Shortly after my sixteenth birthday (in December 1991), I began working at a pizza buffet restaurant in Huntsville, Alabama. Beginning as a dishwasher, I made it up to the position of assistant manager (like He-Man, I had the power! Bwahahahaha!). I enjoyed working with most of my fellow employees while I worked there and developed friendly relationships with many of them. As a result, when I began struggling with my sexuality, and most especially when I came out of the closet, I shared my thoughts with several people I worked with. How could I not? I was friends with several of them and this was an important subject. Wow. That sounds so run-of-the mill. It wasn’t just an important subject. It was something that shaped my life in ways that I didn’t understand back then. Hell, I didn’t even have the language to describe my thoughts and feelings–not in the way I do now, 23 years later. In any case, because of how I was struggling with my sexuality, and because of how you can’t just turn these thoughts off, I brought these emotional concerns to work.
Fast-forward to January of 2010 and one of the most horrible experiences of my life. I’d just lost my best friend, Micah Williamson. On January 7, 2010, I came home and discovered his lifeless body in his bedroom. It was literally the worst day of my life. Typing this out right now is making me well up in tears. We weren’t just best friends. If I were inclined to believe in silly woo or religious bullshit, I’d say that we were soul mates. But I’m not, so I’ll just say that we were as close as two people could be without being in an intimate relationship. His death devastated me and continues to affect me to this day. I took a week off from work (I was working at the Fish House in Pensacola, FL), bc really, I was a near-incoherent mess in the days following his death. I didn’t eat. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was cry. How do you turn that off? I knew popular wisdom said that I was supposed to turn off all that emotional turmoil when I went to work again. And yet, when I returned to work a week later, everything was still raw. I remember needing to find a private spot to cry a few times during my first shift back at work. I couldn’t turn off the emotions. I couldn’t leave them at the door, as I’d heard so many times that you’re supposed to do in the workplace.
I still don’t know how to do that.
How do you just turn off your emotions or block out the pain you’re going through? What if it’s the hospitalization of a loved one or an impending surgery that you’re dreading? What if it’s the thought that your car is going to be repossessed for failure to make your monthly payments or you’re coping with your house having burnt down?
All of this is fresh in my mind because of a recent conversation between a co-worker, D, and myself. D, along with her 3 children, was living with her sister and they found out that they had to move out by the end of February because her sister’s lease was up and she was planning on moving. Unfortunately, for reasons that I don’t completely recall, D said her sister got the date wrong. Instead of the end of February, the lease was up the second week of February, and D currently has no options. She has no place to move to. No place to live at. With three kids that she loves dearly.
Shortly before the conversation I had with D, I noticed that she and our General Manager were having a discussion. They were not in a private area talking; nonetheless, I didn’t attempt to listen in on what they were talking about. It didn’t seem like a casual conversation. In fact, it seemed like D was being chastised for something. That’s speculation on my part of course, as I don’t know what they were talking about. But when I thought about their talk in the context of what D told me about losing her home, I began to wonder: was our GM telling her she needed to leave her personal problems at home?
That’s the genesis of this post.
I’ve heard so many times that when you’re at work you are supposed to leave your personal problems at home. But no one ever tells you HOW that is supposed to work. No one says “these are the steps you take to ensure that when you are at work, your personal problems do not affect you”. I’m not entirely certain that following these “words of wisdom” is even doable.
How do you leave your problems at home when you’re about to be evicted and have no place to stay?
How do you leave your concerns at the door when you’ve lost your best friend?
“Leave your problems at the door”–how is this accomplished when you’re struggling to deal with your sexuality?
23 years after I entered the workforce, and I still don’t have an answer to this question. I’m beginning to suspect there isn’t one. If anyone out there can explain to me how this is supposed to work, I’m all ears.