeping my own secret and within a matter of days, those I considered myself closest to knew that I was seeing Kevin. And those with in derby had little to no hesitation in making their disapproval clear.
Sitting on the lap of one of my teammates -someone I looked up to, aspired to be like, valued their opinion, desired their approval, and called a friend – I was told that I was trading a potato for a sweet potato. She didn’t think it was a good idea, she didn’t like it and she made that very clear.
In the days, weeks and months following that instance, things gradually seemed to get worse. At one point, she snapped at me in her frustration and made comments along the lines of “well why don’t you tell your boyfriend to do that” in the surrounding of the team – Kevin and I still hadn’t made our relationship public, but she had no issue making statements loud enough that others could hear. The people I considered my friends started to leave me estranged, it felt like I was being left out of conversations, not invited to gatherings. Soon, the person I looked up to, aspired to be, was beating me down.
Nothing I did at practice was good enough. In games my mistakes were highlighted over my successes. I was deliberately picked on and no one would offer me a way to make my biggest mistake any better. I started dreading going to practice, but continued to go because I owed it to my team. I went because I was one of a handful of jammers and was the one everyone always counted on to be there. I was the one that would keep going and rarely complained.
One practice, I continued to fight through the wall over and over again with no team of my own in the scenario. The drill included a lot of recycling by the blockers and could have been constant jammer hell. As I tried to get by, I would step out of bounds, recognize my error and get back in place. I was never once called on a penalty; but as I returned to the center I was told if I didn’t remain in bounds I would be pulled from the rotation. I was told that I was driving the coaches crazy. I was told that I needed to do better. I was told to do something different. I was ready to walk out of practice that night, but I fought back the tears and continued to try.
I cried the entire way home from practice. I felt like a horrible skater and an even worse teammate. I knew that my position on the team came with a lot of attention and responsibility, and I took it all to heart. Not being good enough to stay in the rotation meant that someone else would need to pick up my slack. It meant that I would be letting my team down, that I couldn’t achieve the goals they had for me. I didn’t want to let anyone down.
By the end of the season, I left our last game in tears feeling like I had let everyone down. I didn’t feel like I was a good teammate, I felt like my mistakes had played a major role in our loss of the game. I knew I had made the coach mad. I knew I was a disappointment.
In the podcast this morning Catherine Mattice was asked who was to blame for the bullying in the workplace, the bully or the bullied. Neither, she answered, saying that in the end, the organization was to blame.
In January, after seeing the psychiatrist, being officially diagnosed and missing all but one practice between November and December, I went to practice to tell the coach that I was not in a place where I could commit to our All Star team. It was recommended that I take a leave of absence.
That night, I drove home from the practice in tears. I curled up on the couch in Kevin’s arms and balled my eyes out. It felt like I had just been told that I couldn’t be a part of the team. It felt like because I couldn’t give it the same effort I had before, that they didn’t want me there. It felt like it was the end.
Through Febuary I remained a member of the league and maintained my position on the board. I had hoped stepping away from the environment of practice would give me the break I needed to go back. I was wrong. Interactions with my other board members made my blood boil as I fought back tears. I felt like my opinion was not valued, like my voice didn’t matter. I was frustrated that the same issues had to continually be addressed, annoyed that time and time again we failed to make a plan. I was infuriated by comments that were made. My observations and opinions were seen as personal and direct attacks. I was told that my thoughts were wrong, my opinion was wrong, and that if I didn’t agree with them, well then maybe I should step down.
That night I wrote a message back to the board, it was packed with emotion and rage. It was ready to argue every point I made and call everyone on there mistakes. Kevin read it before I his send and asked me if I really wanted to send it. He reminded me that I would be going in to battle with the message, and once I did there was no backing down.
The message I sent included my resignation from the board.
In March, my leave of absence was coming to an end and I still wasn’t ready to go back, so I officially left.
Since leaving, I have heard the league referred to as having a systemic bullying problem, that at it’s core the organization was the problem because they allowed it to happen. I had always brushed the comment off half agreeing while still feeling like there were people involved with good hearts.
Today it was like the curtain was finally pulled away. Who is to blame for bullying, the bully or the bullied? All this time I had been saying certain people were at the core of the problems I faced within the league, but it turns out the actually problem really is with the league. The problem is with the organization, that the league continues to allow the culture to continue.
In the end, that culture broke me; though, I truly do not believe that was ever anyone’s intention. In the podcast, Catherine Mattice talked about how some bullies don’t even see how they are bullying someone. She talked about how some of the bullied don’t even realize that that have been letting it happen and allow it to get to the point that it is causing true pain. I honestly do not believe that any of the members of my league set out intentionally to bully me, just like I didn’t mean to let them have that affect on me.
Do I miss derby? Every damn day. But, I know that right now my focus is making the best choices for me. I know that my main focus is getting life back onto some type of track and that being a part of the league doesn’t align with that track right now.
I miss everything I loved about derby, but I don’t miss being bullied.