Work Sickness at the Health Factory

tale of toil by summer brenner

There is a difference between work and working. All my adult life I've been hard at work as a writer. And although writing is not always a perfect activity, it is the work I love to do. However, with the economic pressures of the 1980s and the additional responsibilities of solely supporting two children, my subsistence on menial jobs and an occasional royalty ended, and I was forced to really start working. The first thing I discovered about working was that it made me sick.

Ironically enough, my sickening new job was at the Data Center of the Kaiser Medical Care Program, one of the largest health care organizations in the country. For the first few weeks at the Data Center, my problem was exhaustion. Besides showing up at work every day in Walnut Creek, a suburban town thirty freeway minutes away, I had a commitment to my son's soccer games, my daughter's gymnastics class. Then I had to manage grocery shopping after the children's bedtime, and what seemed like a thousand errands on the weekend. In addition, there were the cherished friendships that at first I tried to maintain, not to mention the unfinished stories that lay in heaps on my desk at home, waiting for a few seconds of attention. Suddenly, I had money, but no time. No time to think, no time to relax, and no time to do my real work of writing.

The fatigue gradually eased. I discovered that errands could be taken care of during lunch hour. Clothes could be dropped at the cleaners in Walnut Creek. Not only thinking, but even actual writing--scribbled on notepads--could be done during the commute in the car. The children were adjusting to my absences in the late afternoon, my frenzies in the evening, and my shorter and shorter temper as the week wore on. Although I was unavailable during the week, suddenly I could buy them presents on the weekend. My friends too got used to my excuses, and the manuscripts were put on hold.

My job as a technical writer required that I operate a computer terminal most of the day. At the end of my inaugural month, I made an appointment for my first pair of glasses. Not only did this work aggravate my astigmatism, but I needed glasses to shield my eyes from the glare of the computer screen and the fluorescent lights. I soon noticed that all the 400-odd employees in this building wore glasses too, and when I inquired among my co-workers how long they had been wearing them, many responded that it had been since they had arrived there.

In the second month, my nasal passages began to resemble a sewer system. Although I didn't have a cold, I sneezed, wheezed, coughed, and spewed. My boss looked on sympathetically. She assured me that it was not hay fever and suggested I stock up on the boxes of cheap tissues stored for the personnel. Apparently, everyone in my department had experienced a similar reaction to the closed atmosphere, and I was consoled that I would soon adjust to the air or the absence thereof. My boss was right. I adjusted and moved on to deeper maledictions.

By the seventh week my scalp itched so badly that I had myself inspected for head lice. Rather than a colony of small living creatures on my head, there were giant flakes of dead skin amassing under my hair like icebergs. I was told that this was a simple and common nervous condition and that with tar shampoo and a metal comb, I could stifle the uncomfortable itch. One visit to the drug store fixed me right up.

Herpes is an unwelcome guest that visits me from time to time. I had had rare occurrences of this pesty virus, but during my third month working, I experienced four outbreaks in four weeks. Finally, on advice from a friend, I took large doses of lysine, and my herpes rage subsided.

After three days of actually feeling good, I believed that my days of initiation had passed, and that I was now a perfectly adjusted worker.

I was wrong. I woke up the first Thursday of my fourth month with a pain that spanned the distance between my top vertebrae, aptly called the atlas, and my left armpit. Suddenly, I was a cripple. I couldn't raise my left arm above the elbow. The weight of a coat or the strap of a purse was intolerable. Sleep was only possible with a heating pad and several pillows to hoist my upper left quadrant like a cast. I immediately made appointments with the physical therapist and apologized to my boss that I would be leaving early on Friday for a massage.

Although the pain in my shoulder felt as if it would never go away, by Christmas things had improved. Our family took a short trip to the mountains, and by the first of the year, I was rehabilitated. Then, on January 6, the beginning of my fifth month, I experienced a totally new physical sensation. Stuffy noses were old hat, back and neck tension the side effects of adulthood, herpes the scourge of my generation, dandruff a cosmetic inconvenience, but breathlessness was unprecedented. My inability to catch my breath terrified me, and for a split second every quarter hour, I suspected I was close to dying. Although I had cross-country skied at 8000 feet the week before, as soon as I recommenced by work schedule, I couldn't breathe. I rationalized that it was a reaction to a mid-month deadline, but the deadline came and went. The breathlessness did not.

I sat down and thought about it. Obviously, I couldn't catch my breath because I didn't have time. At home I set a few minutes aside to take deep, slow inhalations. At these times I told myself that the rush of life coursing through my lungs faster than it should could slow down. It could rest. I would try to help it. I pleaded with my circulatory system to make it happen soon.

And yes, this malady mysteriously subsided, and I began to inhale at a normal rate. Again, I fell prey to the illusion that I was well. True, I was managing my days. But at night I had begun to experience an onslaught of nightmares. The gruesome thought occurred to me that as one ailment resolved itself, it was replaced by another, more ominous than its predecessor. The mythical Hydra was rearing its ugly heads, and they were all inside my own.

I didn't have to look far for the causes of my trauma. One was the building itself. A prison architect had designed it. Its few windows were slits that only ten executives had the privilege of looking through. The ceilings were hung low, and every fifth rectangle of particle board was replaced with a fluorescent light. The inside walls, the industrial carpeting, and the desk and file cabinets were a matching beige. The tiny cubicles were separated by five-foot high dividers, and the sounds of office machines, conversations, nail clippers, and occasional groans dispersed into the open space above them.

Privacy here was a ludicrous concept, and I considered it perverted good fortune to overhear the phone conversations of my immediate neighbor. This man had a Korean girlfriend whom he spoke to daily. His questions to her were in stilted, sotto voce English, apparently in imitation of her own. Phrases like, "We go there together" were suggestive enough on a Tuesday afternoon to sound racy. By Friday, his monosyllabic exchanges were downright pornographic.
With this exception, however, the human sounds that filled the background were white noise. The atmosphere was profoundly lifeless even while filled with people. When I worked my first weekend, I was shocked, then depressed, to realize that inside this completely empty building the impression was exactly the same as a regular workday: it felt like no one was ever there.

Another source of deep irritation was the surrounding environment. The building was located in a suburban industrial park. Put all white collar workers together in clean buildings, and everything will begin to resemble everything else. People included. Hang the sadist who thought of this innovation.

Within one to six blocks of this building in any direction were identical shopping centers. There were large grocery stores distinguished only by the name of the chain. There were also one repulsive Chinese restaurant, three shoe stores, a deli for the ethnics, a yogurt bar for the unconventional dieters, and a hardware store.
Actually, it was wonderful mental exercise to imagine the terrain without the blight of human mediocrity. Walnut Creek had both young and old trees flourishing, and the impressive peak of Mount Diablo hovered above only a few miles away. The highways and industrial complexes were less than five years old, the housing subdivisions only slightly older.

For diversion at noon I walked out into the streets, sometimes venturing past the satellite commerical centers into the housing areas. Generally, there were no sidewalks, and except for landscaped spots of botanical wonders, the area was desolate, a human desert with garages and lawns.

Once back in the shopping center, I strolled along studying the display windows, looking for anything that I might find curious. Until my forays into these suburban dead zones, life had always presented itself to me as a series of curiosities--strange images, bizarre happenings, ridiculous juxtapositions--and my job was to hunt them down, take note, and wonder. Here, I found not even one. There was nothing coming out of this environment, and, as I feared, there was nothing coming out of me. Except for the money that I could exchange with the human beings behind the various counters, these walks were voids. Usually, they climaxed with a small purchase--a Baby Ruth, an Almond Roca, a bowl of wonton soup.

Back inside, I followed the suit of my co-workers. I tried to beautify, or rather personalize, my half of my cubicle. I brought in colorful drawings by my daughter, photos of my loved ones. My cube-mate had pictures of her cats, an extensive collection of African violets, and a worn copy of John Donne's poems. Most people in the building exhibited some such paraphernalia, reminding them who they were and informing the rest of us who they might be--if we were to meet by chance at a bar, a political rally, or a P.T.A. meeting. These remnants of each person that I noticed while walking through the maze of halls were always vivid and sad to me. They reminded me of cultural rituals in which the dead are buried with their most prized possessions. Despite this, I took deep pleasure in looking at my six-year-old's watercolors. They served to remind me of the world outside: spontaneous, playful, lovely.

Eight hours a day, I felt confined to something little better than a prison. I could have been accused of ingratitude. After all, I wasn't unemployed, living in a shelter, or on welfare. And if this was prison, I was decently paid. How could I be such a whiner? Did I think painting watercolors was a way to earn a living? Why did I have such a distorted view of my life? Why did I think I was special?

Most of us white baby boomers were raised in incredible prosperity. Our childhood years fostered a myth that the middle classes have only partaken of once or twice in history -- perhaps in England during the Victorian Era, and certainly in the United States after the Second World War. Money then could buy many, many people not only tons of material goods, but lots of leisure time. The myth, of course, was that this prosperous time would go on and on. It hasn't. Today, most middle-class women work outside the home. And they have little choice in the matter.

I wasn't shirking, but I was dumbfounded by the drudgery. Around me, co-workers talked of new cars and boats and plans for vacations, home remodeling and shopping sprees. These things outside of work, that only the money made working could finance, were their incentives to come not only in day after day, but decade after decade.

Before taking this authentic job, I had lived with the premise that doing the things important to me was the highest priority. Raising my children with interest and love, writing stories and poems, were at the top of the list. Working for various social causes, listening to music, making food and learning crafts, driving to the beach, or dancing came next. During one decade of my young adult life, I might have been called a hippie or a revolutionary. Now those words have other connotations, but the spirit that they represented did allow me, and many thousands of others, to live simply with the important things at the top of the list. Livelihood was not slighted. It was simply not consuming.

So I had lived. But worrying about money became incessant, and, at over 35 years old, I set out to seek gainful, full-time employment. And for a time, even though I felt physically tortured by my new circumstances, I was proud that I had made a decision and executed it. Relieved that I hadn't ruined my future with drugs or alcohol. Pleased that my good education was proof of my intelligence. Assured that I was capable of doing things that I didn't particularly like to do. And grateful that I could come out of the woodwork with a half-page resume and be given professional duties and a bona fide salary. Now I could buy brand-new clothes for my children, donate money to worthy causes, and afford a vacation. I had joined up for the old-fashioned American dream.

Eventually, these satisfactions wore away. However, the physical ailments also started to ease, and the nightmares subsided. Instead, I was filled with a tremendous shame. I was not ashamed because the work I did was undervalued by the company and meaningless in the context of the rest of my life and most of the rest of the world. I was ashamed of the society that considered me its fit and useful member, one of its own. Ashamed that anyone, no matter how harmful their work might be, was respectable by these standards if only they committed themselves to a job, and that the unemployed were to be pitied above all others. Not that I proposed that we should live without work--just that working should be so entirely disconnected from our lives struck me as dismal. This conclusion was not merely theoretical. It was drawn from first-hand experience.

In our division, the computer programmers, systems experts, and other technical staff, myself included, were non-union. Our building was some distance from any of the hospitals. However, when several thousand union workers in the hospitals went out on strike, the non-union workers were expected, in fact obliged, to cross the picket lines around the hospitals and get the job done. At the time, I was assigned an emergency project that exempted me from hospital duty. My boss knew I would be relieved, but I was already sickened. Or rather, as I said before, ashamed that the quality of people's lives should be a bargaining chip, one that these strikers would eventually lose.

The first week of the strike, I handed in my resignation. I had found another job. I would be a few miles from home, with my own office, two windows, flexible hours, in a small computer software company. Although the demands of the new job were more strenuous, the deadlines more serious, the atmosphere was friendly and unbureaucratic. Admittedly, I wasn't doing work I loved or even thought meaningful, but I had found a tolerable situation.

Except for me, no one at the old job has left. It's been too risky to trade in security for the unknown, even though they all complain that they hate the place. My memories have faded. I have other business that fills my day, but my twelve-month taste of what this country serves most of its citizens leaves a permanent sympathy for my co-workers everywhere. They wear stockings or ties and hold college degrees, but they experience the monotony of assembly line work. The white-collar class is a disguised serfdom. And I can't put it entirely behind me. Someday I may be forced to go back.

by Summer Brennar