Have you ever been accused of something? Or blamed for something you weren't responsible for?
It is worse when you cannot defend yourself, either for lack of evidence or because the accuser is not concerned with facts, or with making sense. I'm not talking about extreme situations where the wrongfully accused is sitting on death row waiting for a shred of DNA evidence to clear their name - because clearly that is an even bigger issue than someone just saying you did something you didn't. That's someone saying you did something you didn't and then trying to get you killed for it. I think we can all agree that is some Fucked Up Shit. I'm not talking about that. I am talking about the small, day to day dramas that can come up amongst family and friends, and how to rise above them, move past them, and leave them behind.
In this week between Christmas and New Years, I am remembering a particularly unpleasant situation that developed over the course of a week or two during this time of year - not life or death, but it sure did feel like my world was turned upside down. It was probably 15 years ago, and I still shudder when I think of it. I was working at a flagship store for a retail chain that shall remain unnamed but that rhymes with "snap". And sometime during that holiday season, someone in that store started stealing. At first, it was a series of coincidences, that mushroomed into money going missing from people's cash registers. I began to suspect that there was a problem when my wedding ring vanished. I had stuck my ring on a friend/co-worker's finger while I applied some hand lotion - because winter in New England + copious amounts of hand sanitizer = some gnarly dry skin - and then I got called away and one thing led to another and then everyone took lunch breaks and by the time I finally went back to retrieve my ring from her hand, it was the end of the day. And the ring was gone.
"Where's my ring?" I asked.
"I gave it back to you." she said.
I looked at her, perplexed. If she had given it back to me, it would be on my finger. I wouldn't have put it down on the counter of a busy store, or in my pocket, or anywhere but ON MY FINGER, which, conveniently, is always there, attached to my hand. And I told her that.
She was not pleased by my logic. I was even less pleased.
And that is when the small things started to add up - and the disappearances began to multiply. Specifically, cash disappearing out of my register. Until the ring vanished, I would never have given a second thought to leaving my purse unlocked in the staff room, or letting someone else use my cash drawer while I was on break. Trusting? Yes. Naive? Maybe. But I am not stupid. I figured out right quick that we had a problem, and insisted that my drawer be locked up whenever I took a break. I stopped bringing a purse to work altogether. If I had any other jewelry, I damn sure wasn't going to be letting people wear it while I moisturized. But that didn't make the problem go away.
In short order, I was called into a meeting with the loss prevention officer and asked about the missing money. I was livid. I knew that my ring had not been lost or misplaced, and I knew too, that the person who had been involved with my ring's disappearance was among the people using my register when money had gone missing. But I did not have any proof. It was my drawer that was short.
I broke down and cried. I explained about my missing ring. They looked at me in silence as I wept. They suggested that I had taken the money because I needed it. That they could understand how easy it would be to take the money, and how it would seem like it wasn't hurting anyone. I sat, clutching a tissue, mopping at my face. I was mortified. I had never stolen money - or anything else, for that matter. How was I going to prove I hadn't stolen the money? I would have gladly agreed to being strip searched if it had cleared my name, and suggested as much, to the embarrassment of the tiny store manager (for indeed, that is all I can remember of him - he was small boned and delicate, with an over-sized attitude and love of retail merchandising). He seemed so sure of my criminal activity that I began to suspect that they were not even considering that someone else could have been responsible. I was the easy, obvious choice.
I was the fall guy.
The thing about being blamed for something is that usually, you don't realize you are the scapegoat until it has already happened. You are caught completely unaware, and forced to play catch-up - if you are even given the opportunity to clear your name. And frequently, the charge is so outlandish, so out-of-character, so clearly wrong, that for a time you think to yourself "Surely everyone can see this is crazy."
And while that may be so, it doesn't mean anyone is going to come to your defense. People are all too eager to let someone else take the blame. They don't want the white-hot spotlight pointed at them. They keep their heads down and avoid eye contact and hope this whole thing will just blow over.
But for the person targeted, it doesn't blow over - it just blows.
Since this happened, I have taken pains in my life to protect myself from accusations like this. Everything is documented, noted, discussed, and copied. And even then - even with noteworthy effort to protect myself - things can go awry. A few months ago, just after my surgery, I was involved in a terribly stressful incident that led to some serious repurcussions, both post-surgically and emotionally. When the dust cleared somehow I was the bad guy. While I had been off dealing with the consequences as they affected me personally, the responsibility for the entire sordid affair was placed squarely on my shoulders, despite the fact that I didn't have a thing to do with what happened other than having it transpire in my living room. I was angry, and disgusted. I wanted to shout from the rooftops that I had nothing to do with any of this nonsense, but rather than speak up, I decided to just put the burden down and walk away. I didn't want to make a fuss, I didn't want to spend the time and energy clearing up the confusion, defending myself from a charge that seemed so glaringly unjust.
And that is where it has remained, throughout this holiday season. While I would like to say that it doesn't bother me, it does. While I know that my conscience is clear, I am bothered that people who do not know me well might believe a twisted version of events, and either hold me accountable, or just accept the story as truth and, unaffected or disinterested, move on, carrying that impression of me with them. Neither of those options are palatable, but neither is the idea of trying to make sense of something that just makes no sense at all.
In the end, the most important thing I have learned from all of this - from, despite my best efforts, finding myself once again taking the blame - is that I need to treasure my friendships, and my friends, and my family. When things are all wrong, they have the ability to make everything all right.
Hold your loved ones close this season. Hold your head high. And hold the line. Everything is going to be all right.
27 minutes ago