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R U Ok? Yeah, I am… now

Today is officially “R U OK? Day“. And, as much as I despise the Twitter-gen shortening of two already-quite-short words, this is the first time I feel like I can identify with it. Not that I’m suicidal or anything like that, but I do feel as though I’ve been through the wringer a bit.

What is R U OK? Day?

If you don’t know, R U OK is an organisation founded in Sydney in 2009 that attempts to fight suicide and depression by getting people to ask each other a simple question, “Are you ok?” To really ask, and to listen to the answer, and to dig a little if needs be to find out whether someone is really doing ok, or maybe struggling with some issue or other. One of the critical factors in depression and how people deal with it is a sense of disconnection from others around them. Talking about it can be the first step in the right direction, and as with so many things, we have a dedicated day (the second Thursday in September) to remind us about it, but of course it’s a good idea all year round.

Rewinding

To explain why I can now identify more with depression, I’ll have to go back a few months in time. And talk about my work.

I’m a geek; I write software and websites, server-side programming, user interfaces, Agile development, that sort of thing. Might sound boring to some, but I love it, and I’m very good at what I do. For many years, I’ve successfully worked in the IT industry as a contractor, meaning I hire out my services to companies or organisations who need my expertise. Contracting has its pros and its cons over being a permanent employee (permie). You get paid quite well, and you get paid by the hour – no fixed annual salary – meaning if there’s a deadline and more than 40-hour weeks or 8-hour days are required to meet it, you get paid accordingly. (Quite often in the IT industry, as a permie, you’re expected to work more than the number of hours you’re expected to work as per your work contract.) Of course, if the place you work for runs out of work, you’re among the first that get the boot. You also don’t get paid leave – if you get sick or want to take a holiday, you don’t earn money. So you typically get paid for about 42-46 weeks per year, but the higher rates more than make up for that.

Before my most recent contract, I’d contracted for six employers, and in each case was offered multiple contract extensions, typically in 3-, 6-, or 12-month chunks. I’ve been offered permanency, and in a couple of cases worked for the same company for several years. In three cases I was asked to come back (and did) when they had new work and knew that I was familiar with their systems and could hit the ground running to help out where it was most needed. I had great relationships with those employers, and still keep in touch with several of them (they’re great references when I apply for a new job).

Then my employer ran out of work for me, and I applied for a contract with… let’s call them Company XY. It was supposed to be a one-off two-and-a-half-month contract for a small piece of work with technology I was familiar with. Such short-term contracts aren’t usually my thing, but the timing was right with one week off after the end of the previous one, and I signed a contract with them via a recruitment company. It was a slow start, I had to wait two or three days before I had a PC set up at my new workplace and could log into every system I needed to. I was told that they didn’t have a business analyst (BA) on this project, as the technical architect knew everything there was to know about the business requirements, and had written an extensive document detailing everything.

I got to work, found that the code base was an awful ugly mess written and modified by several different people over time who all had a knack for different anti-patterns. Well, I can deal with that, did some cleanup as I worked my way into the code and became familiar with what it was that they wanted me to do. Until I found that the architect’s document had a logical flaw in it. It had a diagram (a flow chart) with text below explaining the logic, only the diagram and the text contradicted each other. I talked to the architect, showed him the document, and asked – always professional, always polite, at least that’s what I thought – which one was right, i.e. which version to implement. He disagreed that there was even a discrepancy, got confused when I explained my unit tests to him, and told me to just do what the document said.

In hindsight, I suppose the guy felt I’d stepped on his toes, or challenged his authority or something, even though I never brought this up in meetings with the project manager. After two and a half weeks, I’d completed roughly 80% of the work for which they’d allocated two and a half months, and was getting to the point where I really needed a decision on which version of the logic to implement. I tried several different approaches with the architect, finally creating a spreadsheet with a matrix defining all the possibilities and filling it in based on one of the two possible interpretations. He said I had it all wrong, created a matrix of his own, and when I went to his desk to tell him that I now got what the misunderstanding had been, he gruffly told me to “Go away!”

I did, and stayed home the next day due to what I thought was a stomach bug, but maybe it was just a really bad feeling in my gut.

I got a call that afternoon from the recruitment guy telling me that Company XY had terminated my contract effective immediately, and that I shouldn’t come back to their workplace but I should arrange for someone to bring my security pass to their reception and to pick up my private belongings.

I was flabberghasted. I was gutted that this sort of thing could happen.

I explained to the recruiter what I thought had happened, and asked to talk to the project manager and other people, to at least tell my side of the story, but the company refused to communicate with me, except to tell the recruiter that their decision was final. I received an email from the recruiter where he’d copied-and-pasted the reasons they had given for the contract termination, and they were all bogus. It seems they weren’t confident that I could complete the required work in time (I was close to done, with plenty of time left), and something about a lack of communication that didn’t register enough for me to even remember it now. I guess the project manager had bought whatever the architect was saying about me, and some other factors played into it as well that I’ll get to later.

In a daze, I arranged for a friend of mine (who still works there; I’ve known him for years) to get my security pass and to tell him what stuff I’d left on my desk. I was sick of it all, sick to the stomach, literally and figuratively. I decided I needed a bit of time off, didn’t feel like looking for other work right away. I binge-watched some series, played computer games, read some books – anything to keep my mind occupied, keep it from having to figure out what I’d done wrong and what I should do about it.

On the way back up

More time passed than I’d intended, and by the time I started browsing job opportunities again, I had so little enthusiasm for a job that’s always been my passion that I didn’t put as much effort into it as I should have. It took about three months before I found another job – as a permie now for the first time in many years, because I’m too scared to sign on as a contractor where they can do that sort of thing to me. I feel much better about myself again, but I can’t deny that it was a pretty dark time. Part of that shadow still hangs over me somewhere, and will take longer yet to shake off completely.

I’m a very lucky person in that my wife is the most wonderful, most selfless, most loving person in the world. Without her constant encouragement, without her support, I would’ve become lost in my darkness. She knows me so well, knows when to let me sulk or lick my wounds, when and how to cheer me up, when to let me know with a quiet look that she’s always there for me. I can easily see how someone’s downward slide could continue without that type of support.

The occasional rejections from literary agents to whom I’d submitted my work didn’t help during that time, but I’d sort of accepted that that would happen (that glimmer of hope is friggin’ hard to kill, though!).

Today

Of all days, today (even if I technically posted this just after midnight…), on R U OK? Day, I had a chat with a colleague at my new place of work. Guess where she’s worked before? Yep – Company XY. Guess which architect once made her cry at work, and made a former colleague of hers almost have a nervous breakdown? It’s a small world. I learned from her that said architect has six children at home and a wife who is seriously ill.

Damnit, I really wanted to hate that bullying bastard, but now I can’t.

I’m glad I talked to that colleague today, though. I’m glad she didn’t just say, “Oh, that’s nice,” and changed the subject when I told her I’d briefly worked for Company XY. She was really curious, and concerned, and sympathetic when I told her my story. I’m glad I opened up to someone I normally would not have opened up to.

A few weeks ago, I finally reached out to my Dad, who lives overseas, about what I was going through. It wasn’t easy, telling him that I wasn’t doing so well, that I was struggling with something. But I’m so glad I did. It was another pillar of support, and he gave me some great advice, part of which was that I should write about what happened. Even if no one ever reads it, he said, it’s important to get things off your chest, if nothing else, then to simply be able to put a mental “The End” under that chapter of your life. Wise man.

Oh, and the other thing I heard about Company XY today (from that other friend) is that by now almost their entire IT staff have been sacked – yay, outsourcing!

And you?

If there’s anyone in your life, even if they’re on the fringes, who might be struggling with something, who doesn’t seem to be their cheerful self – don’t hesitate to offer a friendly ear. It really can make a difference.

If you’re struggling yourself, reach out to someone, even if it’s hard to overcome your misgivings. It really can make a difference.

Was I duped by Sarah Daltry?

My dilemma for the past couple of weeks has been that I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to blog in support of Sarah Daltry or one… well, warning about her. I’ve been trying to weigh both sides of the story, since I felt it was worth a blog post, but simply couldn’t decide. Supporting either side felt, and still feels, wrong. When I moped about it to my wife, she – wisely, as always – told me that there’s nothing wrong with continuing to sit on the fence if neither side appears palatable.

So, here I sit.

Undecided, but wanting to get my doubts out.

The email

After my passionate rant in her defense (and that of anyone who’s ever been bullied) when I heard that she was withdrawing her written work and her social media presence due to extreme bullying, I didn’t hear about the issue again for months until I received an email from someone who said she was a friend of Sarah’s. She apologised for the delay, saying she’d only found my post recently in a Google search (and that Sarah wouldn’t do such research herself), explained Sarah’s current situation (which was apparently much improved after she was suicidal and required professional help, so improved, in fact, that she was “coming back, with a focus on […] the stories she loves and what the writing means to her”), and thanked me for my supportive words in the open letter I wrote.

Honestly, that felt good. I’d done the right thing, stood up for what I believed was right and smote (well, with words) what I believed was wrong. And I was being thanked for it. I was under no illusions that my words had pulled Sarah back from the brink of darkness or anything that dramatic, but I was sincerely glad to hear she was doing better and writing once again. Someone who’d had that many bad things happen to her (bullying, via bad reviews as well as emails and on social media, rape, poverty, depression, suicide attempts…) surely deserved my help.

My reply

I replied to the email, thanking her for the update and confessing to be a “sucker for happy endings, but enough of a realist to understand that it’s not always like that”. I offered to help if I could:

“If there’s anything I can do to help, please do let me know – however much, however little, I’d be glad to help, whether it’s a new blog post with your words (only with your permission, of course), beta reading, feedback of any kind, or simply taking down the old post if Sarah prefers and never mentioning it again… just let me know.”

Research of my own

We emailed each other another couple of times; she was happy for me to do a blog post, even to post the contents of her first email, and, since Sarah was currently “rewriting her NA series that was originally romance [into] a new series [that was] geared more towards YA”, I could share upcoming promos for that series.

I agreed, saying I’d do a blog post later that week (over two weeks ago). In the meantime, I wanted to do a little bit of research to know more about Sarah’s story; surely, many others had carried the torch as I had, had stood up to bullying in their own ways in support of someone who’d been treated that badly.

The original “Open Letter to Bullies” post, in which Sarah announced that she was giving up, conceding defeat to all the hate, was no longer available, but there’s always the wayback machine for such cases (even if the styling is off, the content is there):

http://web.archive.org/web/[…]/open-letter-to-bullies/

The other side

To my surprise, what I discovered next was quite a different story. Rather than the social media outrage I’d expected at an author being bullied, the first three results of googling “Sarah Daltry” were her author pages on goodreads.com (with quite a favourable rating), her own site, and amazon.com, followed by a blog post by a site that seemed dedicated to stopping bullying on goodreads, except… that one was not supportive of her at all. Instead, just four days after Sarah published her open letter to bullies, it claimed to have sufficient information to take the stance that the whole thing was just a PR stunt to promote her work:

http://www.stopthegrbullies.com/2014/04/09/sarah-daltry-cries-bully/

Wait, I thought, aren’t you guys supposed to be trying to stop the bullying rather than adding to it? I read through this post with skepticism sitting heavy on my shoulders, but starting to slip as I found out that she’d reversed her decision to take down her site and her self-published books. Reading through the comments, people seemed to be quite willing to get right back to bashing Sarah (or was it “back”?).

There were a few other sites that were similarly dismissive of her claims, stating that Sarah had made quite a profit out of “crying wolf”, getting many “sympathy buys” after asking publicly for support, etc., and that there was no proof that she’d ever been bullied by bad reviews, with high ratings on both goodreads and amazon.

Who’s right?

Hmm. So either Sarah Daltry was right with her claims and those other websites were just adding to the incredible unfairness she’s experienced, or they (I’ll call them her “decriers”) were right to call BS and Sarah has been abusing the sympathy of a great lot of people, myself included, for her own profit.

Either way, I feel I have a right to be outraged. I think. I’m just really reluctant to direct my outrage at anyone unless I can be sure that, when I get down from my fence, I land on the right side.

Here’s what I emailed back to Sarah’s friend after I’d read up on the issue:

Wow, do I feel stupid. I was about to write up that blog post I mentioned, but, having just done a bit of googling myself, I’m not quite sure what to believe…

The reply was… well, understanding, ending with: “I will respect your choice either way, because in the end the choice is up to you as to what you believe.”

Checking newer posts on Sarah’s site like this one, she replies to comments by Nicholas (whose post first alerted me to the whole issue and who I think is a genuinely nice guy) that, yes, she’s read positive things as well as negative things posted about her.

What doesn’t add up for me

Here’s why I’m not willing to leave my perch on the fence just yet, some things still don’t quite make sense….

Assuming Sarah Daltry’s claims and reasons for withdrawing from “public life” were legitimate:

  • Why did she claim that she’d be removing her books but then did no such thing?
  • Why are her reviews so high on goodreads and amazon if there was such extreme bullying?
  • Why does she claim that she reads positive and negative things about herself when her friend says she’d never do that (only two days earlier)?
  • Why wasn’t her friend more, I don’t know, outraged when I said I wasn’t sure what to believe? If your friend gets treated really badly and someone says they think she might be lying about it, wouldn’t you get upset?
  • Would a site that’s supposed to be about protecting those who were bullied call BS on someone claiming to have been bullied, unless they had pretty good evidence?

Assuming it was all a farce and those who say she cried wolf to engender false sympathy are right:

  • Couldn’t the lack of evidence of bullying and the positive reviews just be because the abusive reviews and comments were removed from the sites in question? (I honestly don’t know what their policies are.)
  • Is Sarah’s “friend” who emailed me actually just another one of the multiple personas her decriers claim she maintains?
  • Why does the “stopthegrbullies” site not post the “evidence” that proves who Sarah Daltry is? Is it really because of a promise to those who gave them that information, to protect them from Sarah using her other personas (“socks”) to write bad reviews about them? Even if she abused sympathy to sell her books, making Sarah sound like an evil kingpin with that much power doesn’t quite gel.
  • Why did the “stopthegrbullies” site remove commenters’ last names and links to their websites? Because of “trolls stalking their blog” to protect the commenters, really? Sorry, but that seems far-fetched to me. By the same token as their argument about Sarah’s “socks”, some of those commenters who were “convinced” could then well have been the site owners themselves.

And, either way: Would people really do that?!? Wow, maybe I’m just too naïve.

So… was I duped?

What do you think? Or know? Have I missed any major information? Am I being silly in not being able to reach a conclusion, one way or the other? Should I just “let it go” and stop fretting?

Please let me know in the comments below, or feel free to email me (amos at amosmcarpenter dot com) if you’d rather not make it public.

Open Letter to Sarah Daltry

Background: I read today on Nicholas Rossis’ blog about author Sarah Daltry’s post (read that for this post to make sense) in which she said that she was “closing up shop” and removing herself from social media and her books from Amazon, having been bullied into giving up her dreams of being able to make a living as an author by people too callous to care.

Here’s my response to Sarah.

You’re wrong, Sarah.

You’re wrong to think the bullies “win” this way, wrong to think they feel good about themselves for breaking someone, wrong to believe you can’t make a difference by attempting to fight back. Wrong to think that the “majority of people” are like those bullies. They’re the vast minority, they just have the loudest voices and the foulest mouths.

I think they do what they do out of fear, or anger, or sheer stupidity, not realising what effect they are having on an actual human being. They’re the sort of idiots who walk along the streets at night, drunk, and throw the bottle onto the sidewalk, just not getting that a toddler could cut her foot on the shards the next morning, more interested in the fact that the bottle made a different sound than it did last night. They’re the sort ot wankers who sit in their parents’ basement, testing their boundaries in the knowledge that they can remain anonymous on the Internet. The sort of people lashing out because they themselves were bullied, ridiculed, or rejected. Only a tiny fraction of them are actually malicious; most are just ignorant poor sods.

Most people are not like that. Nowhere near it. The average person cares. I have to believe that. If you are hearing so much negative feedback from people who don’t seem to care, you’re listening to the wrong people. I know that’s easier said than done, and I can’t claim to even begin to imagine what you must have gone through to get to where you are, what it must have cost you to make the decision you have, how much guts it took to write that post. For what it’s worth, I am devastated, I am truly sorry and ashamed on behalf of humanity. Surely there are some people in your area (I’d tell you to move, out of the city or even out of the country, but again, that’s easier said than done when you’re struggling to make ends meet – I’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt) you can reach out to, family or friends you can talk to, a church (even if you join for all the wrong reasons) maybe, a community group of some kind?

I don’t have an answer for you, but I can tell you that some of your assumptions and conclusions are wrong. Probably due to a systematic trampling of your hopes and your belief in the goodness in people, but still wrong. The best advice I can give is to listen to the right people, and to learn to take the opinions of the loud-mouthed bullies for what they are: utterly pointless drivel, not even worth paying attention to.

We care

Do you care about mindless bullying destroying the lives of good people? We can’t change the world and rid it of bullies overnight, but we can all send Sarah a small token of encouragement. If you’ve read this blog post, please take a moment out of your busy lives to go to Sarah Daltry’s blog while it’s still up and leave her a comment of encouragement. She isn’t showing comments publicly for obvious reasons, but says she reads them all. It may not be much, but I feel that every positive message she receives can contribute a tiny bit to helping her restore her faith in the goodness in people.