Lived Through This

I Survived an Abusive Boss

It took me three years to break free

Photo: Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash

I’ve written a bit about my decision to move to Los Angeles in 2012 and how it changed my life for the better. I was 24 that year—young enough to take a big leap and old enough to make it work.

My journey to Tinseltown wasn’t about finding fame or “making it big.” What I sought was freedom and possibility. I’d seen how difficult it would be to secure the life I wanted in my small Appalachian town, so I headed west.

When I arrived, I resisted the pressure to get a traditional desk job and decided to take up bartending. That’s how I met Tabitha. She managed the bartending school I attended and eventually worked for. Tabitha was the definition of a boss bitch: smart, confident, creative, brazen, and magnetic.

I still remember meeting her for the first time. Tabitha interviewed me as she applied her makeup, grilling me while giving off the air of a woman too busy to be bothered to sit still. Everything about her was intimidating and dazzling in a way I wanted to be, so when she agreed to hire and personally train me, I was thrilled.

I stayed on at the bartending school for three years. In that time, Tabitha transformed me into a great bartender. When I met her, I could handle working a wedding of 50 people, tops. By the time I left, I could outpour most of the bartenders at the bars we frequented. She taught me the art of creating unique drinks, taking me out weekly to expand and test my palate with different cuisines and liquors.

Thanks to Tabitha, I worked film festivals and Grammy after-parties. I met celebrities and hung out in mansions. I worked for well-known brands, helping them create new cocktails and improve their brand image. I often came home from an event at three in the morning, feet aching after my 14-hour workday—eight hours at the school and six at whatever event we’d spent the night bartending—still high on endorphins as I counted the wads of cash stuffing my purse.

An image of my staff wristband at the 2015 Grammy Celebration.

I loved my job. The process of satisfying a constant rush of customers felt meditative, and the instant gratification of cash only made work that much sweeter. Tabitha introduced me to people all across the industry and taught me the importance of making connections. She taught me to build up a network with everyone from fellow bartenders to well-connected security guards, booked-out caterers to big venue managers. Eventually, I had a bevy of awesome friends and the connections to get any night out comped or upgraded.

My new career opened doors for me socially, financially, and professionally. I felt like the whole world was at my feet, and I owed it all to Tabitha’s detailed tutelage.

While Tabitha generously oversaw my growth from naive transplant into shrewd business woman, she also transformed my life in another, more sinister way. I didn’t see the dark undercurrent of my relationship with Tabitha for a shockingly long time. It began slowly and erratically—just cruel enough to be painful but random enough to be written off as an occasional oddity.

I once told Tabitha about a concert I wanted to attend, and she promised to secure tickets so we could go together. The day of the show, she informed me that she needed me to work late, adding an additional four hours to my eight-hour shift. She said she’d be going to the concert with a mutual friend. “I didn’t know you wanted to go,” Tabitha said. “You never said anything.” Maybe I was confused about our conversation, I thought to myself. After all, Tabitha constantly looked out for me. She would never hurt me like that on purpose.

A few weeks later, she asked me to explain how a gig she’d sent me to supervise had gone horribly wrong. “Stop,” she interrupted me after a few minutes. “You’re talking too much, and I just don’t want to hear your voice.”

I sat in silence, stunned, and wondered: Had I done something wrong? When I first met Tabitha, she’d been almost obsessively doting. She’d take me out to dinner, surprise me with flowers, invite me to events, and compliment me to an embarrassing degree. I thought that this change in treatment must be my fault. So I worked harder for her approval.

There was nothing funny about her behavior, but making light of the situation was the only way we knew how to cope.

But as I focused on becoming a better mentee, Tabitha only became more brazen with her abuse. She’d get trashed and hit me and other employees at the school — sometimes she used objects like roses or handbags; other times she simply swung with an open palm. If anyone spoke up, she retaliated by cutting their hours or bonus commissions. Pushing further on the issue would result in gaslighting: “You didn’t actually sell that commission package,” she argued one week. When I pushed back on a schedule without my name on it, Tabitha scoffed, “I would never cut hours to hurt you. Corporate made the call. In fact, I fought for you to keep your hours. I know how much you need them.”

On one occasion, she hired me to help her revamp two different bars, promising me 10% of her pay. Think Bar Rescue on a realistic timeline without cameras. Two months into the job, Tabby revealed that I wouldn’t be paid at all, but that the experience to work with her was worth far more than money. When I responded by telling her I didn’t want to sacrifice Christmas with my family on the East Coast to work a job I wouldn’t be paid for, she refused to speak to me for a week.

I knew Tabitha could be a handful — my fellow co-workers and I frequently discussed her behavior. However, we found it hard to stay mad at her when she also did so much good for us. Yes, she might humiliate you in front of your students one day, but the next, she’d hook you up with a gig that paid $600 for four hours of work.

We knew she had problems. She’d sometimes disappear from work for weeks at a time, but we always covered for her, lying to the school’s owner about her whereabouts. “We’re a family,” Tabitha was fond of reminding us. “If one of us goes down, we all go down together.”

After a few years at the school, our dysfunctional culture felt completely normal. I didn’t realize how bad things had gotten until Tabitha invited me to see her bartend a guest night at a bougie rooftop bar. “Bring a friend,” she offered. “I’ll hook you two up with free drinks all night.”

When I arrived, Tabitha welcomed me warmly—until she saw my friend Grace standing behind me. Immediately after introducing the two, Tabitha became cold and standoffish, refusing to speak to us unless Grace and I fell deep into conversation. In that case, Tabby would interrupt to speak to me and ignore Grace.

By this point, I was too scared of Tabitha to call her out, so I suggested to Grace that we leave. As I said goodbye to Tabitha, I let slip that Grace and I would be hanging out for a few more hours. Minutes after I left the club, Tabitha was calling my phone. “Come back,” she said. “I just came up with a new drink idea, and you need to try it.” I refused, so Tabitha called again five minutes later. “I really appreciate you coming out tonight.” Five minutes later, another ring. And another. And another.

“This is ridiculous,” Grace told me, motioning to the buzzing phone. I’d turned off the ringer, but Tabitha continued to call and then text every five minutes for almost an hour. Grace read the messages as they came in, and I was embarrassed for her to see that they ran the gamut from pointless to accusatory to kind and covered every emotion in between.

There’s comfort in knowing that other people have thoughts and feelings that align with mine.

I shrugged in response. “It’s just Tabitha being Tabitha. It’s better than the 6 a.m. phone calls about her dreams or how I fucked up the lesson I was teaching the night before.”

Grace looked at me for a moment, her eyes hard, before she finally said, “None of that is normal.”

Something about the confidence with which Grace appraised the situation really stuck with me. I thought back to the times Tabitha would take me to different restaurant offices to work and refuse to let me sit in any of the chairs, or how she drunkenly screamed at me for being a bad person as I drove us home from a gig 45 minutes away. I remembered another time she got drunk and decided, mid-conversation, that I was saying cruel things about her behind her back, so she cut my hours in half and took all my commission pay for the week. She apologized by buying me a candy bar and having a co-worker deliver it to me on her behalf, even though we were sitting only a few yards apart at the time. Tabby never believed in the words “I’m sorry.”

Once the spell was broken, I was desperate to break away from Tabitha. I still didn’t consider her behavior abusive, but I did realize that the way she treated people wasn’t quite right. I started to look for a new job in secret, only reaching out to connections who either didn’t know Tabitha or were in the process of trying to cut ties with her themselves.

Once I found a new job, I was terrified to tell Tabitha. She requested I stay on for three months, working doubles, as I was putting her “in a tough situation” by leaving. Tabitha reminded me of all she had given me, telling me that I never would have landed my new job without her mentorship.

The last few months were horrible. Tabitha gave up all pretense of kindness and oscillated between ignoring me and being openly cruel. As she pushed me more and more, I started to offer my co-workers the option to join me at the new job. I figured if I was going to find freedom, I might as well let my friends know that they could, too.

Five employees ended up leaving the school because of Tabby’s behavior. We all found employment at the same restaurant and bonded over the freedom we found by leaving Tabitha behind. Eventually, we discovered that on top everything else, Tabitha had been lying to us about each other. She’d fabricated vendettas between us to keep us from getting too close to one another at the school.

I often joked with the others that Tabby was basically an abusive partner: She’d treat us like her soulmate for a few months before cutting us down and demeaning us to the point of “almost” leaving her. If we ever started to show real signs of leaving, she’d turn sweet again, creating a cycle of abuse that we struggled to escape. There was nothing funny about her behavior, but making light of the situation was the only way we knew how to cope.

It wasn’t until I saw “Bully,” an episode of Law and Order: SVU, that I realized how accurate our jokes were. The episode follows the case of a murdered wine company CFO who humiliates and physically abuses her staff. I had a complete breakdown watching it. Afterward, I called a fellow Tabitha survivor. “Was it really as bad as I remember?” I asked him, crying. “Oh, honey,” he replied. “It was worse.”

It’s been five years since I quit my job at the bartending school, and I still have nightmares about Tabitha. All of us do. Every few months, I get a call or a text from a former co-worker about a dream they had with Tabitha in it. The three of us who were closest to her are bonded for life. We rescued each other and became a family.

Both of my sibling survivors still work in food service. I left. Today, the idea of tapping a keg or pouring drinks in a club makes me sick to my stomach. My therapist tells me this is normal—to lose love for something that was such a big part of my life simply because I associate it with abuse. I hate that she’s right.

Stories of abusive celebrities break into the news cycle every few months: consider Ryan Adams, Armie Hammer, Marilyn Manson, and numerous others. Hollywood brings us tales of domestic abuse, films that depict abuse in heterosexual couples. Rarely do we see anything else, but abuse takes on all forms: elder abuse, abuse in the workplace, abuse in LGBTQ+ relationships, and so on.

Reading stories of other survivors always makes me feel a little less alone. There’s comfort in knowing that other people have thoughts and feelings that align with mine. While I wish that no one reading this could possibly relate to my story, I know that reality makes that unlikely. And, in that case, I want you to know: You are not alone.

Queer femme examining the twisted trinity of trauma, love, and independence through personal narratives. New stories weekly. http://sondrarosemarie.com

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