… But You Can Never Leave [#lismentalhealth]

Author’s note: #listmentalhealth and #lismentalhealthweek focus on raising awareness about mental health issues surrounding LIS as well as sharing resources in educating and assisting yourself and/or others in all things mental health.

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Content warnings – physical, emotional, and verbal abuse; child abuse and neglect; suicidal ideation; suicide attempt; stalking; harassment; financial, job, and health care precarity

In my last two #lismentalhealth posts, I explored the effects of trauma, depression, burnout, and abuse all have on GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archives, and Museum) workers. As I read through Library Twitter’s current discussion cycle of toxic workplaces, these posts are as relevant today as they were when I first wrote them. You could argue that any profession is potentially toxic; however, it’s truer for some professions than others. Service professions like librarianship are chronically underpaid, hold lower social status in society, and are subject to higher levels of precarity than other professions. Librarianship is also a profession where you can experience both primary and secondary trauma day in and day out, as described in my T.B.D. post.

It wouldn’t be a stretch, then, that you might find yourself using Vocational Awe as a coping mechanism for the trauma experienced in the profession. In this line of reasoning, Vocational Awe would be a variation of traumatic bonding, particularly in situations of precarious employment. Working conditions are poor at best, you are abused by both staff and the public, and you barely can afford rent AND your student loan payments and still be able to eat, but it’s all worth it… right?

Is that why you stay?

If you’re so miserable, why don’t you just leave?

When someone is in a toxic situation, you get the inevitable question “why don’t you just leave?”. Leave the abusive workplace. Leave the toxic community. Your problems will be solved, everything will go back to normal, you can start over again.

The problem with that, though, is even if you’re able to, you can never fully leave a toxic situation.

The people who ask that question do not take several things into consideration. For example, children cannot leave abusive situations on their own. Sometimes an adult steps in to intervene on the child’s behalf, but more often than not a child might find themselves trapped.

There are two holes in my childhood bedroom door. One from a brother punching clear through the door. The other from a sister that pushed so hard on the doorknob that it dislocated the latching mechanism. The door no longer latches or locks. The door is still broken decades later.

While trapped, the child might not know that what they are experiencing is not healthy behavior, particularly if no alternative is demonstrated. Children can be raised in environments where physical and emotional abuse is not only common but has widespread acceptance in the community or culture. There is little in the way of challenging the community norms. Here we set the baseline for “normal” which remains long after the child becomes an adult.

Brooms. Cattle prods. Knives. Guns. Dad body-slamming a son into the ground, then placing him in a chokehold. Me showing up to school with a fresh set of bruises. Waiting for almost two hours outside of school to be picked up and taken home.

All of this is normal.

There are other types of toxic situations where leaving is not as simple as it appears. Abusive relationships, be it family or friends, have their own complications. Sometimes the person does not have the financial or social means to leave their abuser. Other times leaving the abuser means that their loved ones, including children, could become targets of the abuser, which the person doesn’t want to put in harm’s way. Abusers can manipulate a person to believe that they are their only lifeline, that they are worthless without them, that leaving them could drive them to harm themselves or others.

I said that I can’t reciprocate the feelings she had for me. I would like to remain friends. She said of course, but she still has feelings for me.

The first episode happens. She lashes out. I am a bad friend.

She said that I am one of the only friends she has and that she was afraid of losing me. Bad things might happen if she does. I don’t want to let her down.

In these types of relationships, the person might find themselves in a co-dependent relationship with the abuser, developing a new “normal” for interpersonal relationships. It gets to a point where life without the abuser becomes almost unimaginable, where one’s needs and boundaries are no longer theirs.

I told her that suicidal ideation was a trigger. I do not want to relive my brothers’ multiple suicide attempts. The next thing I remember is her talking about the optimum water temperature for when you want to drown yourself.

She reminds me that I am one of her only friends. I need to be there for her.

What does all this have to do with workplaces and professions?

Workplaces are systems in which there is a network of interpersonal relationships. These relationships shape the workplace culture and norms. Whenever you put two or more humans in the same setting, there is always the possibility of something going wrong between them.

I froze when my manager stood inches in front of me in the crowded open office, screaming in my face. She’s blaming me for something I didn’t do, but I don’t dare mention that.

Toxic workplaces are a perennial topic of discussion in professional circles, as well as the various ways to cope with such workplaces. Self-care usually dominates the discussion, including setting boundaries with your time to help maintain work-life balance and modeling the behavior you want to see at your organization. The problem can only be solved by the person taking better care of themselves and not addressing systemic organizational issues. And every time, you have a person asking “why don’t you just leave your job?”

Leaving workplaces might be an option for a select few who are privileged enough to land another position at another place, but that’s it. Many who work in GLAM find themselves not being able to save for an emergency fund, much less an FU fund, because of low pay. Student loan payments compound the financial precarity, and relatedly is one of the reasons why people don’t encourage others to get their library degree. On top of all this, in the US health insurance is still tied to employment, so for many, the job is a literal lifeline if they need medication or other medical treatments to stay alive. That is, of course, assuming that the job has affordable health care, to begin with.

GLAM employment that pays well, has good health benefits, and is not toxic is uncommon at best. Any employment that pays rent, food, loans, and health care is better than none, even if that employment is in a toxic workplace. And if that workplace is the only opportunity open to build a GLAM career, or if you’re still in early career mode, you can’t bank on professional connections and networks to help you land somewhere less toxic. The temporary stability of the paycheck from the toxic job comes at a cost to your long-term health. That’s where many are at the moment – avoiding toxic workplaces is near impossible when the market for jobs are scarce, and people need the pay, the health insurance, the career experience in any way they can get it. Many library workers in the US are trapped in toxic situations due to the very nature of the socio-economical realities surrounding the profession as well as US economic and social policies.

Even if you’re able to leave a toxic situation, you still don’t fully leave. Prolonged exposure of abuse – be it family, relationship, or workplace – reconditions your mind and your body in ways in which the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cannot account for. Instead, we turn to Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). While C-PTSD is still not listed in the DSM, it is recognized by other health organizations such as the World Health Organization and the NHS. In short, while one traumatic event can change your mental and physical state for a long time, continual traumatic events change your core self.

Your self-worth has no chance of surviving (or even developing in the first place) when exposed to prolonged traumatic events. In response to repeated exposure, adults develop coping strategies. Coping takes on various forms. Sometimes this takes the form of dissociation or distancing oneself from reality.

The test results come back and the doctor said there are no blood clots, and there seems to be nothing of note from the EKG scan. You start packing your belongings to go back to the office.  Another political fight is brewing, and you need to prepare to buffer your staff from the fallout. It’s your job. I need you to do your job.

The doctor is concerned and gives you a list of names for referral. You leave the list with the doctor. You just need to make sure that you’re in that meeting room in 15 minutes. I need you back at the office.

Other times, coping can be going back or staying in an abusive situation because by now your sense of self has melded with the abuse. It’s now become your “normal” in which you now operate in, be it personal or professional life.

I arrive back at my apartment, still shaking. Tonight’s episode was the worst one yet. Should have I stayed away?

I couldn’t. She was mad at me. I failed as a friend. She’s afraid of abandonment. She might harm herself. She texted me a suicidal threat weeks ago while she was being taken care of by her roommate. (Did her roommate know about this?)

[A cigarette, a beer, and the .22 rifle sitting next to him, barrel pointing up to his head. I can only stand by and cry as I watch my neighbor try to talk to my brother. I am sent inside the house because a crying preteen isn’t useful.]

[A few months later, I am driven to the hospital from a friend’s birthday party. Mom tells me what happened. I am told to call my siblings to tell them what happened. Mom can’t make the calls. I make the calls, one by one, reporting what happened. A matter of fact report. I did what needed to be done.]

No, I had to go to her.

I look in the bathroom mirror as I start to take off my shirt. Blue, black, and yellow spots where she held me.

I can’t tell her. I don’t tell her.

The long sleeves of my work shirts will cover them up.

When trauma and abuse become “normal” in your personal or professional life, it becomes difficult to imagine that there are non-toxic areas in this world that exist. Again, the core self is programmed to accept a reality where such abuse and trauma are negative only to the extent that you are not able to cope with the abuse and trauma. This is where grit and resilience narratives are complicit in reinforcing toxic environments. If you can’t deal with it, leave; otherwise, learn how to cope with it on your own.

However, even when you do leave a toxic workplace, you are still in a professional community where abuse and toxicity persist. The GLAM world is surprisingly small, making it difficult to avoid Missing Stairs and other toxic people or abusers. Not many early-career GLAM workers get the information they need from the whisper networks to know who are the Missing Stairs in the first place. The adoption of Codes of Conduct in the GLAM world is a small first step, but many communities stopped short of creating ways in which they can operationalize the Code of Conduct throughout the entire community, such as online platforms and in-person events.

I sent a no-contact request. I block and filter where I can. She still contacts me directly where I can’t block her online. The professional community uses a platform where I can’t block her. I no longer sign in.

She follows me around the conference. Two of my close friends form a physical barrier between me and her when she tries to approach me at an after-conference hours event.

The whisper network tells me which places to avoid at the conference.

Where do we go from here?

Like my Abuse post last year, this year’s post doesn’t have any simple answers. Trauma, be it professional or personal trauma, can follow you in ways in which you wouldn’t expect, even when you have left the toxic situation. However, being able to leave is a privilege in itself. Not many can leave. Leaving has consequences. For example, if someone leaves a highly influential professional community due to toxic behavior, that person will most likely be penalized both professionally, in terms of career opportunities, as well as personally, in terms of forming and maintaining relationships with other professionals. That support network is no longer an option, leaving the person without a resource to receive help and support when the need arises. The same thing happens when you leave personal relationships, such as family and friend groups.

Perhaps this post might be a very long way of saying “never ask someone why they didn’t just leave a toxic situation.” Leaving is never simple, and in some cases, impossible due to economic and health care realities. If a person can’t leave a toxic workplace because they can’t afford health insurance otherwise, how would you telling them that they should leave will make affording health insurance without that job magically an option? It’s the same situation as self-care talk – relying on the individual to be solely responsible for their well being ignores the impacts that structures, such as workplaces and communities, have on individuals, as well as the responsibilities we have as a profession and as a community to the overall well-being of individuals.

This post might also be a very long way of saying that there is something beyond being abused or traumatized repeatedly and that there are ways in which you can start deprogramming the changes that long-term trauma and abuse made to your core professional and personal self. Again, this remains as a viable option only to a very privileged few. It will remain as such as long as we, as a professional community, accept toxic workplaces, communities, and people as the “normal” of the profession.