The Guilt Frame
I am not Catholic. Which is not a problem or a solution. It’s simply a statement. It’s probably for the best if we steer clear of religion. Even though a lot of them are very pro forgiveness, their biggest supporters seem to practice very differently to what’s been preached in their direction. I’m just saying, before we get into this, that I’m not Catholic. I was married in a Catholic church, but I’m fat and privileged with a beard. Which is probably why I was taken to Church of England services. Fat, white and bearded is basically their mascot, after all.
The reason I’m bringing up my lack of Catholicticity is that I want to take about guilt. You see, whilst I do not get weak knees at the prospect of a Pope, I do very much suffer with a certain flavour of Catholic Guilt. I’m sure there’s C of E Guilt as well, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that is has more to do with taking the last biscuit then the previous beheading of any future queens.
For a man who grows deeply uncomfortable if he’s asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer, I definitely have a deep seam of religious scented guilt in me. The guilt that says I deserve this. The guilt that understands hangovers are the neat little bow you tie around the memories of a night of total madness. The guilt that knows, if you spend a lot of money on something frivolous, then you should’ve saved it for the massive problem with the car or house that’s bound to reveal itself now. There are milder levels, of course. The most constant one is that my favourite meals always leave the worst washing up in their wake. Enchiladas. Steak. A roast. Home cooked burgers, with the cheese melted on top of them in the pan. It all leaves some grease and burns that require some long soaking and heavy scrubbing.
Lately, there’s one level of the Long Patented Guilt Programme that I can not shake off. It boils down to this: I used to be a monster to work with. For at least eight years, I was a walking, talking, phone slamming stress machine. I truly was. I knew it at the time, but I couldn’t turn it off. I hated my job, but couldn’t find another job. I’d locked myself into a pattern that was eating me alive. It was as if I got in the car to set off every morning and just became a raw nerve. From phone call number one to the final one of the day, I simply got angrier and angrier. I shouted. I swore. I slammed about the place. Every email, every piece of paper that landed on my desk, was another shot fired. Every question from a colleague just pushed me over the edge again. There was no catching up. There was no sidestepping the avalanche. The stress consumed me everyday and spat me out in time to go home and fester. It was nine hours of raving free fall, five days a week and 40 something odd weeks a year. It was no pretty.
You might think I’m exaggerating. I get that. I’m prone to it. Here’s the thing, though, every single person in my department complained about me. Ladies and gents I considered my friends. I really got on with them, even if the job made me rage blind a lot of the time. Outside of that environment, I got on with all of them. There were drinks involved and nights out. Work parties, occasional weddings, that sort of thing. Only I know I pushed each and every one of them to complain about me. That takes some doing. Never mind the people around our department, or who dealt with our department. I turned friends against me by not being able to cope.
One of my greatest hits, so to speak, involved me saying something down the phone that I did not remember. I was pulled into a meeting to explain myself, but I couldn’t. I had no memory of the words leaving my mouth. I ended up nearly breaking down in a supermarket that night. The total vacuum in my brain wouldn’t stand to scrutiny. Any poking or prodding, trying to find the memory, started my body shaking. I couldn’t breathe. My chest was burning. I very nearly burst into tears and had to go sit in the car, so I could curl up into a ball.
For that whole time, when people outside of my office asked how work was, I’d use one word.
There’d be some little joke about paying the bills or whatever. No matter how much it felt like it was actually killing me. Five days a week, I was drowning excruciating stress and I was a mess.
Thankfully, four years ago, I moved out of that department. It was Sam who found me another job in another department. She talked me into applying for it. She put up with me with pacing and griping when I didn’t hear straight back. She rolled her eyes when I explained a truly petty moment of managerial double speak that occurred before any offers were made. Then, after the required amount of worry and hope, I got the job. I worked down my four weeks at that nightmare desk, sent some apologetic emails on my last day and finished an hour early to use some time I was owed. I went home that afternoon and I broke down. I’d made it. I’d survived the worst decision I’d made in my life. It felt good. Although, you guessed it, the guilt was with me even in victory.
These days, the 'new' job is pretty good. The stress levels are different. I no longer deal with customers. It’s easier on my nerve endings. My inbox no longer makes me fight back the dry heaves on a Monday morning. Although, and here’s where the guilt comes in, something has been happening over those four years that I see as penance. There are people I work with who I have a sneaking suspicion might have been put there as tests for me. As pitfalls. As traps and snares. I can't prove it, but the irony seems to perfect. They’ve either been a magnification of the stress beast I was before or so lazy that it can’t help but distract me from trying to work. It's either that or they’ve been unbelievably thoughtless within a working environment, but somehow I know people would have more of a problem with me complaining about it than with what's actually going on.. Each and every one of them gets to me. Each and every one of them takes me to the brink of complaining. A few of them have left me tempted to walk out and demand they’re dealt with before I set foot in that office again. Only, I don’t feel I have the right do that. I truly don’t.
I was that person, or a variation of them, once upon a time. I pushed people to complain about me and I know for a fact that complaining didn’t fix it. Nothing did, until I left. Which means it will be the same for me. It’s as if I’m being taught a lesson. As if I’m serving my time. I keep thinking, if I do complain, that everything will reset and the experiment will be restarted.
“Note it down. Subject caved at 15.27. This time, we’ll start with the heating turned fully up and four people playing the radio through their phones. Also, we’ll set him to only drink coffee this time. Back to starting positions, people.”
I know that probably none of this is exactly true. I work in an office, not a Penance Dispensing Station. The universe rarely works in so poetic or thoughtful a way. It doesn’t care if we learn our lessons in this painfully non-fictional, linear state of being. The planets keep spinning. The clock hands keep turning. I sit at my desk, turn up the podcast in my headphones and do my very best to play the good Data Monkey. If only because you have to pick your battles. These idiots are manager protected. Or, somehow, manager proof. They wouldn’t leave because they’re irreplaceable or because they're comfortable where they’ve haplessly squatted and won’t get fired because the dinosaurs in this particular park always protect their own. I guess it’s the joys of being a constant outsider and tourist. You know when you’re looking at a tribe.
So, there I will sit, day after day. Soaking it in. Taking my self-prescribed punishment. How is it, you wonder?