After the fact I heard I heard tidbits from friends here and there suggesting that it was just poor luck, that most of the company’s stores are excellent. I have no trouble believing the second; for the first, I say it’s not luck, only logic. A store which fosters an unpleasant work environment will have a high employee turnover rate. A high employee turnover rate means the store’s always looking for new hires. I suspect I gained my first job for the very reasons which led me to despise it within weeks.
I heard since, at random, from a particularly random source–Patrick Boivin, a member of a Let’s Play group I follow more for their banter, salt, and game-lore savvy than raw competence, during a podcast he participated in on another channel–that I made a deeply Aspergian mistake. To sink colloquial: I gave too much of a fuck. I’m sure the store’s management disagrees; I’m sure because they told me as much. They were very keen to point out the days I failed to make it in. Of course, they also blithely marked me for starting shifts early after I repeatedly discussed that I had to start work early to account for my bus-route reliance, and received verbal acknowledgment of that from one of those same members of management. I was told during my interview that the store would easily work around my schedule. It was only in the last week before my breaking point that a team leader–one of two at the store I actually liked–told me that management literally couldn’t do this because their agreement with the Union mandated they give choice of hours to the longest-serving employees.
That’s fine. I respect that, and believe in the importance of unions. Just don’t hire people under false pretenses, you evil cash-grubbing corpora-filth.
They conveniently ignored that every day I did come in, I lunged back and forth across the store to save time transiting between departments, moving easily three times the speed of most other employees. I forced myself to be as chipper as possible at all times. I forgot that in spite of all their assertions that they know how to read others, neurotypical people are not necessarily better at inferring the meaning of non-verbal behavior, and will assume this kind of behavior is easy, natural. No one would force themselves to do that for a minimum-wage job, right?
I would. I eventually growled at myself where no one could see just for taking breathers, or keened and hissed quietly just to blow off steam. Now, when I worked, I almost always worked a full eight-hour shift, but this was at most three days a week. Even considering the pace I set, my weight–which, against all reason, drops by no more than ounces per month no matter how hard I push–and the fact that I frequently missed breaks while working multiple departments because of the store’s chronic under-staffing in GM, things shouldn’t have gotten quite so bad.
Ha. Did I mention I was training a minimum 4 hours a day in swordsmanship and weight training, the former outdoors, in a near-tropical July? If you haven’t lived where I do, you don’t understand. July is the worst month in the state; it opens with my birthday and plummets unto muggy oblivion from that dismal start. The puerile loons who spout craving for it every January are the very first to moan how unpleasant it is, as if they’re too vapid to remember that every July is like this and they asked for it anyway, and all they do is lounge about next to the A/C unit. Humidity reliably hovers around the 80% mark, and frequently breaches a hundred. Temperatures, which if you’ve studied climatology you know change little because the moisture holds in heat, are 85 minimum. This summer we hit 90 a number of times, and coasted near 100. I drank two gallons of water a day, yet rose and went to bed parched. The store marked me for 20 hours of work a week; in reality it was 44, every one of them spent pushing myself as hard as I possibly could. Probably closer to 50, accounting for the multiple days a week I forced myself to five or even six hours of practice. Every blistered minute of it, I gave everything I had. I physically couldn’t have strained further without falling over; I know because I frequently came close to it. I averaged six hours of sleep a night due to the time taken to bus home combined with my Aspergian difficulty falling asleep (an hour from lights out is a miracle; two is average.)
You’re probably thinking no human could sustain this. Wouldn’t you know it, you’re completely correct!
By sheer force of will, I survived almost three months at this pace. Did I mention that, during this period of the highest energy demands of my life, I took it into my head to cut all but the tiniest portion of fat from my diet, and reduce my dinner to a single 300-calorie “meal bar,” with a mug of hot skim milk? Ha, I did. By the day of the collapse, I woke up, did everything and went to sleep feeling like acid flensed every synapse and nerve, and had done so for over a month straight; I lost the knowledge of feelings besides sullen anger. For variety I occasionally stoked a towering fury, which granted perhaps 10 minutes of energy before I burned to worse exhaustion than ever. I was always famished, and never willing to feed myself enough to get away from it. I spent minutes at a time, sometimes dozens of times a shift, fantasizing about dying where I stood. A rational person would wonder why I didn’t just quit the job; the truth is I was too far gone for rationality. I’d convinced myself that this shitty retail work was the pivot-point for my whole existence, that I’d never be worth a thing as an American adult if I couldn’t hold it down. In the closing days I canted a classic madman’s litany, repeating “Can’t let them take the dream!” over and over in my head.
I wish I was making that up. “The dream” of course meant writing and sword practice, things which inevitably stagnated with my exhaustion. In retrospect, that I kept merely stagnant rather than steadily degrading shows inhuman self-control. That might not have been a problem, except that I am human, and no more than that.
July 25th opened poorly from the start. I yelled at my then-roommate Bailey’s dog, and flipped off my first bus when I missed it. I believe there was another flip-out before I got to work, but I forget the motivation. These are classic warning signs for me, or anyone: extreme fatigue triggers our fight-or-flight response over the smallest things. For over an hour after I first arrived at the store, I darted back and forth between scooping out fish for customers in Pets and printing Hunt/Fish licenses in Sporting Goods. These are at opposite ends of the store’s GM department along its back wall. I received at most a minute between one call and the next. Then, when I finally escaped this ambulant purgatory, I went for the returns cart.
Returns were–and, I assume, remain–second shift’s perennial bug-bear. First shift had no real motivation to address them, since management never held them overtime for unfinished work; third shift predominantly stocked the shelves, and I don’t know if they were expected to handle returns at all. That day the returns cart was piled with items from every GM department, with a second cartful waiting in the wings. I wheeled it to housewares since that usually had the most returns. I stopped the cart in front of the item scanner.
Staring at a rug in the racks next to the scanner, my mind went completely blank. I don’t believe I can ever properly convey such crippling. An Aspergian mind–or at least, mine–ripples endless. Tangents feed tangents, daydreams seep into musings; an inner diatribe on the merits of concave over convex blade geometry, and vice-versa, leads into tank-gun penetration, into thoughts of the Battle of Kursk, into wondering if the reason we insist that the Germans stay our main bad guys is that if went any further forward in history, America might have to be in the running, which becomes a meditation on the hypocrisy of nationalism, and so on without end until bedding down for the night, when I think myself to sleep.
All this, gone. The unebbing energy, even the angst-born wrath which fed me for most of those three months, vanished. I sat down by the scanner. I remained there while a coworker found and questioned me, then brought the GM manager, who ultimately called the ambulance. It was like nothing so much as waking sleep paralysis; I was aware of my stillness, but felt no urge to break it. I suppose after forcing liveliness for so long, I was sick of life. Words drifted on the periphery of my mind, a vague misting thing I neither remembered nor desired the use of. It took me 30 seconds to fumble my phone out and point to my cousin’s number as an emergency contact. That was the last action I took before the paramedics bundled me on a stretcher and drove me away.
I finally spoke a few words in the ambulance. I then spent a dozen hours in the hospital with too little to eat. Remember; my collapse stemmed in no small part from malnutrition, specifically rabbit starvation. This made sleeping impossible while they ran various physical checks. Then, while I waxed delirious from sleep deprivation and hunger, a well-meaning social worker offered me the choice of waiting at the hospital for pickup by my parents, or voluntary commitment in a nearby psychiatric hospital. I chose the latter.
I have drowned to the point of unconsciousness and ruptured my spleen so violently I needed surgery to save me from death by internal bleeding. Both combined were nowhere near so destructive for me as my choice that night.
Find Part Two Here, where I explain why.