Making and Losing Friends and Mental Illness

Keeping friends over the years while having schizophrenia has always been tough.  Even before I became mentally ill I had a hard time making friends.  But I am convinced that much of this was probably due to the environment I grew up in.  Most people in my hometown were farmers or cowboys.  I never did want to farm and the cowboy life never appealed to me.  So I guess by the time I went to college I was already behind my peers in terms of social skills.  Having schizophrenia hurt my social skills in that the illness could make me standoffish and not understanding normal people humor and activities.  I have always preferred reading and science pursuits over talking about sports, campus gossip, or whatever tv shows were trendy that season.  I am still this way.

As a result of my mental illness and the environment I grew up in, I never really did learn how to make friends easily.  I never did have normal interests so most of the friends I did make wouldn’t be considered normal either.  My best friend from college is a high school history teacher who is an avid sports fan.  He is also an avid reader of history, philosophy, economics, and classic literature.  Even though we haven’t been in college for over a dozen years, I still talk to him about once a week.  It’s not uncommon for our conversations to involve talking about baseball statistics, Austrian economics, medieval battle tactics, and the philosophy of Nietchze all in the same phone call.  He has never made an issue of me having a mental illness or not having traditional employment.  I don’t know if he regularly reads my blogs but he does think I’m doing a good thing with these writings.  He’s even suggested that it’s possible that if I keep writing, some big online blog service like Huffington Post or Breitbart might hire me.  A man can dream, right?  In short, friends like this don’t come along everyday and are worth holding onto.  My best friend from high school, she’s pretty much the same way.  Both of these people I may not get to see very often but I do keep in contact with.

Other people who I have friended over the years haven’t turned out so well.  I had one friend that I’ve been having a falling out with for months over aspects of my mental illness.  This former friend doesn’t seem to respect the fact that I don’t want to date.  I’ve dated before while working through a mental illness.  It sucks.  Dating is supposed to be enjoyable.  What I went through wasn’t.  As far as love goes, that’s what family is for.  As far as sex goes, well I’m not a dog in that I can’t live without sex.  Surprise, surprise; there are men who aren’t interested in having sex all the time.  And the older I get the less interest I have in sex.

This person also doesn’t respect the fact that I don’t hold a regular job.  First of all, when I did work a regular job, there were days I would have panic attacks while on the job and even before I went to work.  Many days these panic attacks were so bad I would vomit from the anxiety.  I would also get physically ill from the stress and anxiety I would feel at work with schizophrenia.  And dealing with office politics, well that was super stressful in itself.  In short, I never want to hold a regular job again considering all the problems it caused me.  I’ll go to prison before I go back to work.

So for any person to even infer that I’m wasting my life not being at some minimum wage drudgery that’s going to get automated in a few years anyway, well that’s not the kind of respect friends show for each other.  I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t respect me or my decisions.  And I especially can’t respect anyone who thinks I’m not “doing my part” or not “being a productive member of society” just because I don’t hold some nonsense job that a machine can do hundreds of times better.  Let the machines have all the damned jobs as far as I’m concerned.  I spent most of my life listening to people gripe and moan about how much they hated their jobs, as if it was an honor to hate your job, hate your boss, hate your coworkers, and hate your customers.  Any wonder why millions of American jobs got outsourced overseas?  After spending years fighting a mental illness and years trying to work in spite a mental illness, I don’t want to go back into the toxic work environment.  It wrecks havoc on my mental stability.  And if anyone can’t respect my decision, then screw them.  I don’t want people like that in my life.

 

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Reflecting on the Past before My Birthday

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On June 14th, I’ll be celebrating another birthday.  I’m getting to the point where I’m almost halfway done with my life, considering normal lifetime expectancy.  I’ve also lived over half of my life with schizophrenia at this point.  The biggest thing I have figured out over these 35 years of living as a human is that the only true certainties in life are change and unfairness.  We can make all the plans we want for our lives, but nothing goes exactly to plan. There will always be snags, problems, opportunities missed (and taken), and changes in direction.

When I was 16, I had the next 30 to 40 years of my life planned already.  I was going to graduate from high school, then college, then medical school, then go on into medical research, get married, have a couple kids, own a house in the suburbs of a large city outside of Nebraska, make well over six figures, and help develop something that would benefit humanity through my research.  Besides graduating from high school and college, none of that happened.  For years I was brutal on myself thinking “It’ll all fall into place when you get your big break” or “People less intelligent and less ethical than you are having good careers, why can’t you get things together”.  I spent my twenties after college going from one remedial job after another, finding out the hard way that my ability to handle stress and interpret social cues and understand social norms were all severely damaged by schizophrenia.

For those years of struggle, I thought I was a failure and not trying hard enough.  I would get panic attacks and bouts of nausea before I had to go to work every morning.  It got so bad I had my stomach scoped to see if I didn’t have some underlying gastro intestinal problems.  I didn’t.  I also had to spend years listening to the whole “all your problems are in your head” nonsense.  Everything we experience is merely electrical signals interpreted by our brains, so no kidding it’s in my head.  It’s in all of our heads.  Telling someone with a mental illness it’s in their heads is cruel and does nothing for them.

I was also told the whole “have faith and it’ll help you” nonsense.  I won’t even address that subject except to state I had more faith than everyone I knew until my early twenties and I still developed a mental illness that destroyed my productive ability.  I still get these feel good memes that oversimplify while not addressing root issues.  I even had someone I thought was a friend tell me, to the effect, I wasn’t a real man because I didn’t have a job or a family.  I still deal with ignorance and cruelty after eighteen years of mental health problems.  Granted it doesn’t ware on me or anger me as much as it did ten years ago, but it still hurts.

Seen and experienced lousy things, horrible hallucinations, and harbored horribly violent thoughts in eighteen years with schizophrenia.  But I did learn to not discount kindness and empathy when it does come.  I also learned the value of real, genuine friends, something that not many people have at all in their circles of friends.  Hopefully the struggles, disappointments, and good friends of the first 35 years will prepare me well for the next 35.

Struggles at Work with a Mental Illness

 

            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.