Monday, 4 February 2013


(Carl Gustav Jung) 

"Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go."
(Hermann Hesse) 

Two years ago, on 28th January, while I was officially on a day's annual leave in Brighton, the social services directorate that I worked for in north London dismissed me and officially changed the course of my life. 
I received the dismissal by email when I got home that evening. I was told I wouldn't need to work my notice. Anything I had left in the office could be sent to me. The people on my team weren't told officially that I had "left" for several weeks afterwards. It sounds dramatic even to me now, but at the time I was most devastated that senior management wasn't going to let me say goodbye properly. What they couldn't have known was that I had already cleared my desk before I went on leave, giving away trinkets, keepsakes and useful stationery. I took down photos and entrusted plants to people; I went round hugging bemused but worried colleagues as it got nearer to home time. They had grown used to my funny little premonitions and sensitivities, but this was something different.
 I wasn't dismissed for any kind of misconduct: I hadn't suddenly run amok along the corridors of social services or "dissed" one of the directors. I was dismissed for sick leave. After four years of relatively good times and some very hard work, I'd had a rough year health-wise. I liaised with my GPs and with the council's Health Management Team; both parties were incredibly supportive. At the beginning of this bad year, my mother was diagnosed as terminally ill: she died almost exactly twelve months later. I was signed off work for ten days after Mum died and was assured that this wouldn't be counted towards any sickness review. A couple of months later, the ten days were used in the sickness review that led to my dismissal.
The council commissioned their Health Management Service to compile three reports during that year; each report stressed that I needed supportive management to return to my previous good health. The final report, compiled a couple of weeks before Mum died, advised that my employers should be prepared to assist me through the inevitable bereavement.
I was a Senior Team Administrator and my manager's deputy. A couple of years previously, I trained many of the administration team on the emergency duty desk, which is where I started out myself. Although systems and procedures had changed by the time I left, I had no idea quite how much I identified myself with the job until I was wiped off the payroll.
I was dismissed at a time when local government had been ordered to make some of the most stringent cuts social services had known. We'd already been told that all officers at my grade would need to reapply for their jobs; some of us would be leaving. The essential work we were doing would be covered by junior staff on lower salaries and then by the already beleaguered social workers. My background in employment law told me this clearly wasn't a redundancy situation (the work was still there to be done), but rather a re-grading issue. I was also astute enough to realise that anyone with a health or other personal issue would be seen as a soft target. I was quite vocal about this and began rattling off emails to the director and manager in charge of the cull.
While this was unraveling around me, a very lovely colleague lost her husband. As other staff pointed out, her treatment was very different: she was allowed six months leave on full pay. She's a wonderful woman, very kind to others, including me, and I felt very deeply for her. The difference in our situations was that she was a social worker: at that time, the council wasn't making cuts outside of junior management in administration.
We soon heard that some other officers across the borough with health problems had "agreed" to leave, accepting a statutory redundancy payment of around eight days salary for every full year's employment. Still maintaining it wasn't a redundancy situation, I refused to attend a sickness review with the director, on the principle that she hadn't answered my previous correspondence. I realised if they held the review in my absence it could result in dismissal.
Almost as soon as I had been dismissed, my colleagues were told that "staff movements" had ensured there was no need for redundancies. All remaining posts were saved, although they would be downgraded, as I'd originally suggested.
With my previous employment law experience, I was determined to take my case to tribunal. However, I felt the outcome was signposted almost from day one. I couldn't afford legal representation, although there's no suggestion that self-representing applicants are more likely to fail. As I had no barrister, the council's legal team took responsibility for putting together the collective bundle of documents for all parties. The problem was, they said they couldn't produce various documents that I'd listed to rely upon in court. These included all the emails I had sent to the director, senior management and human resources asking for support.
I involved The Information Commissioner's Office. Although they ordered the council to retrieve the documents, there had apparently been a "major fault" with the retrieval process and all the data had been destroyed in that specific period of time. I pointed out that I'd re-sent the emails when management hadn't responded. Again, by remarkable coincidence, systems had failed whenever I re-sent the emails.
I felt I equipped myself very well at the tribunal, given the circumstances My employers' barrister seemed inordinately hostile, even rolling his eyes as I tried not to cry when referring to my mother. The judge asked him why documents were missing from the official bundle: I was incredulous that he said he didn't know.
Without all the documentation and because she felt it wasn't a clear-cut case for dismissal, the judge said she couldn't make a decision on that day and would retire to reflect. I waited for six weeks, only to be informed that she couldn't find in my favour. There is no entitlement to compassionate leave in employment law in the UK. Unbelievably, she cited that I hadn't produced some of the documents key to my case. There had been a series of inexplicable discrepancies in the Tribunal's Service's handling of my case, which the service hadn't been able to explain; finally, it felt like something had broken me.
I declined to appeal, although I may still formally complain and I have the right to publicise my sorry tale, obviously with more than a nod to libel laws. I felt shattered and needed to put my life back into focus. There was no way I could have written this post this dispassionately even a year ago.
Gradually, I've realised that there are quite a few things I couldn't have done not only a year ago but essentially if  my employment in London had continued. Unfortunately, my years in social services and other public service positions before that, provided a very specialised experience. This background was totally irrelevant to the struggling private sector of an economically challenged seaside town. All I could do was resign myself (no pun intended) to being unemployed, possibly for a long time, or reinvent myself.
Having worked since I left school at 18, I have never been self-employed before, never been in charge of my tax, National Insurance or indeed my own hours. Like many, I now have no financial security blanket if I'm ill or otherwise unable to work. Self-employed folk don't get paid for holidays, public or personal. The word "pension" freaks me out at the moment and is something that will need to be addressed.
What has become apparent is that I am still here. So is my home, and now I can say without hesitation that I would never move back to London. If I was still working there, I would possibly have a healthy bank account, but I sense I would be severely physically and emotionally depleted by the daily disrupted commute and associated wrangling with my employers. 
Always a bit arty, I probably wouldn't have taken so fervently to customising my house and my parent's old furniture. Two years ago, having decided that I wanted a crucifix for my dining room wall, I would probably have settled for whatever I could find or afford in an antique market: I don't think I wold have eyed up some old floorboards and upholstery tacks and decided I could design my own. I probably wouldn't have resumed writing or started this wee blog. I wouldn't have had the time, energy or inclination to walk down to the pier as the seagulls are waking up, simply because I can. I wouldn't have the deep appreciation I have for others' stories and dreams; how a stumble or push can completely alter your path.
I would probably still view myself in terms of what I do for a living, rather than what I'm living to do. I would have described myself as a relatively strong and capable person who had a reasonable life. Now, I would have to remove the word "relatively" from that statement and replace "reasonable" with "hopeful". I have a renewed understanding of faith, not least in myself. For that, and for my driftwood shelves, my crucifix, my painted bits and pieces and for my next strange but bright idea, I should probably thank my ex-employers.
I think I like myself more than I did. I miss some of my ex-colleagues and I know they miss me, but my friend Dale pointed out that he didn't miss how unhappy I looked the last year I worked there. My life now may be quite removed from what it was, but essentially my old friends are only ever an email or train ride away.
The future still feels a little like a diamond in the rough, but gemstones become strong and precious under pressure and change. Challenge really can be an opportunity to survive and grow. Blessings, like new friends, are often heavily disguised or are obscured by our own complacency.
*For Lin - get well soon; and also my old classmate re-discovered, Julie*


"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

"That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

"Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect."
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

"Stronger"  Kelly Clarkson


  1. Gisele, it is awful waht happened to you, but I am glad that you are stronger and happier for it hun. Always here for you, Christine xx

    1. Ach, you remember what a tough little stiletto I am thogh Chrissie! Thanks for being there, and you must know that works both ways! xx

  2. This is the first time I have seen your story laid out like that. I knew major parts of it from what you told me, but this is the first time I understand exactly what has been going on.
    I hope you truly mean what you say and that you can give this a positive twist, because this will be the start to get back on top of that mountain. Lord knows he's made you try and try again, it's about time he lets you succeed!

    1. I tried to write it as dispassionately as possible. I always try to mean what I say hon - you should know that!! We all try and we all get tested: I think I have succeeded: I'm still here, still me; and I still have some great people in my life xx

  3. Gigi, I've seen your comments over on Colleen's blog and decided to visit here. God bless you. He has a plan for you even if you don't see it right away. He is and will be there with you. See what doors fly open for you as He fashions you into His instrument of healing for others.

    1. Well, thanks you so much for visiting the very humble little corner of Blogdom that is Gigionsea! Wow - that's a beautiful comment to make Barb. I've never doubted there was a plan for me, as for everyone else: just not sure quite what it is yet! There's a line in a song by Emile Sande: "We're all wonderful, wonderful people; so when did we all get so fearful?" Do drop by again Barb; and God bless you too x