Becoming a Better Man
Refusing to succumb to workplace bullies helped me discover who I am.
In 2014, I called my next oldest brother to ask an important question: “If anything happens to me, will you take care of Ma?” My goal was to get his reassurance and then end my life, although things didn’t go as planned. I started to cry, my brother started to ask questions, and I hastily hung up the phone. Over the next hour, he called back repeatedly trying to reach me.
I almost died by suicide on that cold March morning because I believed that I didn’t have any personal value. Truthfully, I didn’t want to die. I just desperately wanted the emotional pain to end.
Many events led up to that point. I’d spent more than a decade ethically managing multimillion-dollar high-tech projects for Fortune 500 companies, and I was flabbergasted by the number of times I was asked to do things that were amoral.
In one instance, while working as a contractor for a federal government client, I was told to develop a project budget for an enterprise system change. After I asked the project leader for verifiable information to develop the budget, I was directed to make up the numbers. Not wanting to betray my fiduciary responsibility, I sought work elsewhere.
About a year later, after delivering independent audit results for a state government client, I was asked to falsify the report to justify the client’s desire for additional funding. Knowing this request was highly inappropriate, I discussed it with our small firm’s leadership team, and collectively we agreed to deny the request. However, after the client threatened future business opportunities, my management team directed me to alter the report. I refused and resigned the next day.
I later accepted a full-time job with a small international organization, where I was belittled, scolded and essentially called “stupid” several times by a vice president. I reported the abuse, but my supervisor failed to intervene and the verbal attacks continued. I realized then that I couldn’t continue to work in a hostile environment in which I was disrespected, demeaned and devalued.
After that, I spent nearly four years piecing together part-time work. My drive to succeed deteriorated, my future earning potential grew uncertain and I lost hope. I was depressed and had exhausted my savings. It all culminated in the day I almost ended my life.
It’s not easy for women to stand up to harassment in the workplace. It’s also not that easy for a man. Doing so is antithetical to the gender stereotype that says men who can’t handle pressure are weak; that those who complain about verbal abuse just can’t take the heat.
I wholeheartedly reject this notion. It takes enormous strength and courage to walk away to protect your own health, future and integrity. Too many of us—women and men—are shamed or bullied into silence. I documented my experiences in articles and books, figuring that if these things happened to me, they happened to others, too.
Looking back, there were several things that saved me on that March day. One was my brother telling me, “This is just a moment. You need to get past this moment.”
Another was a commitment I had made to go to the Arlington County Detention Facility, where I had taught business and life skills to inmates for six months. Simply mustering the will to walk out the door and keep that appointment was a positive action that put me on track to reclaim my life.
Ironically, teaching at a jail wasn’t something I ever wanted to do. Friends and family had convinced me to try it, using some of the inspirational quotes I had written down to deal with my depression. I quickly realized that teaching incarcerated individuals made me forget my personal troubles and pulled me out of my depressive state. It gave me a sense of purpose and value.
Some of my greatest joys now are my chance encounters with former offenders after their release. My heart overflows every time one of them is happy to see me; I feel their appreciation.
One day, I wrote down this quote as I considered my own recovery:Your darkest days don’t define you, but instead provide an opportunity for you to display your strength and character, which will ultimately drive the individual you become.
It’s now one of the mantras I share with the business students I teach—including both inmates and college students.
Sometimes the universe sends messages of validation that can be missed if we’re not open to receiving them. I remember the one that came during my very first orientation visit to the detention facility in 2013. As I entered the housing unit in which I would eventually teach, someone yelled my name. At first, I ignored it, thinking that I didn’t know anyone in jail. Then I heard it again and realized that the man calling my name was an old friend from high school. Reflecting on the significance of this unlikely event, I accepted the call to outreach with humility.
With good, definitive choices, I’ve created the life I purposely choose to live.
Arlington resident S.L. Young (www.slyoung.com) is an educator, inspirational speaker, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, author, HuffPost contributor and radio host. In addition to working with inmates at the Arlington County Detention Facility, he teaches business classes at Northern
Virginia Community College and Marymount University.