Monday, November 24, 2008

"Burnt Bridge" Letter

I've written here before about my MS support group, and how occassionally we'll have "topic" meetings. That means the group has chosen a not-necessarily-MS-related topic for us to discuss. Long-time readers of my blog might remember my "Hurtful Things" post, which was inspired by one of those "topic" meetings.

This post is inspired by last week's meeting, which I have found myself thinking about off and on ever since. The topic was "Burnt Bridge Letters." We all know what a burnt bridge is. Now, most of us, when we've burned a bridge, try to repair it at some point, or at least stop it from burning further and destroying other bridges we'd like to keep intact. This almost always requires an explanation and an apology. It's an absolute necessity in your various 12-step programs. But sometimes, for one reason or another, it just isn't possible. Sometimes, the person has died. Sometimes, you've simply lost touch and have no way to contact the person. And every now and again, it would just simply hurt that person further to have any contact with them at all, even to apologize.

Thus, the concept of the "Burnt Bridge Letter." It's a letter you write to that person, with your explanation and apology. The purpose is to help you forgive yourself, even if you can't get forgiveness from the person you wronged. And now, with can post your letter and who knows? Maybe it will be read by the right person after all.

In the meeting, we were asked to think of someone in our lives since our diagnosis whom we might have offended, hurt or betrayed, or someone with whom you had a misunderstanding that, for one reason or another, was never cleared up. We were asked to especially consider people we may have hurt, intentionally or otherwise, as a result of our illness. We've all done it: had a bad day health-wise, and taken it out on the wrong person or behaved in a manner we'd normally never even consider much less carry out. We've done a similar topic before, with the goal being to apologize to people in our lives this has happened to (in my case, I apologized to my best friend Fizz for not telling him about my diagnosis for quite some time, due to my not-so-stellar reaction...and being the fantastic person he is, he'd already forgiven me for it long ago and more than understood. Love ya, Fizz). But in this case, the clinch was that the person had to be someone we CAN'T apologize to.

I've thought long and hard about this one. We all have regrets in life; people we've done wrong or situations that got waaaaaaay out of our control. We've all burned bridges and burned 'em good. But in my life, most of my bridge burning happened before I got diagnosed, not after. And those bridges I have burned after getting the big DX, I've either tried to apologize for already or I burned them intentionally and don't see that I much to apologize for (and we've all done that as well). I know some people in my life are going to expect my Burnt Bridge Letter to concern the email I sent to my former stepmonster just prior to her death. Sorry, but no. I'm a firm believer in the sincere apology: if you'd do the same thing all over again in the same circumstances, you're not sorry. The only thing I'd really be sorry for is bad timing, not the actual email itself...and I can't control the kind of bad timing that was. Not to mention the fact that we were also asked to try, if possible, to think of a burned bridge that not only happened after getting MS, but was actually somehow related to the MS. And when I began to think about that instruction, the topic of my letter came to me with astonishing clarity.

The people I'm writing this to were not friends of mine. They weren't family. I did not know them well. But I acted in a way that I am ashamed of. To make matters worse, the whole thing could have been avoided...if only I'd been honest and even TRIED to explain. But I chickened out instead. There's really no other way to describe it. And I have always regretted it.

So without further ado, here is my Burnt Bridge Letter....

Dear "Tim" and "Dave":

I don't know if you'll remember me or not. Years and years ago, I worked as a Break Manager at the airport. My job was to walk around the airport and give the bartenders their breaks, and tend their bar in their absence. Then in the afternoons, it was my responsibility to run the bar in the Japanese restaurant for several hours. You were my managers.

There were two incidents, on two separate days (that I am positive you thought nothing of), but are important to my explanation. The first was when I was doing a small repair on a beer freezer, fell and dislocated my thumb. The two of you were quite nice to me when it happened and while I was healing from it. The second happened only days after my thumb healed. I was in one of the bars with two of the employees. I went to get nacho cheese from the warmer for a customer, when I inexplicably spilled nacho cheese everywhere. Instead of helping clean it up, I hightailed it out of there and left the big mess for the employees to deal with. I know they complained to you. I know they were angry. The very next day, I turned in my notice. I gave the reason: my daughter's special needs now required me to stay at home with her. This was only partially true. And the timing of the note---the day after the nacho incident---was not a coincidence. I'm sure you never put the two together. But they are very much connected, as is the earlier thumb accident.

Less than a week before my scheduled last day, I was once again working with the two employees I'd stuck with the cheese mess. Neither was happy to be working with me and they weren't terribly friendly. We were super-busy, and I did notice a time or two that they were watching me very closely, but I didn't think much of it. There didn't seem to be much point in taking them to task when I was leaving the job soon and wasn't scheduled to work with them again, ever, anyway.

My next stop from there was the Japanese restaurant. It was quite busy there as well (if memory serves, all the planes were delayed due to weather, creating quite a crowd of less-than-happy people wanting to drink the irritation away). When we finally got a break, I noticed the two of you walking into the restaurant. It surprised me, because this restaurant was in BFE and the two of you rarely made the long trek down there. I went from surprised to stunned when you told me to take my till out and go into the back room with you.

When we got there, Tim counted my till while Dave told me something that made my jaw drop: I'd been accused of stealing. What's more, the accusers claimed they'd witnessed it! I was in total shock. I'd never stolen from the job. Frankly, only a fool would steal from that job: there were cameras and security everywhere. Just a few weeks before, a junior manager had been fired when he was caught on tape smoking in the back rooms. We all knew about it.

When the counting was done, the verdict was in: my till was ten cents over. You both seemed really confused...and really angry. I thought I would get an apology for being accused of being a theif, but instead I got fired. Fired, just days before my last day, with a till that was not only NOT short but was a dime over.

I knew I was still in trouble...because I had, in fact, done something that was against the rules. It was one of those moments in life where you can make all the difference, if you just choose to do the right thing and speak up. I didn't, and I can't tell you how much I have regretted it.

You see, my accusers (you naturally didn't say who'd made the accusation, but it was pretty clear to me who the finger-pointers were) had seen me doing something unusual. It looked to them like I was stealing. And fool that I was, I not only didn't know they'd seen it, it never occured to me that what I was doing would appear, to a third party, to look like stealing.

In the till were five slots for bills: one for ones, fives, tens, twenties and one for traveller's checks. I was in the habit, though, of putting traveller's checks under the till in the envelope for large bills, because the paper was often too big for the slot and would rip or become cumbersome. I had, however, found another use for the extra slot. A use that didn't look so good when I'd been accused of wrongdoing. You see, ALL the money I'd taken in that day at the Japanese restaurant was in that one slot. Some of it was folded over in half. I should have realized how it appeared, but it really never occured to me that anyone was paying that much attention to the contents of my till in the few seconds it would be open during a transaction! I also thought I'd done a pretty good job of "acting normal" and concealing what I was doing. Clearly, I was wrong on both counts.

It was absolutely against the rules to handle money like that. I broke the rules, and I'm sorry. I really didn't think I'd get fired for it. And the odd thing? Had I told you WHY I'd done it, you not only wouldn't have fired me....chances are, legally, you couldn't.

In the back room, you asked me why I'd put all the money like that in the extra slot. I couldn't look you in the eye, and couldn't respond. I was so humiliated and ashamed. I kept trying to find the words, and I couldn't. I don't cry easily or often, but I was choked up back there in that back room. So you told me to take the till to your office and wait for you there. Instead, I put the till on your desk and snuck out the stairwell. I never came back.

I am well aware that my cowardly actions just made me look even more guilty. I wish I had that moment to do all over again. I wish I could have just looked you both in the eye and told you the truth. But I just couldn't. Not then.

You see, some time before I came to work for you, I began having strange symptoms. My doctors said it was postpartum depression. They prescribed antidepressants. The symptoms got worse. Tests, tests and more tests followed. None of the symptoms were, at that point, anything that interferred with my job. Even when I first came to work at the airport, this was the case. But as time went on, I began to have real difficulties. I felt exhausted all the time. I suffered horrible spasms in my legs and pain in my face that was becoming increasingly difficult to hide. I became so sensitive to heat that I would use any excuse to be near the freezer. That's why I was out there the day I fell. It wasn't just any fall, though. What you never knew is that my leg went totally numb under me, and I laid on the floor for probably ten or fifteen minutes before I got up and sought help. I told Tim I had fallen just a few seconds before, because I was so embarassed. The truth was, I had to wait until the feeling had come back into my leg. I could not get up off the floor, and I was so scared. Not only was I terrified by that horrible moment of helplessness, I was also very worried that someone would find me, ask questions...and find out my secret.

You see, just shortly before this, all those test results were back: multiple sclerosis.

Can you understand the shock of that moment? I don't know if you'll recall, but I had just lost my mother to cancer just months before, and now this. I didn't know much about MS at the time. I thought about being confined to a wheelchair, frail, unable to care for myself. Life as I knew it, as I'd always known it, was over. When you get a diagnosis like that, you go through the same stages that you endure when a loved one dies (and I was still struggling with those following my mother's death). My denial had been quite vivid up until the fall in the freezer; afterwards, I short of vacillated between denial and depression. I was just having such a hard time accepting it. And without my mother there, I felt so alone. Who among us doesn't long for our mother when we're sick or injured? And I now had an owie that wasn't ever going to go away. It was easily the most difficult months of my life.

And like many people who go through this, I needed time before I could tell people. By the time my hand and arm went numb and caused the nacho cheese mess, I still hadn't told even my own father or best friend. I was so afraid of what my family and friends would think, how they would react, when they knew. I was certainly not ready to tell my employers and co-workers! So when the cheese incident happened, I realized I couldn't keep this up. I either had to tell my bosses about my illness (and yes, I was afraid I'd be fired or worse, given pity-work for the poor invalid) or I'd have to resign. The decision ended up being made for me when my daughter's health worsened. So I turned in my notice and hoped there'd be no more problems in that time and I could end my employment with my dignity intact.

I had learned, over time, certain "shortcuts" to get through the workday; but even with those, I was barely getting by. What started out as helpful little tricks to hide my condition and help me do my job very quickly became crutches without which I couldn't do the job at all. I learned the shortest routes---with the least amount of walking---to get from restaurant to restaurant. I pretended to take smoke breaks so no one would know how often I was going to the restroom to urinate or get sick. I sucked on ice cubes, did dishes in cold water and wore "cooling scarves" to keep my temperature down. I found jobs that required me to sit down, and offered to help do paperwork for other employees (everyone hated the alcohol-inventory sheets) in exchange for them doing jobs I was finding difficult, such as turning chairs upside-down on the tables.

But there was one problem that worried more than the others. My hand-eye coordination was slipping, to say the least. Apparently, when business was jumping and I was required to handle money at a fast pace...I was having difficulty putting the right bills in the right slots. I was also sometimes confusing one dollar bills for ten dollar bills. My till had never been significantly over or under, but I was constantly worried that eventually I would make a big mistake. So, I developed a system. A shortcut. A trick.

You've got it: I put all the money in the extra slot.

You see, removing bills (for making change) was nowhere near as difficult for me as putting the money away, which entailed lifting up the little metal prongs, putting bills in the right slot, and then removing bills to make change...quickly. It was the "quickly" part that was the real problem; when business was slow, I didn't need to use this particular trick. But when it was busy, I just got overwhelmed. So I would put all the money in the extra slot. And to further ensure I wouldn't make a mistake, I folded all the ten dollar bills in half, to differentiate them from one dollar bills. At the end of the shift, when the restaurant was closed, I would sort the money and put the bills in the right slot. I'd been doing it for some time, and since adopting the practice, I hadn't had any accidents with wrong change. I also hadn't snapped my fingertips in the metal prongs anymore---something I had been doing so often that my husband commented on my swollen, rosy-red nail beds.

I know it was wrong, and against the rules. And I know---now---how bad it looked to the two employees who noticed it. I can absolutely see how it looked suspicious to the two of you as well. But I also know that you were good managers, and fair people. If I'd just waited in the office like you asked me to, and came clean...maybe I'm wrong, but I've never stopped believing that if I'd only had the courage to explain, you would've not only understood but been supportive. Not to say that you would have let me continue breaking that rule, but surely something could've been worked out. Maybe the till could have been modified to not snap and to open easier. Maybe someone else could've been in charge of the money while I did bar-back instead. A demotion, sure, but one I could have lived with. Surely some compromise could have been reached. But I made sure that couldn't happen, by running away from the problem instead of facing it.

I'm a different person today. I'm not only not ashamed of my disease, I blog about it! Everyone in my life knows, and I'm not embarassed for them to know. I also know quite a bit more about the law and disabilites than I did back then. I was so afraid I'd be fired, or I'd be given some really bad, demoralizing job that existed solely for the barely competent to perform. I knew there were laws in place to protect the disabled, but I couldn't even bring myself to admit I WAS disabled! I couldn't even say the word out loud. If I thought it, I cried.

If I had the chance to do it all over again...well, I'd never let it get to that point at all. I would've asked for a confidential meeting, informed you of my diagnosis, and asked to brainstorm ways that I could continue to work without compromising the rules or other employees. I would have been prepared to discuss the facts of MS, as opposed to the common misperceptions (which I myself, sadly, was buying into wholesale at the time). I would've educated myself about my rights, and I would have gone into the situation confident that something could be worked out.

Barring that...I wish I could have just waited in that office and waited for the question again, "Why was all the money in that slot?" I wish I would sat up straight in the chair and say, "I'm so sorry for breaking the rule, and for not being honest and upfront about my condition. I've been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and I'm having some hand-eye coordination issues. I never stole, and I'd be more than happy to take a polygraph if you wish it. If you like, I can get some information from my doctor about my condition so we can find a way for me to finish out my last few days here without my being in violation of company policy. Or if you still prefer I'd leave now, I understand. Again, I am so sorry I didn't tell you and I'm sorry I broke the rules. This has been a very difficult time for me, and frankly, I wasn't sure what the response would be. Thank you for understanding."

I wish I'd said it I'm saying it now.

I know this is probably making a mountain out of a molehill, as far as you're concerned. It's been a pretty long letter, after all, over what is basically a disabled woman hiding her disability from her employers. I doubt either of you has ever wasted a moment wondering why I'd done what I'd done, why I'd run rather than explain myself, since the day I'd done it. Maybe it's ego or guilt, I don't know, but there's always been a part of me that has this nagging doubt...this feeling that maybe you did wonder. Maybe you did care why. And because of my denial, my cowardice, you will never know.

It had such a simple explanation, all my "quirks" and incidents those last few months. I could've explained it all, put that final piece in the puzzle. Instead, I made myself look even worse by refusing to do so. By hiding my head in the sand. I never even gave you a chance. By assuming the response would be negative, would be pity or scorn or anger or disgust...I never gave you the chance to be kind, caring or compassionate. You didn't ever do anything to me to deserve that.

Please forgive for me for it.