In late 2004, I was hired as a cashier at a local convenience store. My boss, John, was a flamboyantly gay man around my age who seemed fond of me at first. He was friendly and likeable in a way that didn’t intimidate me (because of my social phobia and severe shyness). We often worked alone together, and because he spent most of the time talking my ear off, I wasn’t required to add much to the conversation. I was his captive audience when we weren’t serving customers. John was bright and I found his one-sided monologues interesting if sometimes a little strange.
I’d hear everything about John’s exciting life, from his four Shar-Pei’s antics (he was a huge dog lover) to his once-a-month visits to the spa for regular colonic irrigations–he discussed these publicly, in the most intimate detail, even with customers–as if he was talking about what he had for breakfast. Although John was intelligent, he was definitely a somatic narcissist, obsessed with his internal health and what he put into his body. He never ate anything unnatural. He was a devout vegan who never touched most of the snack food we carried.
Kathy was his assistant manager for the first two years I worked there. Kathy was not the most emotionally stable person around, and was dealing with the fallout from an abusive marriage to a psychopath. That made her a perfect target for John’s abuse. He overloaded her with work, and yelled at her for the slightest mistakes, sometimes with customers watching. He seemed to enjoy humiliating her. He wasn’t known for his patience, and would scream at her if she was slow to catch onto something or failed to do something right, and I can’t count the number of times he had poor Kathy in tears. Kathy used to tell me in private how much she wanted to quit and how much of an emotional toll John’s rants were taking on her. I sympathized but was caught in the middle–because when Kathy wasn’t there, I heard all about how “stupid” and “incompetent” John thought Kathy was. He also said he thought she was stealing. But I didn’t want to get on John’s bad side and just listened to him complain, never sure if he was telling the truth or not.
John apparently didn’t think too highly of me either. Kathy told me once he would never promote me because I was too “scatterbrained” and “stupid.” John thought all women were stupid. I could tell from his conversations that he regarded all women, starting with his mother, as mentally deficient.
Kathy finally quit and John ranted on about how she betrayed him. He told me she would never find another job and how lucky she was to have worked for him. By this time, I’d been working at the store for about two years and asked him if he would allow me to take Kathy’s place as assistant manager. I was told he’d “think it over” but a few days later he called me into his office and told me he’d decided to promote a young cashier (Kevin) who worked in the store instead. Because John was a misogynist, I knew he had a lot of misgivings about promoting another woman, but he did make me “paperwork specialist” which meant sometimes opening the store and counting the money in the safe, as well as making deposits at the bank. It was really an “assistant-assistant manager” position and paid about a dollar more an hour.
About six months later Kevin moved to the eastern part of the state and left. John was desperate and there was no other male he could promote to assistant manager this time, so I got the job by default. He knew I already was doing everything the assistant manager would do, and would not have to be trained in much.
I turned out to be good at the job, and he often told me so–but I also became the new “Kathy” and handy target for John’s abuse, criticisms, and frequent rages. I always felt like I was walking on eggshells with John, and found I preferred it when he wasn’t there to watch my every move and point out everything I was doing wrong. I felt like I could breathe on days he wasn’t there. I was now in Kathy’s position and took the brunt of John’s hatred toward women. More than once he screamed at me in front of customers, and I remember the humiliation of that and the pitying looks I received from them. I never cried though, just stood there and took it. I would not give him the satisfaction of letting him see me cry the way Kathy did, because her tears only served to escalate John’s abuse.
Getting no reaction from me frustrated John and once he even raged at me because “I didn’t react enough.” He took my poker face as a sign of disrespect and told me so. His insults became more personal, no doubt to try to get a reaction. By this time, my daughter was having behavioral problems in school and I was sometimes called by the school to come pick her up. This caused my attendance to become spotty. Instead of kindly telling me to find some way to reconcile my problems with my daughter with my having to leave early so often, he told me I was a “rotten mother.” As if that had anything to do with my job performance? He also told me he wasn’t surprised I was divorced, because he bet I was “hell to live with.” I didn’t realize at the time he was projecting all his own character defects and narcissism onto me. I felt hurt by these insults. I tried to talk to him about how much it hurt me, but having no empathy, he turned a deaf ear and never apologized for his abusive comments.
In 2009, John took a month’s vacation time and left me in complete charge. I still enjoyed John’s entertaining monologues, but the stress of never knowing if I’d get the “nice John” or the “mean John” was wearing me down emotionally and making me dread coming to work. I discovered I liked the feeling of being in charge of the store, I liked being free from John’s mood swings and rages, and I was doing a good job. I learned how to place the weekly orders, open the store every morning and count the drawers and the safe, change prices on the computer and in the registers, review applications, and keep track of lottery and food stamp sales. I didn’t like delegating work to other employees and tended to try to do everything myself, but slowly I learned that I had to delegate some work or I’d go nuts. Of course running a store has its downside too, and I’d be required to fill in if someone called in sick or didn’t show up. Also, because of the problems I had with my daughter, when I had to leave I’d have to put another employee in charge and I used to worry that they’d mess things up.
When John returned, the vendors and customers told John what a good job I’d done, and this probably exacerbated John’s abusive behavior. He also didn’t like the fact the main office preferred dealing with me to dealing with him. A “stupid woman” was stealing his show and he decided to punish me.
John was also making plans to move to another, bigger store with higher traffic. He knew that I wanted his job after he left and kept promising me the job would be mine.
But one day he brought in an old colleague of his from a store he’d worked in several years earlier. She was an older woman–older than me–and from Day One she treated me like I was a piece of trash left on the floor. She didn’t even try to be friendly–and to make matters worse, I was asked to train her in everything I was doing. John never told me he planned to make her the new manager, just told me to train her and not ask questions. The woman was slow to catch on to the new computerized equipment, and kept making mistakes when filling the safe. The vendors didn’t like her, nor did the other employees. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it couldn’t be good. John treated this woman with respect he’d never shown to me or Kathy–probably because she was older than he was.
Shortly after John brought this woman in, another employee told me John was telling everyone I was “crazy” and “losing my mind” and he would probably have to demote or fire me. He was triangulating and gaslighting against me, but I didn’t know it was called that back then, so I began to question my sanity. He told me directly to my face I had terrible kids who didn’t know how to behave and that if I was a “good mother” I would know how to discipline them properly. What gave him the idea he had any right to criticize my parenting skills–and what did that have to do with my performance of my job?
After another month or so, when John felt this woman was sufficiently trained, he started taking away some of my responsibilities. I knew I was skating on very thin ice and started to look for another job. I hated being bossed around by this hateful woman I myself had trained, and stopped hiding my displeasure. She told John I had a “bad attitude” and everyone else began to believe her too. In fact, I WAS developing a bad attitude. Having my mind played with like a toy for five years was taking its toll and everyone noticed. I felt like a naughty child with mean parents. I’d been devalued and soon would be discarded.
One day in April 2009 I came into work and noticed the weird looks I was getting from a couple of other employees and even a few customers. For a couple of hours, John ignored me completely. My “replacement” was being nicer to me than usual. Something strange was up.
So I wasn’t surprised when, during a slow moment, John called both me and his new protege into his office and closed the door. He told me he was letting me go due to my poor attendance, bad attitude, and the fact “no one liked me” (I know that was a huge lie). My replacement sat there with a self-satisfied smirk on her face and I wanted to reach over and slap it off. He was actually nice about all this though, and promised me a good reference for a future job.
I never did use him as a reference. I didn’t trust him enough.
My five year experience working for John reminded me of an abusive, codependent marriage. The atmosphere in the store was exactly like that of a highly dysfunctional family.
John needed me and sometimes was kind, especially if he knew he’d gone overboard with the abuse and was afraid he’d lose me. He even told me on some occasions how dependent he was on me and how he hoped I’d never leave. On those days he would spoil me–treating me to lunch, allowing me to buy things in the store on credit, or telling me what a great job I was doing. For my birthday one year he bought me a huge bouquet of flowers and treated me to a nice lunch.
But all this manipulative niceness flew in the face of his abuse. I knew his “Jekyll” phases wouldn’t last and soon he’d become “Mr. Hyde” again. He insulted me about everything from my “bad parenting skills” to my “bad attitude” and “lack of social skills.” He even told me I was gaining too much weight when he noticed I was eating a lot of the snack food out of stress. Once he even told me he suspected I was stealing, saying that “assistant managers are the ones you always have to watch out for, because they know how to hide what they steal.” What? I never knew what to expect with John; he kept me walking on pins and needles. Five years of the stress of dealing with John’s unpredictable mood swings and rages was more than enough, and rather than be upset at having been fired, I left the store feeling like I’d been released from prison.