You Saved My Life, Now You’re Destroying It
Growing up abused and transitioning to an abusive workplace leaves the pattern that abuse is normal.
Trigger Warning: Description and discussion of abusive home and workplace conditions, including transphobia and emotional and sexual abuse.
“Come up to my room,” the text read.
It was after midnight, we were both far from home, and he was my boss. It was in 2010, and was the last time I ever saw him.
Come up to my room, it said, and I did. I had been out with friends, drinking and having sushi, but I responded. I knew what he wanted.
I thought it was what I wanted.
Why did I let things get that far? Didn’t I deserve better than that?
It was abusive, wasn’t it?
I was 26 when he hired me, and I’d never been able to move out of my parents’ house. I’d never been to university, never held another full-time job.
I was transgendered.
I had seen my friends grow up, get jobs, go to university, move on with their lives. I had watched them have adventures, meet first loves, establish their own homes, and I was 26 and trans. I had watched their parents be supportive of first cars and early jobs, menial though they were.
My parents told me endlessly that I didn’t want such work, that I was too good for it. I wasn’t allowed a car, and was threatened with eviction when I tried to get my drivers’ license. Instead of support, I was ridiculed and denied transport to interviews or employment.
He offered me a life that was my own, an escape into independence and hope.
I’d never had hope before.
Growing up, I wasn’t wanted. I was four the first time my mother told me that if it wasn’t for me, she would have been a doctor.
I was five when I had to beg my father, desperately, to take me to a father-child event at my kindergarten. To both of them I represented a trap, the inability to chase their own desires and dreams.
They had both grown up in controlling and evil homes, both wanting what their parents forced away. My mother couldn’t get a student loan because her father wouldn’t co-sign it. My father was forced out of music by his own dad, who wanted him to become an engineer.
They moved to Alberta, far from their parents, and stopped answering phone calls. They formed an agreement: my mother would put my father through school, and then he would do the same for her. He’d learned of programming and found it fascinating, the entire future that computers represented. She still wanted to be a doctor.
That ended when my little brother was born, and I was four. My father never finished school, a failed first year necessitating time that his family couldn’t afford, and my mother took care of us both. When it was just me, their dreams were still close enough to reach. A few years and I would have been in school, they could have studied.
She never got to be a doctor.
My father never had a word of praise for me. I represented a chain to work he hated and a family he was compelled to support. He spent much of my youth in bars, coming home late. Any schoolwork that I was proud of was met with a swift reminder of how much better he and my mother had been when they were my age, how they were in the advanced classes.
Maybe some would have risen to that challenge, but I surrendered and withdrew.
I dreamed of being an artist after I saw Jurassic Park the first time. I wanted to make dinosaurs, to be a part of that world. More than that, I was a huge gamer and wanted to make games, give back what I had received from games to other players. So I learned to draw and paint digitally, worked with early modeling programs. I poured amazing amounts of effort into learning and trying, joining artist communities and practicing.
CC-BY Scott Kinmartin, filtered.
I got accepted into university, in the art program. I was 20, and I’d always been promised that I would get the money to attend, provided I didn’t fail a semester. I was very excited.
I never got to go to university. The evening before I was to go, my father told me that he wasn’t paying for my education, in spite of years of promises. I wasn’t worth it, or good enough.
At this point, I had no idea how to apply for student loans, or what my options were. It was a few days before classes were due to start and my funding was being yanked. I did the only thing I could think to do.
I apologised, went back to my room, and withdrew the next day, and my dream of being an artist died.
Self-Taught, And a Chance to Live
I started to learn to program. I knew that the hacker communities valued self-teaching and a great many narratives of success supported it as a path. Adding to my resources was my father, having been a programmer and collector of many books on the subject, from the fundamentals of compilers to Programming Pearls and An Introduction to Perl.
I think he enjoyed the idea of his eldest son following in his footsteps, but I rarely discussed what I was learning or doing with him. Instead, I was routinely chastised for not having a job or appearing to try to get one. I was chastised for not attending school, in spite of it being denied to me and being told I wasn’t good enough to go.
CC-BY Antonio Zugaldia, filtered.
Ignoring the comments, I learned to code CGI programs in Perl, turning those into small contracts, then larger contracts, culminating in two years building a product and launching a startup.
The startup might have even succeeded, but a chance contract turned into a job, with stability and income and respect. A way out, immediate and stable and supportive, a way out that didn’t rely on potential or pluck or reliance on a shaky idea.
I was 26, and I took it immediately, and everything changed.
I mentioned earlier that I was transgendered. There’s a lot of narratives around about what it means to be a transgendered person. The most common I’ve heard for women like me is how one is supposed to have “felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body” from earliest childhood, that things have always been that way.
I don’t know if I was born this way. I know that putting on a dress when I was five felt right in a way that would defy description for decades. I know that I thought everyone felt like I did growing up, wishing they had been born a girl (if they were a boy), or vice-versa. I know that no one talked about such desires, so I assumed that it was normal and that I’d grow out of it. Oh, how I wished I would grow out of it.
My parents oscillated between confusion and hostility. My father had to get very drunk to even begin to ask me why I was wearing skirts, and my mother famously asked me: “Can’t you just be gay?”
Living with my parents, transition wasn’t something I could easily achieve. Confused ideas and sniping over my appearance and whether I’d be an acceptable or pretty woman were commonplace. If I had thought my father distant before, he had become positively remote and would merely refuse to talk to me.
Taking that first job, I was able to afford a flat and get away from the constant sniping and casual transphobia. I was able to start to pay the huge costs around transition, hair removal and hormones and trips to my doctor. For the first time I was able to live, to grow into the woman I would become.
I’d been given a chance to live.
The first few months at my new job were hard, as only the process of learning how to actually have a job can be. Maintaining required hours and work-appropriate language, figuring out how to communicate with customers and teammates.
All through those early months, my boss would praise my efforts, offer criticism and correction. He was helping me, engaged with me, actively trying to help me be better. I couldn’t believe it. An older, mentoring man in a position of power over me, happy enough with my work to both praise me and pay for it? Nothing in my life had prepared me for this experience. It was sweet, fulfilling and so very addictive.
The praise only lasted a few months before it waned, so much so that I felt a loss. I wanted it back. Without it, I felt like I was back in my parents’ house, being ignored by my father all over again. I wanted to show him how loyal I was. I worried I wasn’t good enough. I tried to work harder and do more and be cleverer.
None of it worked.
Transition and life were shaping my womanhood, and he responded. Instead of praise, I was berated for not doing enough. Instead of my ideas being met with discussion they were dismissed or mocked, only to be parroted back as original.
I was growing up, but only in some facets, and as a trans woman it was so easy to grasp everything society tells women about using their sex to make themselves wanted.
I wanted him to want me around. I wanted to be needed, and I didn’t know how to express it any other way.
It would be another two years before the first time he ran his hand up my leg in a bar, and I didn’t say no. I wanted the praise and sense of belonging back, so I said it was all right, even as anxiety burned in my stomach, even as I asked him back to my hotel room.
I wasn’t praised.
After that night I was afraid, afraid of losing my job if I said no to sexualised attention or being available, afraid of being outed in our community as trans.
Being out as trans was terrifying. There were, and still are, endless horror stories about people being fired or abused for being trans, of women losing their homes and partners, their careers ending because they had to transition.
I’d only recently finished transition, only recently escaped the abuses of my parents, and the idea of losing everything because I wasn’t loyal enough or available enough was always in the forefront of my mind.
The business was failing through those years, but I was still loyal. I wanted us to succeed. I had ideas on how we could grow, services we could offer and new approaches we could take, anything to keep us from sinking further into the doldrums.
Worthless ideas in his eyes, met routinely with mockery or just ignored. Worthless ideas from a woman.
Come up to my room the text read, and I did, abandoning the new friends I had met and taxiing to his hotel. I tried to deflect, claim that I was out with friends and unavailable. It was a conference and I wanted to be social.
CC-BY João Trindade, filtered.
It wasn’t something I wanted to do.
Yes you do, the reply went.
I went, in the end. Even at the end I thought it was what I wanted.
He’d just been thrown out by his wife for fooling around with a teenager on the eve of the conference we were both attending. He was IMing with that same teenager when I arrived at his room.
I was told to pleasure him.
While he IM’d her.
That moment captured everything I’d become in trying to be wanted, trying to recapture that early praise. I wasn’t worth anything, not then, not before, not ever. Nothing I did could ever be good enough, or praiseworthy when I was just there to be a thing, fit for purpose or not.
It took three years to see what had happened and what I was, in his eyes. Three years where being praised and seen as worthwhile was more important than my own safety, self-respect or desires.
And That was Then
It’s been four years since I left. Four years of new jobs, challenges and workmates, and do you know what the hardest part to deal with has been?
Convincing myself that the abuse was wrong.
Growing up abused and transitioning to an abusive workplace leaves the pattern that abuse is normal and is how I should be treated. Our brains pick up the pattern, and keep looking for it. When I escaped, everything about how people acted towards me was suddenly wrong and didn’t fit. Everything in me wanted to push for abusive responses, to be treated poorly and match the pattern.
Escaping was easy compared to living in a world that doesn’t match what your brain says it should be.
Accepting praise is difficult now. I worry that I’m being set up to be hurt when praise is inevitably withdrawn. I worry that I’ll be manipulated into another situation where I’ll be left chasing the approval of my father-in-absentia and thinking against all rationality that I’m still not good enough and never will be.
Instead of believing I can do anything, I live with 30 years of history telling me I’m wrong, in an industry that doesn’t want me around. I don’t get to believe I’m right, I get to experience a reality where I need a man to reinforce my point and vouch for my ideas.
Every day I have to remind myself that this treatment is wrong,even though every part of me still says it’s right and what I should be experiencing.
My first boss saved my life. I was 26, I lived with my parents and I had no money or experience. He gave me experience and the start of a career, out of a tiny rural hell. He also reinforced that I should expect to be treated poorly, and that my parents were right to vilify me for ruining their lives. Reinforced that I was unworthy of praise or recognition or emotional support.
I was 26, and transgender. I am a lesbian, and I was pushed into suppressing my sexuality to chase that approval and praise, the feeling of being wanted and recognized against all odds, pushed by a social narrative that a woman should be sexual and deferential to men.
This is woman society told me, and as my heart burned with dysphoria I listened. I wanted so badly to be the woman that was inside, have that promised acceptance.
In the End
The hardest part is reminding myself that I’m worth something, even if I feel shame and regret. It’s all in my past now, with years of therapy blunting the edges and soothing the cuts, having taught me how to accept that it happened without letting it define me. Like a toe or a hand, it’s a part of me but it is not me.
But the whispers never stop, the voice from inside saying that I deserved it and they were right, the feeling that I should push for abuse and make people hate me, make everything be true and let the world destroy me.
After everything, the hardest part is saying no.