Married to the Job
"I can't believe they don't care!" This was Brenda's third session with me, and the same plaintive cry had echoed through my office in our two prior meetings. "I can't believe they'd do this. I feel like there's nothing to live for."
Thirty-five-year-old Brenda sat hunched over in the chair opposite mine. Tears streamed down her face; her eyes were red, swollen; her long blond hair appeared matted in places. She stared out, looking somewhere above my right shoulder. It seemed my function was to bear witness to the tragedy that had unexpectedly seized her and transformed her life into a barren, thinglike existence. Brenda had been betrayed at work and, because of this, she simply saw no point in continuing to live.
When she walked into my psychotherapy office one week earlier, she had sobbed wordlessly for the first twenty minutes of our session. Slowly, in tear-drenched staccato, Brenda was able to tell me the outlines of her fall from grace, her workplace agony. In our second meeting, I gathered the basic sweep of her life history, the history that seemed to have found its culmination in her exile from the law firm in which she worked. I did not know it then, but this narrative of a coherent and productive life suddenly disrupted by a betrayal at work was one with which I would gain increasing and intimate familiarity. It was Brenda's story that began to transform my understanding of the role work plays today in our lives, in the very core of who we are as human beings.
Brenda grew up in an intact, working-class family. Although her father was an alcoholic, and she was one of six children who received little attention from either of her working parents, Brenda graduated high school with honors and immediately began work as a receptionist at age eighteen. During her seventeen years in the labor force, Brenda steadily worked her way up the clerical hierarchy, becoming a legal secretary for a small, very prestigious law firm, earning almost $50,000 per year.
Brenda's life beyond work was stable and relatively free of conflict. She had been divorced for seven years, owned a one-bedroom condominium, and had been in a relationship with a divorced man, Barry, for three years. Brenda described Barry as "very nice . . . , cares about his kids . . . , likes the simple things in life." Brenda's own family lived in another state, so she rarely saw them, given her commitments to work and to Barry.
Brenda idealized the attorneys for whom she worked: Their upper-middle-class lifestyle -- season tickets to the opera, weekend homes in the mountains, active involvement in the alumni associations of their alma maters -- brought Brenda into intimate contact with a world to which she had no former exposure. "These guys didn't care about money. They assumed it. They cared about better things. They had ideals." One of their "ideals" was continual self-improvement, and, to this end, they paid for Brenda to attend weekend seminars in the Napa Valley once a year to learn how to become "self-actualizing" and more effective at work. In response to this kind of interest in her, her relatively high salary, and her involvement in a workplace that, to her, seemed "about as posh as you can get," Brenda happily worked fifty to sixty hours per week, ran personal errands for her employers, and always spoke of the law firm in the first-person plural: "We're going to court on Monday"; "We had the office painted."
After working at the law firm for four years, Brenda had to miss the annual company Christmas party because her mother had had a stroke two days before. It was Brenda's responsibility to plan and execute the party to which clients were invited, a task she readily assumed, even though it was not part of her job description. After quickly making arrangements with two other secretaries to handle her responsibilities for the party, Brenda flew home to be with her ailing mother. When she returned to work one week later it was as if "my whole world had collapsed." Her employers were very upset with her. There had been a number of foulups at the party, and they blamed them on her ill-timed departure. The attorneys appeared cold and unresponsive in their interactions with her. They began asking another secretary to do their errands, and Brenda's favorite attorney gave this same secretary spare tickets to a sold-out play in San Francisco that Brenda longed to see.
Brenda developed insomnia; she stayed awake at night ruminating about what was happening at the office. She went over and over the way in which she had handled arrangements for the party, and blamed herself for the problems that had occurred, for leaving to see her mother. She developed migraine headaches for the first time in her life, frequently felt nauseated, and began to lose weight. Increasingly, she cried at work. She would sit on the toilet in the women's restroom and sob. There were days when her headaches were so incapacitating that she called in sick. After two months of enduring thisagony, Brenda went to her doctor, who signed her off on short-term disability and referred her for psychotherapy.