• Robison Wells

Mental Health and Employment

This month I've had an interesting opportunity. After I wrote that article I posted here (21 Pills) about my struggle with schizophrenia, and as this month is Mental Health Awareness Month, my employer asked me to write a series of articles about mental health in the workplace. I also was invited by a different company to speak to them at a Lunch-and-Learn event, specifically how I have handled being mentally ill while working, and how others have handled me being mentally ill while I work.

It's been kind of an eye-opening experience. I've been sick for the last twelve years and in that time, depending on how we're counting as "employed" (because some were glorified consulting jobs) I've worked for six companies. At each one I have felt valued, at each one I have felt troubled; at each one I have done a good job, and at each one I have failed.

Because that's the thing about mental illness, and particularly chronic psychosis: no one really knows how to handle you because you really don't know how to handle yourself. I can look at every one of those companies and point to great kindnesses that they showed me. I can look at every one of them and point to inadvertent traumas. It's hard to be a person who doesn't trust their own mind, and I can't imagine it's any easier to manage that person.

Let's face it: I've been laid off a lot, and while some of those reasons were budgetary, some of them were because I wasn't a great worker. It's hard to be a good worker when you can't stay awake. It's hard to be a good worker when you're constantly harassed by the voices in your mind. It's hard to be a good worker when you're on drugs with side effects almost as bad as the illness itself.

Since being on my miracle drug, I have had a clear mind for the last two years and three months. That's a pretty freaking big deal, considering where I was before. Being on this medication, I've been employed longer at my current company than I have been at any company since before I started grad school in 2007, and I just had my performance review and a promotion was discussed. I've already had a raise, and additional responsibilities, but now they're talking about actually managing a team. I haven't managed a team for ten years.

I am reminded of my favorite verses of scripture, where Nephi is struggling to be happy, but is weighed down in cares and woes: "Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities."..."when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins;"

I am so happy where I am now, so content, but I realize that I have left a trail of garbage in my wake for the last twelve years. I desire to rejoice, but my heart sorrows because of my flesh.

There have been jobs where I have felt unwelcome: there was one (I only worked there six months) who openly mocked my schizophrenia, and who took me to court when I tried to file for unemployment. Then there have been jobs where the HR department welcomed me in with open arms, even though I was a temporary consultant, gave my service dog a goodie basket, and always left kind notes on my desk.

But, again, it's hard to be a good employee when you can't stay awake. When you're on a pill that makes you lose your memory.

In the article that I wrote for my company today, the fourth Mental Health Awareness article I've written this month, I cite the fact that mental illness is chronic illness, and chronic illness has no cure. When I write about mental illness usually, it's in the format of "I was fine, then I got sick, the I got new meds, then I got better." That's because I'm a storyteller and stories have a beginning, middle and end. But it's a fallacy.

Chronic illness doesn't have an end. It just has peaks and valleys. My mom has multiple sclerosis and there have been times in my life when she's been bedridden and times when we've played frisbee in the park. And there's no guarantee what you're going to get from year to year.

There's a thing about psych meds: sometimes they just stop working. With antidepressants it's called a "depressive breakthrough" and it could come after two years of working fine, or it could come after fifteen years of working fine. Patients are warned about these depressive breakthroughs because that's where the suicide comes: you're fine and then the bottom drops out and you're drowning again, suddenly, with no warning.

Maybe that's going to happen with me and my miracle drug. I don't know. I hope not. I sincerely hope not.

What's the point of all this? I don't know. I think I'm just kind of spewing everything that's been building up in my anxious mind all week as I've been preparing for these business events.

The French poet Henri Amiel wrote: "Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love. Make haste to be kind."

I need a lot of forgiveness. I need to forgive a lot of people. I need to be swift to love and make haste to be kind.

Then maybe that's the closest thing we can get to a happily ever after.

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