I Won’t Be Held Responsible

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree of Separation.

Is it possible for a co-dependent to no longer be co- dependent? I’d always thought it was “for life” and that the best I could do was to have better tools for dealing with it, but some- thing’s  happening.  I’m  shedding  again.  Purging.  More  than that…I’m re-programming.

The Long-Awaited Honest-to-God Secret to Being Happy

Suddenly, I have flashbacks coming from my entire life. I’m not sure what started it unless it was that Destiny Candle I lit about a week  ago, with the prayer, “Bring my destiny to me…because I’m too tired  right now to go out and find it.” There are several of these scenes I’ve  carried for a long time, and I need to stand up and say, “You know what? I wasn’t responsible.”

I know, I know. People get chided all the time for not taking responsibility. But for a co-dependent, the problem is the opposite. It’s feeling responsible for everything, and other people  are  very  happy  to  shed  that  responsibility  and  let  co- dependents take the blame.

A Colonel I used to work for in the Armament Lab on Eglin Air Force Base, a position several notches up the chain of command, asked me to help him find something a few days ago, and I gladly obliged. I honestly like the man. Always have. He’s no longer in the military, after retiring several years ago, and is now the civilian equivalent of a General, though I still remember him in his Colonel days and I’m probably a little too friendly with him for his current rank. He came to me several years ago, requesting a brief tutorial on something that would help him get promoted; he later told me the interview panel had asked about it and he’d been able to give them a good answer because of our chat. That was sweet of him to tell me. It reminded me of when we first worked together, of the day he came into my office and told all my co-workers how he couldn’t do without me, and then when he left, they scowled at me and said, “Hey, what are we? Chopped  liver?” and I felt horrible for being praised and responsible for their feeling bad. But those were the days of the original Bunker Buster for Desert Storm and he was very happy with somebody who thought outside the box before thinking out- side the box became an overused buzz word.

There was a time after that when he was not too happy with me, and it’s the only black mark on my career record. I’d forgotten it until today, and when it resurfaced, it was sharp. It was a security “deviation.” Not a “violation” or a “breach” so therefore not as serious, but serious  enough to keep me from getting a bonus that year and to interfere with my promotability. The Lab had gone without any sort of security incident in over a year, maybe two, so whoever screwed up the Colonel’s record had to pay, and I ended up taking responsibility, even for things I hadn’t been responsible for.

The incident happened on a stormy Monday, late in the afternoon,  almost  14  years  ago.  I  was  about  three  or  four months  pregnant with Aislinn and so sick that I could barely stand and I wasn’t able to keep anything down that day—at all. I was also having a hard time carrying her and hadn’t told anyone at work yet that I was pregnant because I was so afraid of miscarrying her, only to  find myself in premature labor time and again a few months later. It never occurred to me to stay home that day. After all, I had a competition going for a multi-million dollar technology program and if I wasn’t there, it wouldn’t stay on schedule.

Throughout the 90’s, I was the fastest gun in the South when it  came to cutting through red tape and getting on con- tract, which was a  valuable asset to the Lab at the time. This type of honchoing a competition was my specialty. If they followed my directions, I knew we  could be done within two to three weeks instead of a full year, and after the first week, I’d skinny the team down to two to three people, including me, and let the rest of the team go back to their regular jobs. And at the end of the first day, while we made sure everything was properly coded and filed, I expected to stay late with the team chief I’d be working for on the project—let’s call him Jim-Bob—and the program manager I’d be working with—we’ll call him John-Boy.

According to the job descriptions assigned to each of us and agreed to by each of us, Jim-Bob was in charge and was responsible for accepting the proposals when they were delivered, logging them in, marking the proposals with the correct cover sheets for classified material, and  organizing them in the safe. That’s where things first went awry.

When the first proposal arrived and Jim-Bob logged it in, I was in the hallway with him—running to the bathroom to throw up my attempt  at breakfast. When the second proposal arrived, I was in the hallway again—running to the bathroom to throw up my attempt at lunch. Jim-Bob took the proposals to a room set aside for us and dumped them on a table in front of me. I asked several times about where the classified cover sheets were and reminded him he needed to mark the proposals, but he never did.

In hindsight, I should have grabbed him by the collar and said, “Look, Jim-Bob, you get your ass back to your office and get those cover sheets like you were supposed to have done already and get back over here and mark these proposals!”

About 4:00 that day, though I’d planned to stay until 10:00 that night, I was feeling weak and shaking all over. I was just finishing bindering all the proposals and stacking them up to double-check  the count and had all but one back from the guys in the room who’d been reviewing them as I was working. At about 4:01, Jim-Bob finally showed  up, without the cover sheets, and announced that he had to go get his  dog shampooed. Truly. So he took off and left John-Boy and me alone with six feet of proposals and no cover sheets.

I started to try to load the safe, but I got too dizzy. At

4:45, I looked at John-Boy, and said, “I have to tell you some- thing. I’m sick as a dog.”

“Yeah, I can tell. I’ve been staying away from you. You got the flu?

“No. Pregnant. I haven’t been able to keep anything down for  three days and I’m exhausted, and I’ve got to lie down. I was going to stay late but I just can’t. I’m too sick.”

“Go on home then. I’m gonna hang out here for a few more hours. Don’t worry—I’ll lock up.”

I didn’t want to leave him to lock up alone, but it was his responsibility to do so according to the procedures already set up in writing and to make sure the classified material was in the safe at the end of the day and I needed his help to move it from the cabinet shelf where I’d been working with it. I hated to leave a teammate alone. I reminded him of which proposals were un- classified and they could stay on the cabinet shelf  where  they were. The other stack, the classified ones without the cover sheets, needed to go into the safe, but I couldn’t lift them to put them in there.

“I’ve got the last of the classified right here,” he said, waving a binder. “I’ll lock them up.”

“Okay, you’re sure? If you’re not sure—”

“Yes, yes, I told you, I’ll lock them in the safe. I’ll be here most of the night. Now go.”

“You’re sure? Cause—”

“Go home! I promise I’ll lock up everything.”

I still remember the way he looked, sitting at that table, the way he half-turned, the cut of his hair, the look in his eyes. It’s frozen in my memory. Along with those words.

Those words were still echoing in my head as I made my way through the storm to my car, feeling guilty every minute for leaving early and just a little annoyed that Jim-Bob had shirked his official duties all day. By  the time I tumbled into my car, soaked to the skin, I was shaking too badly to drive. I sat there for another 15 minutes, collecting myself. I was surprised to see John-Boy leave the building about ten minutes after me. But I went home and went directly to bed.

I was back in the room at 6:00 the next morning. John- Boy met me at the door, pale and shaking as badly as I had the night before. “Oh, God, Lorna. I’m up Shit Creek. I forgot to lock the classified stuff in the  safe last night. I’m can kiss my next promotion goodbye. Jim-Bob, too. He’s up for a promotion next month. God, Lorna, you gotta help me. I  could get fired for this.”

I calmed him down and we went through the chronology.   He’d   slammed  the  classified  material  shut  with  the neighboring stack  of unclassified I’d been working on at the same time (the proposal had both classified and unclassified sections that had to be separated). Then  he’d locked the cabinet with a key only three of us knew about. He’d left  the room, locking it with a combination only about five of us knew. He’d exited the locked building, which was access-controlled. It was quickly determined that no one had touched the proposals since he slammed the cabinet shut.

Later, when an investigator dropped by to talk to us, John-Boy  and Jim-Bob were nowhere to be found. I did my usual co-dependent thing: I took the blame for any faults of my team and gave the credit for any glory to my team. For most of my teams, it inspired loyalty because I was always a buffer between them and management. I was a buffer this time, too, but in a different way. When the investigator asked what happened, I  never said, “That idiot Jim-Bob didn’t mark the proposals when he accepted them and John-Boy was responsible for the end-of-day security check.” Instead, I downplayed whose error was whose, saying something like, “The proposals weren’t properly marked when they were logged in”  and “There was obviously some confusion over the end-of-day security  check, but we’ve instituted clearer procedures to make sure we’re clear on who is to lock up at the end of the day, but of course, security is everyone’s responsibility.”

The  investigator  told  me  that  since  there  wasn’t  a breach, all would be okay, but he did need to talk to the guys involved.

A week later, my supervisor told me I was the subject of a huge dispute between my chain of command and the Colonel. They couldn’t  decide how badly to ding me for my error and that John-Boy would have to accept a little of the responsibility, at least. Jim-Bob wasn’t mentioned. The consensus among the John-Boy and Jim-Bob’s bosses was that regardless of what procedures were in writing, the contract negotiator (me)  is always responsible for classified material, even if she’s not present.

I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I really didn’t. Even later that day when a security manager showed up to yell at me for not logging the proposals in properly, I didn’t understand. My supervisor finally came back and explained what was in the final report that had been filed and how I would be punished. The story was very different from real life. Where I’d wanted to take responsibility and everything to be okay for the guys, they’d gladly shed their responsibilities and pinned every- thing on me.

Their story was that I had logged in the proposals— which  the  investigator never checked the log to verify—and hadn’t properly marked them. That led to John-Boy’s confusion when locking up and he hadn’t realized I’d had classified material on the shelf I was using to work off of or that anything went into the safe. The investigation was deemed  closed, and there was nothing I could do because I hadn’t taken a stronger stand on who had or hadn’t done what. It didn’t matter what responsibilities  were memorialized in writing that neither had carried out.  They were both scared of losing an upcoming promotion. Their stories were very  similar, and maybe that explains why both of them kept their distance  from me for the rest of the project—and why neither, to this day, will meet my eyes.

Jim-Bob got his promotion the next month and was never associated whatsoever with the incident, except for an investigative interview. John-Boy had to wait a bit to get his next promotion, but he still got it ten years before I got my next one.

Many of the people I worked with liked me so much that they made sure I wasn’t around anything classified for the next year so that there wasn’t a chance of a repeat with these guys, which would have cost me my job.

As I look back on this old wound that’s bubbled to the surface, I realize I relived similar feelings of responsibility with my colleagues over and over and often felt unappreciated or betrayed. I still have a little problem with initially feeling betrayed when someone I’ve tried to help burns me, but I’m learning to turn that into anger instead of hurt. That security incident scenario wouldn’t happen now. It could have happened two years ago,  but  not  now.  I’m  not  sure  of  the  point  where  things changed—I’d  guess  sometime  in  the  past  year,  maybe  even within the last six months. Now, it’s much more likely that in- stead of taking  responsibility for someone else’s work, I’ll let them know I’m not responsible.

Just yesterday, a negotiator I outrank came to me and demanded, “Please write up a clause for me that takes care of this issue and get Legal to buy in.”

I smiled and explained that writing such as clause was his job, not mine, and that getting legal concurrence was his job, not mine. My job is to  review it when he’s done and tell him whether I’ll let him use it. A year ago, I would have spent the day fixing it for him.

It’s surprising how freeing it is to not take responsibility, to let people be responsible for themselves—even if they screw it up! So I guess I’m still a recovering co-dependent and I’m not sure I’ll ever be a former co-dependent, but change is coming easier now. The re-programming of  the big things is mostly done—it’s the fine-tuning that’s left.