(You can skip the first two paragraphs, I’m rambling.)
When I first entered college I was an English/pre-teaching then to speech therapy, and finally to women’s studies. I’ve been through quite a few changes but I think it has been for the best. I didn’t know that I wanted to work with at-risk youth until I went into therapy myself. A counselor who made an impression on me was a LCSW and I began to question whether or not I could apply my own experiences to helping other people so I reached out to my advisor and switched my major.
I applied to several group homes and heard back from three. Two were within the same non-profit and one was far too claustrophobic for me. I knew as I arrived for my interview that this was not somewhere I wanted to work, it was far to formal and obtrusively clinical. Even the secretary seemed miserable and that seemed like a cue to me that people who worked there were unhappy. I attempted to reach out to one of the other group homes, but they never returned my calls. Ultimately the second home reached out to me and I immediately jumped at the opportunity.
It took a bit of time to get established there but once I did, it was home. Now, I work full-time with 10 to 15 hours of overtime a week. I can’t be too specific due to HIPAA but what I will say is that the teens I work are inspirational. They have good days and bad days, and when that isn’t the case they have reallllly bad days but I get it. I really understand it. I’ve been there, in fact, I am there now.
So let’s talk about the misconception that I was constantly made aware of during the pre-employment physical screening. I went through a series of questions about my mental health, about how I deal with crisis, have I ever had thoughts of hurting myself/hurting others, or suicide. We all know that I could not be honest or I would fail the screen. Thankfully, he didn’t notice my scars but did make a point of harassing me about a wound on my calf from tripping over a rusted cooking grate while camping. This started a new session of question, asking me if I self-inflicted the deep vertical cut along my tibia (something which I went to get a Tetanus shot for…would I really cut my calf of all places with something rusty and get a Tetanus shot? No…). But the interrogation continued.
We see it all the time as we apply to jobs, “Such & Such is an equal opportunity employer buuuuuuuuuut are you depressed, do you have an disabilities, do you have PTSD, are you a veteran.” So, we know that most companies need to fill a quota of people with disabilities, and is followed by 80-100 more questions that are all the same 5 questions phrased differently. We all lie on those things and say what the employer is looking for, “No I am normal” and go on to answer all the questions in ways that don’t reflect us correctly but there it is. In this job market, we can’t afford to have any neuro-divergence or disabilities, just ask the very same doctor who gave me hell about my leg.
Apparently, the doctor was also put off by the fact that I had, had a total spinal fusion for Scoliosis when I was younger. Now, I have had people tell me that this is a disability but I never believed it. I still do not consider this to be a disability but the doctor tried to tell me that I would be unable to my job as a result of my job. We argued about this quite a bit and I made sure to disprove him during the lifting portion of the physical. Finally he dropped but continued to harass me over the phone about getting him a note from the orthopedic surgeon who fused my spine. Needless to say, I did not contact the doctor who performed my surgery over ten years ago and told him to stuff it. Surprisingly, he did.
The stigma attached to mental illness and disabilities is utterly ridiculous. I am no less capable of completely the duties of my job. I make a point to leave my issues behind me when I get out of my car in the driveway. I dedicate myself to the teenagers I work with and apply my knowledge and experience in small ways. When one of the girls here talks to me about how she feels lonely and abandoned or how she feels depressed because of a mean boy at school or any variation of hopelessness that she encounters I explain to her that I have been in a similar position. She’ll ask me what happened and why I understand what she is going through and I will tell her that she does not need to worry about it, but that I know how she feels. When I tell her this it seems like she finds some solace in this and this is how I do my job in light of (not despite) the trauma and depression I have experienced.
It’s a tough world out there when it comes to getting a job with a mental illness, and it is unfortunate that we must hide it as if we are ashamed. But we need to just keep trying to raise awareness of the stigma and making other people think about it and question why they feel this way.
Be even louder than the stigma.