Lost and Found

I seem to be crying a lot in counseling lately.

Yesterday’s session gravitated first around my frustration and anger with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) and their seemingly unrelenting one-eyed behaviour towards me and our organisation.

To fill in the backstory for you about the specific events I am frustrated and angry with them over (and bear with me on this because it is a long story): All tertiary education organisations (TEOs) are required to have an External Evaluation and Review (EER) to gauge how well they are operating. This replaced the previous Audit NZQA performed.

In nearly all of our previous audits, and in all of our previous EERs, we have scored the top bracket, which was a three-year audit cycle under the Audit scheme and Category 1 under the EER scheme. There are 4 categories that can be awarded under the current EER scheme: Category 1, Category 2, Category 3, and Category 4, with 1 being the best and 4 being the worst.

Category 1 carries with it benefits (allegedly since we had never directly experienced any up to this point), and it would make our lives easier as we migrate from our current programmes to the new suite of New Zealand qualifications, which we are required to do.

In May 2017, we had our latest EER. We were asked vague questions, given cloudy instructions, a whole vital section of the visit was skipped, half our team were left out, and the people who did meet with them — the tutors in one session, me in another — spent a total of approximately 15 minutes each with the evaluation team over the day and a half they were on campus. And when we say “team” as NZQA calls them, there are two people, so it’s more like a duo.

In the opening meeting with the evaluators, we each had to introduce ourselves and speak about ourselves. When it was my turn, I offered up that I had the dissociative disorder known as depersonalization and high levels of stress and anxiety could trigger it. I had been working hard at overcoming it, I explained, and there were starting to be far less depersonalization episodes: a clearing of the clouds to see the sunshine, so to speak.

During my section of the EER, I was asked to present some data we collect and how we analyse it. In our previous EERs and audits, the lead person would come to my computer and I would step him or her through the various databases we have, how we collect the data, how we analyse it for trends, et cetera. During this EER, the lead evaluator refused to come to my office to view things in their native environment and format. Instead, she ordered me to print out the database and tape it together. Bear in mind we had 14 years’ worth of data, and one workbook in the spreadsheet was a 4 page by 3 page spread when I printed it out, and that was only 1 of several workbooks in that spreadsheet file.

Vagueness and lack of familiarity / routine can also trigger my depersonalization. Anyone with an ounce of sense would be able to see I was going depersonalized as my rational thought process seems to detach and I’m stuck with answering either in short answers or gobbly-gook. It does not impair my memory. Having to tape up a spreadsheet in front of the NZQA duo triggered my depersonalization, and them asking me seemingly unrelated questions, did not help me. When I tried to refocus and talk about an individual student’s circumstances, which I felt demonstrated our commitment to the area being questioned at the time, I was told by the lead evaluator that she, “wasn’t interested in my little stories.” As you can imagine, that didn’t quite help ease the anxiety I was feeling.

Throughout the session, I kept asking things along the lines of, “Does that make sense?” and “Does that answer your question?”, and intermingled with that was me saying, “I am struggling” and “I am finding this difficult”. Because, quite frankly, I was not only trying to make sense of what information they actually were wanting but also fighting against my depersonalization and to express myself confidently.

Despite my repeated attempts to get a support person in the room with me, I was denied this request on at least 3 occasions.

Towards the end of my session with them, they asked me to photocopy notes from my notebook. I was downstairs in front of the photocopier, photocopying pretty much each page. Noel and Don asked me if I was okay, and I told them what was going on and that I had no idea what they wanted or what I was photocopying. Noel wanted to come up and be with me to assist me, but I felt I was nearly done with the evaluators (which I was) and so I didn’t think I needed the support.

In the closing meeting, the evaluators identified only minor things wrong. Besides them following a trail about succession planning, which Noel got angry about because, well, neither he nor Don had been asked about succession planning — as a matter of fact, they hadn’t been asked anything or interviewed at all in the main EER — and the closing meeting wasn’t the place to suddenly delve into presenting concrete evidence of it, nothing major was identified. Everything seemed fine, see you later. I stated at several points throughout the closing and them leaving the premises that if they needed clarification or any further information to let me know.

We heard nothing back for a while.

One day, we received the draft report. It was the day I heard the news that my friend Ed’s cancer was back, so I was already devastated.

The draft report pulled all these negative things out of thin air. We didn’t analyse data. We didn’t self-assess as an organization. The owners needed to contribute to the industry more. It stated incorrect figures, incorrect information, and statements that we only collected information until 2013, when our last EER was held, and not 2017. Comments in the 2013 EER report that were praising our organization were taken out of context to damn us in the 2017 EER. And so on and so forth. It floored us. If things in the draft EER report remained as they were in the final EER report, we would be demoted from Category 1 to Category 2. This was in June 2017.

We were flabbergasted. Why had we dropped? We didn’t change our approach to organizational self-assessment or data analysis or how we approach trying to make the school a better place. We were and are constantly improving how we do things.

The last 9 months have seen me fighting them over these things and the inconsistencies in the report. I supplied them with a 200 page rebuttal with supporting evidence on all the areas where they were wrong in the draft report (I’m not kidding).

I did some research among our team. The tutors and I were the only people the evaluators spoke to during the main part of the EER. Noel, Don, and my colleague Lyssa — three key members of the team — were never interviewed. I asked the tutors what they spoke with the evaluators about. They too found the lines of questioning vague, but they were adamant they didn’t speak about organizational self-assessment. Catherine said she’d only presented a fraction of the evidence she had in the last EER. The tutors were willing to sign a letter stating this, which we wrote together, and submitted to NZQA with my rebuttal.

With a threat of legal proceedings against NZQA, we managed to get the (what we felt were) defamatory comments about Noel and Don removed from the EER report, especially in light that their peers had given them a “Contribution to the Industry” award in 2013 and our graduates scored so well in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 New Zealand Beauty Awards. Hurray for small victories, but it was a very petty comment to make, merely because Noel got angry with them in the closing meeting for dropping the succession plan “concerns” in. That part of the meeting is recorded, and as the EER report and recommendations seems to be determined by a panel of moderators, they obviously got their heckles up at Noel defending the school and himself and decided to take it out on him. (NZQA has been very good at being petty and vengeful in such a childish, spiteful way like that over the years.)

NZQA only budged grudgingly on changing a few minor points here and there in the draft report.

I asked questions like, “If organisational self-assessment is one of two major areas in the EER, and your evaluators did not speak to key team members (Don, Noel, Lyssa), and they didn’t speak to the tutors about organisational self-assessment, how did the evaluation team come to their conclusions about our organisational self-assessment?”

You could’ve heard crickets chirping in response if this had been a face-to-face conversation and I asked that question.

But because it was email, there was the typical bullshit doublespeak and diversions from answering the question which, to me in my vast experience dealing with Government agencies, means “we have no good answer” or “we don’t know”.

My counselor seemed somewhat frustrated, bordering on angry, about NZQA not taking me at my word about my depersonalization, and, at my request, he wrote a letter outlining my diagnosis and situations during which my depersonalization could flare up. Surprise, surprise, half of what the EER evaluators had put me through during the EER were events they should have avoided with me. I gave NZQA a copy of this letter as a part of our response to their draft report.

(On a side note, I had another person at NZQA tell me something along the lines of “your personal problems aren’t something we can do anything about.” Yet the Human Rights Commission states on their Web site, very clearly, that Government agencies need to accommodate people with mental illnesses as much as they need to accommodate those with physical disabilities, and, when your evaluators triggered, and then refused to accommodate or assist me during, a depersonalization episode, then it does, in fact, become your problem as well.)

We triggered something called a “reconsideration”, where an independent person comes in and reviews the information gathered to make a decision on how the EER was run. As he rightly stated, he cannot run another EER, but he can look at the information and make suggestions to NZQA from there.

It’s pretty hard to review things if they haven’t been adequately gathered in the first place, I would tend to think.

When his draft report came back, it was late on a Wednesday night. I had been feeling pretty depressed, and instead of feeling anxious and worrying all night about what was in the report, I opened it and read the last part (the judgement).

I should have read the entire thing, but I didn’t, which was bad on my part.

Some minor changes, but nothing shifted us back up to Category 1.

I was devastated.

Reading the draft report further and looking at the whole picture, I did feel a little better, and that devastation shifted to anger and frustration. The independent reviewer found things like:

  • The EER evaluator’s notes showed no one was asked about organisational self-assessment, despite this being one of two major areas they make judgements about us as an organization over.
  • The information we supplied to the independent reviewer that Don and Catherine would have supplied to the evaluators had they not skipped their section of the meeting helped change the rating in the management area upwards (NZQA still have not seen all the information and evidence Don and Catherine would have supplied).
  • The EER evaluator was supposed to contact a few members of the industry during the EER from the list we had supplied them, but she had not done this at the time of the EER and there were no notes of what she spoke with any of them about (if she contacted them; we don’t know).
  • NZQA needed to correct all the factual errors in the report, as we kept telling them to do but they refused to do on several occasions. (For example, if there is an email to the lead evaluator with the attachment of data collected from 2003 to 2017, but the report says 2013, and we keep saying it’s 2017, it is pretty obvious from the evidence of the email with the attachment that it should be 2017.)
  • While he couldn’t change our EER results due to missed parts of the evaluation or short interviews or vague lines of questioning, he strongly recommended NZQA speak with us to rectify the matter.

But the kick in the pants still remained that it said we didn’t analyse the data we gather, which is absolutely fucking amazing because I must be sitting around eating bon bons and watching Days of Our Lives at work then. This is despite us giving several examples of how we do analyse and act on the data we gather.

We had a chance to respond to the draft independent report, so I gathered information from the others on our team and submitted 10 pages of examples of data analysis: what data we capture in each area, what data is analysed, and how we analysed it and made changes from there.

At this point in the process, I feel I’m repeating like a broken record.

What happens now is that a Deputy Chief Executive at NZQA makes a decision based on this information.

Call me a pessimist, but based on our previous experiences with them, they will most likely make it look like they have done nothing wrong because they have that big word “Authority” in their name and that automatically makes them always right, right?

So what does this all have to do with me crying in counselling?

As I said, I was angry and frustrated. To keep repeating yourself over and over and over again, and to be told, even when you are absolutely right, that you are wrong is very demoralising and tiring. And, when you are battling dissociation, which has an element of other-worldliness to it at times too and casts your world into the realm of disbelief at times, you start questioning even the core parts of yourself.

In exploring the anger and frustration, in trying to pin down and access those feelings so I could experience them fully and reconcile them somehow, and to use the energy of that anger and frustration to propel me forward, it struck me as to why I was depressed and sad about this specifically.

Anxiety, stress and depression are a trio that mugged me in a dark alley in my life and robbed me of not only my emotions but also parts of myself. What I was left with was depersonalization, a strong lack of self-esteem and identity, and intense unsteadiness. I’ve written about previously how things that used to bring me joy no longer interest me, and that sometimes I find it’s exciting that my life has become partially a blank state but at times that also depresses me as well. So there are very few things now that provide me an identity: my name, my family, my relationships with others, and simple things I find joy or anger or any emotion in between within them.

I cried because I have lost most of myself. I mourn for what I once was and all I have lost, and that grief is compounded by living in a wrecked city and so far away from family and the astounding losses of friends, family and fur babies I have experienced since the quakes.

And I am angry and frustrated that one of the only stable parts of my identity that remains — that I am a hard worker, that I know what I am doing at work, that I do my bit to keep the school an excellent place to learn and study — is now being questioned by three people who have spoken to me about my job for a total of perhaps 2 hours in contrast to my 22 years’ worth of experience in this role. It seems that even my hard work and the things I am really good at doing and have kept the school hitting the highest categories with Government agencies are now no longer solid ground either. Everything in my life seems like I’m standing on Jello instead of granite.

One part of me says, “Jesus, Scott, you can’t even do that fucking right any more.”

My counselor, God bless him, has been very kind about it all. He urged me to know that my crying was coming from a space of self-love and self-care, and that was a good thing. Deep down, he continued, you know you are a hard worker and that you are right in that fact. How can he tell? “Look at all the progress you have made fighting depression and depersonalization throughout your life. You take a challenge and you fight hard for it.”

He’s right, of course.

But there is an element of tiredness — we haven’t pinned a name to that yet other than “The Leech”, but it keeps coming back up in my counselling session — that self-sabotages my will.

So yes, I’m angry and frustrated, and I’m using that anger and frustration to fight for that little bit of me that still remains. I’m not letting an organization that has repeatedly belittled me and brought into question my professional integrity in response to me merely pointing out that either they were in the wrong (doing something that was against their own rules or whatever) or that there was a simpler way of doing things. A truly professional organization would engage in a rational conversation about it instead of trying to bully someone into silence and submission.

When I was younger, I was ashamed of crying. Boys don’t cry, and when I did cry, especially in front of the bullies who made me cry, that gave them more ammunition to make me feel even shittier than I was feeling.

Not anymore.

I shouldn’t feel ashamed for expressing how I feel. I shouldn’t be bullied into silence for being right.

I mourn for who I once was. I grieve because I worry if I will ever get any of that Scott back.

I cry because I care: about others, about myself. Because something impacts me deeply, stirs me emotionally, speaks to the light and the darkness in core of me.

And there is nothing wrong with any of that.