I Wonâ€™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? Iâ€™d always thought it was â€œfor lifeâ€ and that the best I could do was to have better tools for dealing with it, but some- thingâ€™s Â happening. Â Iâ€™m Â shedding Â again. Â Purging. Â More Â than that…Iâ€™m re-programming.
Suddenly, I have flashbacks coming from my entire life. Iâ€™m not sure what started it unless it was that Destiny Candle I lit about a week Â ago, with the prayer, â€œBring my destiny to me…because Iâ€™m too tired Â right now to go out and find it.â€ There are several of these scenes Iâ€™ve Â carried for a long time, and I need to stand up and say, â€œYou know what? I wasnâ€™t responsible.â€
I know, I know. People get chided all the time for not taking responsibility. But for a co-dependent, the problem is the opposite. Itâ€™s feeling responsible for everything, and other people Â are Â very Â happy Â to Â shed Â that Â responsibility Â and Â let Â 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. Heâ€™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 Iâ€™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 heâ€™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 couldnâ€™t do without me, and then when he left, they scowled at me and said, â€œHey, what are we? Chopped Â liver?â€ 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 itâ€™s the only black mark on my career record. Iâ€™d forgotten it until today, and when it resurfaced, it was sharp. It was a security â€œdeviation.â€ Not a â€œviolationâ€ or a â€œbreachâ€ so therefore not as serious, but serious Â 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 Colonelâ€™s record had to pay, and I ended up taking responsibility, even for things I hadnâ€™t been responsible for.
The incident happened on a stormy Monday, late in the afternoon, Â almost Â 14 Â years Â ago. Â I Â was Â about Â three Â or Â four months Â pregnant with Aislinn and so sick that I could barely stand and I wasnâ€™t able to keep anything down that dayâ€”at all. I was also having a hard time carrying her and hadnâ€™t told anyone at work yet that I was pregnant because I was so afraid of miscarrying her, only to Â 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 wasnâ€™t there, it wouldnâ€™t stay on schedule.
Throughout the 90â€™s, I was the fastest gun in the South when it Â came to cutting through red tape and getting on con- tract, which was a Â 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 Â could be done within two to three weeks instead of a full year, and after the first week, Iâ€™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 Iâ€™d be working for on the projectâ€”letâ€™s call him Jim-Bobâ€”and the program manager Iâ€™d be working withâ€”weâ€™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 Â organizing them in the safe. Thatâ€™s where things first went awry.
When the first proposal arrived and Jim-Bob logged it in, I was in the hallway with himâ€”running to the bathroom to throw up my attempt Â at breakfast. When the second proposal arrived, I was in the hallway againâ€”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, â€œLook, 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!â€
About 4:00 that day, though Iâ€™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 Â the count and had all but one back from the guys in the room whoâ€™d been reviewing them as I was working. At about 4:01, Jim-Bob finally showed Â up, without the cover sheets, and announced that he had to go get his Â 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, â€œI have to tell you some- thing. Iâ€™m sick as a dog.â€
â€œYeah, I can tell. Iâ€™ve been staying away from you. You got the flu?
â€œNo. Pregnant. I havenâ€™t been able to keep anything down for Â three days and Iâ€™m exhausted, and Iâ€™ve got to lie down. I was going to stay late but I just canâ€™t. Iâ€™m too sick.â€
â€œGo on home then. Iâ€™m gonna hang out here for a few more hours. Donâ€™t worryâ€”Iâ€™ll lock up.â€
I didnâ€™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 Iâ€™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 Â where Â they were. The other stack, the classified ones without the cover sheets, needed to go into the safe, but I couldnâ€™t lift them to put them in there.
â€œIâ€™ve got the last of the classified right here,â€ he said, waving a binder. â€œIâ€™ll lock them up.â€
â€œOkay, youâ€™re sure? If youâ€™re not sureâ€”â€
â€œYes, yes, I told you, Iâ€™ll lock them in the safe. Iâ€™ll be here most of the night. Now go.â€
â€œYouâ€™re sure? Causeâ€”â€
â€œGo home! I promise Iâ€™ll lock up everything.â€
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. Itâ€™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 Â 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. â€œOh, God, Lorna. Iâ€™m up Shit Creek. I forgot to lock the classified stuff in the Â safe last night. Iâ€™m can kiss my next promotion goodbye. Jim-Bob, too. Heâ€™s up for a promotion next month. God, Lorna, you gotta help me. I Â could get fired for this.â€
I calmed him down and we went through the chronology.Â Â Heâ€™dÂ Â slammed Â the Â classified Â material Â shut Â with Â the neighboring stack Â of unclassified Iâ€™d been working on at the same time (the proposal had both classified and unclassified sections that had to be separated). Then Â heâ€™d locked the cabinet with a key only three of us knew about. Heâ€™d left Â the room, locking it with a combination only about five of us knew. Heâ€™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 Â 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 Â never said, â€œThat idiot Jim-Bob didnâ€™t mark the proposals when he accepted them and John-Boy was responsible for the end-of-day security check.â€ Instead, I downplayed whose error was whose, saying something like, â€œThe proposals werenâ€™t properly marked when they were logged inâ€ Â and â€œThere was obviously some confusion over the end-of-day security Â check, but weâ€™ve instituted clearer procedures to make sure weâ€™re clear on who is to lock up at the end of the day, but of course, security is everyoneâ€™s responsibility.â€
The Â investigator Â told Â me Â that Â since Â there Â wasnâ€™t Â 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 couldnâ€™t Â 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 wasnâ€™t mentioned. The consensus among the John-Boy and Jim-Bobâ€™s bosses was that regardless of what procedures were in writing, the contract negotiator (me) Â is always responsible for classified material, even if sheâ€™s not present.
I didnâ€™t understand what he was talking about. I really didnâ€™t. Even later that day when a security manager showed up to yell at me for not logging the proposals in properly, I didnâ€™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 Iâ€™d wanted to take responsibility and everything to be okay for the guys, theyâ€™d gladly shed their responsibilities and pinned every- thing on me.
Their story was that I had logged in the proposalsâ€” which Â the Â investigator never checked the log to verifyâ€”and hadnâ€™t properly marked them. That led to John-Boyâ€™s confusion when locking up and he hadnâ€™t realized Iâ€™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 Â closed, and there was nothing I could do because I hadnâ€™t taken a stronger stand on who had or hadnâ€™t done what. It didnâ€™t matter what responsibilities Â were memorialized in writing that neither had carried out. Â They were both scared of losing an upcoming promotion. Their stories were very Â similar, and maybe that explains why both of them kept their distance Â from me for the rest of the projectâ€”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 wasnâ€™t around anything classified for the next year so that there wasnâ€™t a chance of a repeat with these guys, which would have cost me my job.
As I look back on this old wound thatâ€™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 Iâ€™ve tried to help burns me, but Iâ€™m learning to turn that into anger instead of hurt. That security incident scenario wouldnâ€™t happen now. It could have happened two years ago, Â but Â not Â now. Â Iâ€™m Â not Â sure Â of Â the Â point Â where Â things changedâ€”Iâ€™d Â guess Â sometime Â in Â the Â past Â year, Â maybe Â even within the last six months. Now, itâ€™s much more likely that in- stead of taking Â responsibility for someone elseâ€™s work, Iâ€™ll let them know Iâ€™m not responsible.
Just yesterday, a negotiator I outrank came to me and demanded, â€œPlease write up a clause for me that takes care of this issue and get Legal to buy in.â€
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 Â review it when heâ€™s done and tell him whether Iâ€™ll let him use it. A year ago, I would have spent the day fixing it for him.
Itâ€™s surprising how freeing it is to not take responsibility, to let people be responsible for themselvesâ€”even if they screw it up! So I guess Iâ€™m still a recovering co-dependent and Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™ll ever be a former co-dependent, but change is coming easier now. The re-programming of Â the big things is mostly doneâ€”itâ€™s the fine-tuning thatâ€™s left.