It was Tuesday, and my two colleagues (one being my current boss) and I had just finished up a successful and productive client meeting. We decided against eating the catered lunch at the client meeting so that we could have something more personalized and local. Since I’ve been getting more used to being flexible when eating out, I decided to let my boss get on Yelp and decide where he wanted to go. After all, I can find a salad basically anywhere, right? He located a very popular brewhouse with raving reviews on Yelp and we headed over.
The restaurant was located in downtown Anchorage, amidst shopping and local tourist traps. We parked the car, paid for street parking, and walked inside. After making our way down the hallway and into the restaurant, my usual smile and positivity was suddenly silenced. My female coworker and I are on very similar energetic waves (I swear she’s my soul sister!) and she sensed something was wrong. It was in that moment that I locked eyes on a particular booth in the restaurant and a flood of memories came rushing through me. I started to feel my hands shake, my eyes well up with tears, and my heart pound. It was the beginnings of a panic attack and I knew I needed to handle it quickly before they noticed.
My boss asked us if we preferred a booth or table, since the hostess had asked. We all said booth but I quickly used my shaky voice to say “Just not over there” and pointed to the booth from my memory. Of course, that was the booth the hostess tried to seat us at first so I excused myself to the bathroom and told them I’ll sit anywhere but there, and would explain why when I returned from the bathroom.
I couldn’t escape the room fast enough, and the panic was coming to the surface as I made my way down the hallway to the bathroom. After being securely behind the bathroom door, I was finally able to breathe and let it all out. I knew I was safe. I knew I was in the present moment. And I knew I would be able to move past this quickly, but I still needed to let it out because these memories were strong and quite unexpected. By now you’re wondering what in the world could have triggered me to the point of a panic attack in the middle of a restaurant in downtown Anchorage, right? What I’m about to share with you is something that I’ve only written out in timelines during trauma therapy and to attorneys, so putting it down on paper again feels very vulnerable, but necessary.
**Trigger Warning** Please do not continue to read if you are easily triggered by stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or workplace harassment.
You see….in that restaurant booth in downtown Anchorage was where I looked a man in the eye and finally told him I was no longer going to be his victim. It was 5 years ago, and he was a former boss. He had used his position of power, and my personal weakness, to control me. I had proven myself to be one of the most successful employees in our company and had worked my way up from answering phones to running various teams of over 15 employees. He was the new boss, and had a large presence that commanded attention. He was also your typical image of a salesman with an ego. I was in the midst of a divorce, and doing everything I could to keep my head above water. I knew I was soon becoming a single mother and needed my high-paying sales job to afford to live on my own and take care of a high-medical needs child. He also knew this. I had confided in him early on when he noticed me working late nights, coming in early, and being as productive as I could to increase sales and commission. It didn’t take long for him to start staying late with me, offering help, bringing me coffee, and slowly grooming me in a way I was completely naive to. The small gestures turned to large ones, and even several instances of sexual assault. The worst events happened when we were forced to travel together on sales trips.
Over a period of several months he went on to use his power to convince me I was important to him, that he liked me, and that he was attracted to me in a way that clearly crossed the boundary lines between boss and employee. However, he also would use his power to keep me quiet. He would send me emails, text messages, etc and then verbally remind me that I could never share those or else I would loose my job. He convinced me that his proven track record of success would overpower any suspicion the company had of him, and besides, he just signed on a huge account that could potential bring in $1 million next year.
I’ll spare you the other details, but I had become so crippled by his power over me that I truly believed I could not tell ANYONE what was going on. I consulted an attorney and even they said it’s a “he said, she said” situation because he was so smart to not ever make moves with anyone else around, and I had no proof (as I deleted all text and email for fear of being seen as participating). When even the attorneys don’t advocate for you it’s hard not to feel powerless. I decided the only way out was to confront him on our next sales trip, so I did. We sat in that exact booth one afternoon and I told him it was over. I didn’t care what he did to me, what job he took from me, but that I was not his victim any longer. I told him the minute we got back to work I was asking to be transferred to a different department, even though that would likely cut my paycheck by about $25,000/year. I didn’t care, I needed to feel safe again. It was in that booth that he turned the conversation to me, saying no one would believe me and that I was part of it myself. I remember shaking so hard out of fear, not knowing if I would return to a job or not. I then got up, walked out, and took a taxi to the airport and left. He had even controlled my ability to rent a car that week and insisted he pick me up instead, and then proceeded to remind me not to talk to anyone.
I was done. It was one of the scariest moments of my life because this man had power over me, power I had naively given him because I didn’t know it was even happening or that I didn’t love myself enough to know my worth at the time.
I spent a couple of years in trauma therapy to clear the damage done by this, and many other, instances. I actually have taken the steps to go back to almost every place he ever took me to assault me so that I could release the emotional attachment to the place. I used to literally not be able to take a certain road in town because of those memories. It now doesn’t phase me. I forgot that this was one of the places I had not gone back to, and it’s because I had blacked it out. I completely forgot this part of the story. This is normal for PTSD victims. What I am most proud of though is that I was able to IMMEDIATELY recognize and remind myself that I was here NOW, not then. What happened then has no more power over me, and all it took was stepping away, letting out a few tears, washing my face, and picking myself back up. You see….healing is not linear. It has its ups and downs, and hard hard work.
I share this because even as your coach, mentor, and friend, the story is not over. And that’s ok. What makes it ok is the tremendous amount of progress and achievement in the last several years and my ability to teach others how to do the same with the proper support. I am thankful that happened this week, because it helped me know how strong I truly am now and how this kind of thing will never happen again. Freedom from fear IS achievable!! Also, have you noticed that throughout this entire story I mention my current boss is male? Not only is he, but so have my bosses in between and work partners I have to travel with as well. True fear freedom right there! I know my worth, I know my boundaries, and I command respect in the workplace. Everyone knows it and my success follows day after day.
What happened to you then, does not define you now. Your past may be where your memories are triggered, but you get to choose how you respond to those triggers. If you’re struggling with past trauma triggers, please reach out for help. If you aren’t sure where to begin, let’s chat because I am happy to provide you some free guidance to get you the best resources on your team. Most of all – I believe in you!