Set backs will happen.
For me, they came more than a year later. I don’t mean the small daily struggles, the conversations you have to have with yourself to put anxiety back in it’s place or to show depression that you do have the energy to do the things you want. These daily occurrences were, and will always be a part of the process; of healing, bettering myself, helping others.
I’m still not even talking about the bigger ones – the seasonal depression where I retreat inwards once the weather starts biting at my fingers and leaving my nose runny, or the disassociation I’m currently experience pre-very-big-imporant-decision. It’s not those lapses in eating habits or those time periods when you find yourself drinking multiple times a week when you don’t usually get drunk in the span of a month.
It’s when you get comfortable. You have that “on top of the world” feeling, like you’re finally figuring out the steps and boundaries and getting the things that you’ve worked so hard for for so long. The routine, the structure, the forgiveness, the confidence.
For me, I was half-way through my first year of my first apartment. I had quit a job I hated and wasn’t appreciated at, filed a well deserved verbal harassment complaint, asked my creepy roommate to move out, and had started kick-boxing. After feeling out of control and powerless for so long I started making moves that mattered and creating the life that I wanted and deserved. But things are never that easy.
Because the verbal harassment complain was aimed against the President of where I worked, I wasn’t permitted to be there for the last 2 weeks of my work period. I had paid time off and within the first half of a week out, I found a new job. I would be making a lot more money, working less hours, and gaining a new skill.
Regardless of all that I could do with these new opportunities I was overwhelmed by other things going on in my life at the time – a love interest that had seemingly fallen off the face of the planet, stress at home with a new roommate that challenged my then dire need for control, a deep longing to be an a place I had gone to heal because I felt like where I had began to fix myself must have been where I belonged (it wasn’t.) This new job was stressful – not necessarily in what it was, which was only serving at an Italian restaurant in Yorkville, but it how it was presented to me.
I came into it wanting to learn a new skill, eager to be a part of a team, to gain some knowledge on wine and be guaranteed Sundays and Mondays off. But it turned into fine dining with the owner breathing down my neck and micro managing me, sending me home with 20 page booklets on different wine regions, and an less than welcoming staff of tightly knit servers. This went down hill even faster when on one of my first shifts a staff member jokingly whipped me on the back with a polishing towel. Only I was wearing a backless shirt, and it brought back memories of other abuses that hit me even harder, and when I smacked him in the face without giving it a second thought I was scolded.
Reasonably, I know I shouldn’t have hit him. Reasonably, I know he shouldn’t have hit me. I was brought into the office and told that if I wanted to work here – work anywhere – I had to let go of my past. My anxieties. That they would just hinder me. And what a fucking load of absolute horse shit that was. Yes, I should not let my traumas and experiences define me unless I wanted them to – unless I was still growing and healing from them. No, I should not let someone or something that makes me feel unsafe get by unscathed.
But I took the advice to heart, because I believe it was well meaning. But I also think that you shouldn’t take psychological advice from someone who isn’t a trained psychiatrist, nor from someone who has never had their self-power taken away from them traumatically and more than once. And even if they have, no one gets a trump card for having beaten down their demons because for everyone it just isn’t that fucking easy.
So I took up kick-boxing. It was something I had always wanted to do, and they had free trials going on at a gym that my friend attended. And about half way through my free month I signed up for a year. Because I loved it, because it made me feel powerful, because in a room full of men I didn’t feel scared for the first time in a long time. I was definitely nervous, I over thank and sometimes I would miss a class if I thought I would be even a minute late. But along with my physical strength and endurance, my mental also increased.
I had an outlet.
I felt in control. I felt powerful. I felt accomplished.
I worked with a wide array of people, from my age to more than twice my age. People from different countries, who were actors and writers, who were buying their first homes and getting married, who were dancers, who were refugees. I loved being immersed in the different thoughts, cultures, wisdoms, and creativities. Everyone worked hard – I think a big part of the animosity towards me was that on the outside it looked like I didn’t. I got tired easily, I didn’t want to stay at the end of my shift when there was one table left and everything was closing down when I wasn’t needed, I didn’t want to work 5 days a week. I was socially and mentally exhausted. And somewhere in there I also started getting sexually harassed.
I want to say it started innocently, because there’s something nice about that. That it didn’t start with bad intentions – and I guess a lot of things don’t. But I’ve come to realize that intentions don’t always play into what is actually right and wrong.
I was coming up the back stairs from the basement and our dishwasher who had been with the restaurant since it opened was standing on them. A Guyanese refugee, in the age realm of my grandparents. A short, stocky man with a gentle demeanour. He stood there, saying nothing, smiling innocently at me and not moving. I clearly needed to get up the stairs. I came face to face with him, asked him to move, and he leaned forward and kissed me on the mouth. It was a gentle peck, and to be honest I didn’t think a single god damn thing about it at the time. He moved out of my way and I went on with my night.
This happened again. Always when no one else was around. He would be in the basement, always standing in my way, trying to kiss me. He would wait for me after work and force me to hold his hand while he walked me to the subway and he ate an apple. He would talk to me in a quiet voice with a thick accent and I never understood half of what he was saying so I just smiled. I didn’t feel threatened, but I didn’t know how to leave these situations I also wasn’t comfortable with.
He would try to take me out for drinks after our shifts. He would invite me to come see him at his other work place. He started calling me and leaving me voicemails telling me he was inlove with me, lamenting that I wouldn’t call him back.
He has a wife who is mentally ill. He has two daughters, one that worked with us. Neither of them know how to take the TTC home by themselves because he won’t let them learn; has convinced them that it is a scary, dangerous place.
I started to feel scared, but also like it was my fault. Like I had somehow led him on. A part of me still deeply believes that. I couldn’t fight this man physically. He seemed to not understand when I told him to stop. He seemed completely blind to the visible and palpable discomfort I felt when he forcibly stuck his wet, slug of a tongue down my throat on the St. George subway platform. I can still feel his arms holding me in place as I tried to pull away. And I still didn’t tell anyone yet because I didn’t know what to do. I was stuck trying to comprehend a situation that didn’t make me feel safe.
I started hyperventilating on my way to work. I would do 4-7-8 breaths for over an hour trying to calm myself. I would literally pray to a God I don’t believe it to be called off on slow nights. I completely shut down, stopped trying to make an effort with my co-workers who had started inviting me out, stopped going to kick-boxing, started smoking a lot of weed to try and fog myself out of reality, to calm my anxieties (which ended up just making it more palpable in my home for myself and my roommate). I had a panic attacks in the basement of work, which were increased ten fold because I felt weak for not being able to let go of things. But you can’t fucking let go of something you are in the middle of experiencing, that reminds you fiercely of traumas you have just started to heal from.
After making my mom pick me up in a park after being sent home from a panic attack, after calling in for multiple shifts saying I wasn’t feeling well, after trying to quit because “I felt that the job wasn’t for me” and being told that I shouldn’t – I couldn’t – I finally told someone.
I called my mom and tried to make it sound like a casual conversation. Which it wasn’t. And I then had to tell my manager. I had to tell my manager about his oldest, dearest, most loyal and innocent employee and how he was sexually harassing me – leaving me voicemails saying he was inlove with me, waiting for me after work, forcing me to kiss him and hold his hand. His initial response was “well you should have told him you had a boyfriend! that’s what you always do!”
Never, ever, in any FUCKING WORLD does ANY person have to say – whether true or not – that they are with, that they BELONG to another person, to let other people know they are not available. That what they are doing isn’t welcome. I belong to myself. I will ALWAYS fucking belong to myself. I am not going to say I have a boyfriend to my coworkers when I don’t have one to make myself feel safe in a lie, to make them treat me with the respect that I deserve. I will never fucking tell someone in a bar that I’m not interested because I had a partner. If I don’t want to fuck you, that’s because I don’t want to fuck you. I don’t need to give anyone a list of reasons why you are not allowed to penetrate me, have my number, call me names, or even fucking look at my god damn face if it makes me feel uncomfortable. I, and everyone else, as themselves – a complete individual on their own – do not in any way need to create or have another person to be given the respect they deserve, to be treated how they are comfortable, to have a reason to not be interested in someone.
I told off my manager. I made it clear how absolutely fucking ridiculous that claim was. How it wasn’t my job to make my life seem any less desirable to a person or in an environment that I should feel safe in; that I now felt less safe in because somehow, even though I knew it wasn’t, this response made me feel like it was my fault.
My manager called the dishwasher and told him to never talk to me again. To not wait for me, speak to me, make me feel uncomfortable in any way. The manager and bartender were the only people who knew about the situation and checked in on me regularly to see if he was following the rules. To see if I was okay, would make it through the shift. They would have a staff meeting if I wanted, but only if I wanted because they didn’t want to stir things up with the rest of the staff if it wasn’t necessary. What could they do – obviously they couldn’t fire him. And obviously I didn’t want to make things more awkward between a bunch of people who clearly had to try very hard to like an include me.
I didn’t want a spotlight, I wanted to shrink up and become completely invisible. I didn’t understand how after so much sexual harassment and assault I could be experiencing it again. How when I learned to say no I still had no voice, when I learned to defend myself my arms were pinned to my side in a crowded subway station late at night.
I was asked to not tell anyone about this experience. There were a lot of lawyers who came into the restaurant and they didn’t want any customers to get wind of the situation, for morale to go down, for me to start spreading rumours. So I didn’t tell anyone because for some reason what seemed like the best move for the restaurant also seemed like the best move for me. Instead of saving the voicemails that pleaded for me and made me feel sick to my stomach, I deleted them. No evidence. When I talked about it, it was casual. I told one coworker who told me that another had experienced something similar, and that when she directly told him off she was met with a cold demeanour and eventually felt like SHE had to apologize for his actions. I never talked to her about this experience. I never told any of the other staff members.
I remember when I started working there, no matter how hard I tried, before anything bad had happened, I couldn’t envision myself there in the fall. I couldn’t see the winter months or the following spring. I couldn’t see any kind of growth or evolution as much as I wanted to. I wanted to believe it would be a place I would stay for years, would learn to love my coworkers, would become a family.
I ended up quitting about a week before my birthday. I didn’t talk to the manager that owned the restaurant, the one who told me to let go of things and wouldn’t let me quit. I went into the office and the man who had played the role of the rock in my time there was sitting there and he looked and me and we both knew I was done. I don’t know if because it wasn’t his restaurant at stake, or because I felt closer to him, or because he too had a daughter, but I think he understood in a way my other manager couldn’t – or wouldn’t – that it wasn’t a safe place for me to be.
It’s taken me almost a year to feel safe sharing this story – and even now I find it hard to use names. I won’t deny that there were useful things that I learned there, or that everyone did what they genuinely thought was best. But I do think that an individuals safety and well being (that being mine) came below the well being of a restaurant. I do believe that society has normalized it to be shameful to be harassed more so than to be the harasser. I believe we have lost touch with the idea that the parts that comprise the whole are more important than the whole itself – that you can’t have a healthy community, or society, if there isn’t safety and understanding and trust with the individuals. A business is not more important than an employee, an idea or compulsion more important than a human being.
I don’t feel the course of action I took was right. I don’t feel comfortable with the fact that I didn’t take it to court, that I didn’t make sure that others safety wasn’t going to be in danger because I was so easily influenced in my fear and depression that it would be the best thing to do. I don’t feel good about the fact that I believed I wouldn’t be strong enough to live out trials and consequences and the spotlight that I was trying to avoid. I don’t feel good about making excuses for my own well being while trying to be empathetic towards the person who was doing me harm, for trying to be compassionate towards a manager who was helping me only to save his own sorry ass.
So I’m done making excuses, trying to save grace. I’ve spent too long trying to erase this from my skin, kissing too many other people to try and remember a different tongue more, and too fucking long running the same god damn track over and over again when I want to be on a new path.
I encourage you to all do what you need to heal, to make decisions that make YOU feel good and safe. And if you want to have a celebratory dinner, don’t make a reservation at L’Unita.
Written by Forest Greenwell
Side note: I suffer from PTSD mostly in the way of night terrors from this experience, as well as heightened anxiety at starting any new job or endeavour, and was diagnosed with panic disorder the autumn following this experience. It is extremely dangerous to follow the advice of someone who doesn’t know you, and isn’t a mental health professional, in the way of how to deal with things. Pushing away my experiences and trying to not let them affect me was not only against my nature, but also back tracked a lot of my progress and still hinders me in my journey of healing. His advice was given to me ingeniously because it served him to not have me worrying about things, to not have a past that affected me and therefor affect a dinner service. These things are now ingrained in me more deeply and have taken more time to extract. Please, always listen to your heart, do what feels right for you, and if you need advice seek out a health care professional. I now have a job where I can openly say I am feeling anxious and receive support, where I am not shut down for being a human or having experiences that were out of my control. It is not your fault or your responsibility to hold yourself accountable for experiences that were not in your control.