The words that follow represent just a part of that story, and I'm grateful to you for reading along as I pour my heart out on this page.
As an adolescent, I was overwhelmed by my family life and by the religious restrictions my church imposed on me. I also felt burnt out by having to live up to standards of academic perfection while following a rigorous educational path.
Then, at the age of sixteen, my former boyfriend and I had sex although I'd never consented to it.
My life spiraled downward from there.
Not seeking help to improve my emotional and mental health in high school led to my having a tumultuous time at Barnard college where limited appointments with therapists did little to help me.
I attempted to escape my life's issues and the stresses of college by looking for self-worth in romantic relationships instead of focusing on my education. My subsequent horrific interactions with men and my feelings as an outsider in Barnard's classrooms left me wounded in my years-long war with depression.
When I finally graduated in 2008 with an English Major and Creative Writing Concentration, I did so with the hope that I could prove my worth to my family and myself through my career. I chose to work at a nonprofit organization that I believed represented the worldview of a young Puerto Rican Pentecostal woman from a low-income family.
After the first few weeks of working there, however, my idealism and eagerness about the prospect of interweaving spirituality with my love of writing and the battle for social justice in my career began to bleed out.
I'd walk into the office, my intestines rumbling painfully with anxiety, and my arrogant supervisor Daniel would stride out of the kitchen to snap at me, “Xiomara!”
“Good morning, Daniel,” I’d say, forcing a smile.
“Have you updated the Prospects calendar yet?”
“No, but I finished the government proposal for the immigrant program. It was 104 pages.” I'd angrily eye him as he sipped coffee from my mug.
“Did you give it to me?”
“It's in your mailbox.”
“There's a grant report due tomorrow. For environmental justice. Talk to Eric to get program updates.”
“Grant report? Since when?”
“Two months ago, I think. Listen, I sent you a list of things that need to be done by the end of the week.”
“I need to work on the proposal for the siding first. It's due today, and another's due Thursday. I have to meet with Aurora about it and get the budget from Marianne.”
“Just make up goals, and do me a favor, make a budget. Marianne's on vacation.”
Make up pretend goals? I felt disgusted. “No one's taught me how to do a budget yet.”
“Copy from an old proposal. I'll need to proofread it.”
“Yes, and, uh, talk with Alice about the Chicago itinerary and email that lady.”
When I confronted the directors regarding Daniel's micromanagement and my need for a more suitable workload, they told me I needed to better manage my time. And quit smoking cigarettes.
My unhappiness lingered. Seeing Daniel's shock of red hair sickened me every time.
I even caught him ogling my ass after I'd bent over to retrieve a file from a low drawer. He looked shocked when he looked up to meet my eyes and quickly turned away. It wouldn't be the last time he'd make me feel like an objectified Latina woman.
One sticky summer morning, Alice, the seldom-present Executive director, called the office to speak to me. “Xiomara, what happened to the Isla proposal?”
“I tried to finish it. I couldn't. I'm sorry. Daniel told me about it the afternoon before it was due.”
“That was a $100,000 grant, Xiomara!” she exclaimed.
“Alice, no one helped me. I couldn't even do the budget without Marianne here.”
I was lectured and, the next day, the Deputy Executive Director, Joel, handed me a document to sign. By signing, I'd accept total responsibility for the missed project and agree to three months of probation. “If your time management improves,” Joel said, “you'll start working full-time, but if it doesn't, you'll be let go.”
"How are you going to pay me a full-time salary if you're not even paying me properly now?"
"Those are the terms."
“I'm not signing anything until I seek legal advice,” I countered and left to take my lunch.
"I know," he replied. "It makes no sense. They tell you you're an asset and want to bring you on full-time, but then they treat you like shit."
"I'm going to talk to a lawyer," I said.
But I never did talk to a lawyer. After returning from lunch, I was handed a termination letter, unedited and still hot from the printer. Joel's look of sadness turned to confusion and fear as I laughed loudly—my usual method of masking my hurt and outrage.
“Thank you,” I scoffed. “I'm late for my poetry workshop, but I'll be back tomorrow to pick up my stuff.”
I left without being dismissed, and in the small space of the first floor of the dilapidated house that served as the organization's headquarters, I sang, “I'm free!” Between the copy machine and conference table, I belted, “Alleluia, I'm free!” even as the tears tilted into my eyelashes.
After that day, I plunged deeper into depression. I'd been traumatized by an entire organization, and the sense of worthlessness the directors there made me feel stays with me to this day.
Months passed. I smoked Newports bought on credit. I didn't look for a job or contact the Department of Labor about my wrongful termination. I postponed applying for unemployment benefits. I barely ate, and I shrank in size. I refused to call my parents or sister or grandparents or best friend.
Instead, I spent my days watching grainy television from the king-sized bed in my stuffy Bronx studio. The walls were painted the color of scabs. The stuffing fluffed out of the sunken couches. The refrigerator was decidedly empty, and the streets outside were often smeared with the blood of those who'd been jumped or shot on Tiebout Avenue. I could no longer afford to scrounge up positive energy in Pilates classes or counteract my sadness with the smooth motion of the elliptical machine. I didn't even have enough money to pay the overpriced rent.
Depression had gotten the better of me again, and I did what I had done before--I tried once more to find my self-worth in my relationships with men. Just a few months later, at the age of 23, I found myself pregnant with the little boy who would turn my life around.
Have you ever faced a challenging work situation? How did it turn out for you?
This post is linked to Shell's Pour Your Heart Out.