It was early September when I passed through what I thought was a rabbit hole only to realize later I took a wrong turn and ended up in the dark side of Wonderland. I could have judged from the day of the job interview, but I thought a hole was a hole — be it a rabbit’s or a lizard’s.

As naive as this may sound, I ditched my fancy job in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and moved to Damascus, Syria amidst war in an attempt to find purpose. In Riyadh, I worked for multinational companies, spoke English 80% of the time, went to a fancy gym, had my personal driver, didn’t know how groceries landed in the fridge, shopped till I dropped, visited spas regularly, swam almost every day and lived with my wonderful family.

It’s during the war when the most dramatic differences are made, and I was thirsty for a dangerous, adventurous life… little did I know the most drastic change would happen to me.

Inside one of the oldest buildings in the city center, I banged on the office’s thick wooden door and a lady with yellow hair, grayish skin, orange teeth and bright red lipstick greeted me and invited me inside. I found myself knocking so many folders to the floor as I attempted to move around in the dark entrance which smelled of cheap nicotine.

The place was a dump and a mess you’d think some T. Rex escaped Jurassic Park and clumsily wiggled its giant tail across the cubicles. I sat on a squeaky, dusty bench behind the front door and, as instructed by the lady, I waited till the ‘Estaz’ — Arabic title, almost like Mister — asked to see me.

While I anticipated meeting that ‘Estaz’, who was the boss there, I pictured myself walking into a room where the Godfather sat at his giant desk with a gray cat in his lap and a Cuban cigar decorating his grouchy lips.

To my dismay, I walked into a tiny, dimly lit dump where I saw broken glass on the floor and a wrecked man seated in the corner. His expression was that of someone who had just woken up from being knocked unconscious by a baseball bat. I controlled the interview and it was very obvious the man hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. He stared at me blankly as I spoke, most probably wondering what color the UFO I landed from was.

Every sign screamed “run as fast as you can”, but I chose to look the other way!

I was not handed a job description, nor was I asked to sign a contract. The air was jam-packed with negative energy, roaches roamed the rooms and there were cookie crumbs all over the floor, but I thought leaving that toxic mess would mean admitting defeat.

Back then, my naive self said to me, “The war must have taken a toll on the people and the place. I must stay and thrive here or else I won’t achieve what I’ve come for.”

My coworkers greeted me with dirty looks every day for more than a month until I finally won their friendship… or so my naive self thought at the time. As soon as I started to outshine them, I found myself surrounded by a pack of backstabbing wolves. Not only that, but I later realized the management was one huge vampire who sucked the life out of me and stigmatized me as a moron for sweating blood to handle a gazillion tasks and for accepting a job at that mess of a company in the first place — and, hell, they were right!

Disrespect, gossip, scheming and bullying were the four main pillars of this company’s culture. They flowed in most directions… while human communication flowed in none.

Early Signs of Awakening

For the very first time in my life, I experienced being humiliated, insulted and undermined despite working my fingers to the bone and being the only person at the company with true potential, passion and an impressive profile. This only inspired envy and constant bullying among my coworkers.

I discovered what a toxic workplace which lacked a code of business conduct was like, and learned the painful consequences of surrounding oneself with mediocre coworkers and a management that exploited talents and only empowered those who lacked ambition, integrity and experience.

For quite a while, I started to believe the people of Syria were inherently evil and probably deserved this war. I imagined that every other company in Syria would foster a similar culture.

I was physically ill for months and my eyeglasses grew thicker. I only slept 3 to 4 hours most nights, and dragging myself from bed in the morning had become a herculean task. I was almost always snowed under with work, and when I wasn’t, I stared at the ceiling and my negative thoughts took over my world. The voice inside my head told me what a ridiculous child I was for making a move which was obviously a fool’s errand.

Two Wake-up Calls

On a cold January day, I received my first wake-up call — because I didn’t think sudden hypertension and hypoglycemia were good enough wake-up calls. I took the bus in the morning; headed to office. I was possessed by the voices and images inside my head. I struggled to concentrate, so I put my earbuds on and listened to vibrant, loud music in an attempt to scare the black monster of depression off.

I checked my watch and realized an hour had passed. I looked out the window and couldn’t recognize my surrounding. Frantically, I asked the driver to stop. It didn’t seem wise to ask people where I was, so I crossed my fingers, hailed a taxi and told him where I was going. Hopefully I arrived safe at office.

A few days later, I had a bit of a fight with one of the managers because I was worried about the fact that two of the company’s online platforms were down while he, on the other hand, was concerned with cheap gossip and itching to be hostile towards people who added value.

As I walked home that day, I was absent-minded and playing that conversation over and over in my head — all of that manager’s poisonous, patronizing words in his condescending tone. My consciousness was submerged by these muddy thoughts until I got bumped by a car. I rolled over on the street but, thank God, I jumped back to my feet like a kangaroo. I had a few colorful bruises, but nothing serious.

The car wasn’t going fast, but what if it were? What if it got me paralyzed? Was it worth it? Was that noxious workplace where I was underpaid and unappreciated worth it? Nope!

I woke up and finally admitted I was in a lizard hole, and lizard holes are known for sporting an opening at one end only… the other was a dead end. I loved my job, yes, but the whole setting was a death sentence for someone as ambitious as I am.

Staying at that job was anti self-love and meant surrendering to nihilism. I was burned out and depressed. That was not the story I wished to tell!

Ever so professionally, I submitted my resignation with strong faith that the future held better, more empowering opportunities. They asked me to stay for a month until they found replacements, and I gladly agreed. I trained my replacements, finished future tasks and left them helpful tools. I wanted to teach them great work ethics by setting an example.

I promised myself I would never, ever again settle for less.

Lessons Learned

  1. Good energy will not flow into your life unless you love yourself enough to leave a toxic workplace. Only then, you will find several open doors leading to brighter experiences.
  2. Always remember, your mental health and well-being deserve your attention a lot more than your job.
  3. If not for hardship, we wouldn’t have appreciated good times. And if not for sadness, we wouldn’t have known happiness.
  4. Happiness is just around the corner, but you won’t find it if you don’t take a step towards that corner!
  5. Be kind and professional all the time… yes, even if those around you did not deserve it; it’ll come back to you in other, better places and forms.
  6. Practice gratitude every day.
  7. Never settle for less.

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