When I first came out of college and entered into the world of work, I was all gung-ho and thought I could do it all. I didn’t think that even schizophrenia was going to slow me down, let alone be a major hurdle to holding full-time employment. I was wrong.
I quickly found out that I couldn’t do all that I thought I could do. I couldn’t work the forty-hour weeks that full time demands. I couldn’t concentrate for long periods of time, at least not for the first few years out of college. I would freeze up and have panic attacks around large crowds of people, especially people I didn’t really know. So reality came crashing back down on me.
I drifted from one job to another for the first two or three years I was out of college before I decided that I needed to take some time off and do some serious soul searching. I needed to reevaluate my job strategy and why I wasn’t able to hold my jobs for longer than a few months at a time. I needed to figure out why I was alienating myself from my coworkers and my supervisors. Then one day in the fall of 2007 it finally dawned in me; I was not being honest about my illness to my employers.
Let me state that again, I was not being honest about my illness to my employers. Thanks to such laws as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and such third party go betweens as Goodwill and Vocational Rehab, workers with disabilities have a much easier time in the work place than they did in the past. But I was not taking advantage of these programs. These programs will not do you any good either if you refuse to acknowledge your need for help. These programs are there for you to use; use them.
I found out the very hard way the best thing an employee could ever be is not intelligent, skilled at their job, or even have good people skills. No, by far more important is honesty and integrity. And I was not doing myself any service by telling my supervisors I could do jobs without accommodations that, according to the ADA I was within my rights to request if it was made known I had a disability, in all reality I could not. I was not helping myself.
In short, because of my pride and being in denial as to how bad my mental illness really was, I was lying to my supervisors as to my work ability. I was also lying to my coworkers. I was lying to myself. All because I refused to acknowledge that I needed help. I was too proud to ask for it.
It took me three years of failed jobs and a lot of heartache to figure out that the best thing a person with mental illness that wants to work can do is be completely honest about their illness. Tell the truth. If you cannot perform a duty, let it be known right up front. According to the ADA, an employer has to make “reasonable” accommodations for a job to allow someone with a disability to perform that job. Employers cannot refuse to hire someone simply because of a mental illness; that is hiring discrimination and that’s illegal.
In my paranoid state, before I stabled out and had some good work experience, I was afraid my mental illness would be held against me in a work place. Paranoia that comes with schizophrenia can be tricky like that sometimes. Fortunately I had a third party in Goodwill as a go between for me to help me find my last job. This job I held over four years. As a result I have seen that my previous paranoia about my illness being held against me was just paranoia; it never materialized into anything real.
If anything I have found my employers willing to work with me and help me out during the rough times that I have had. I still have flare ups occasionally where I have to miss work for a day every now and then. But my supervisors are more than willing to work with me because I have been honest and up front with them about my illness. It also helps that I’m a good worker who shows up on time and doesn’t leave until it’s quitting time and makes an effort to be friendly with my coworkers even on my bad days.
In closing, my struggles at work were largely due to my not being honest with my supervisors as to the extent of my illness. Once I broke that trust, it was only a matter of time before I was looking for another job. If you are mentally ill and looking for work, be totally honest with your supervisors. It will pay off in the long run. And they will often be accommodating.