Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Bipolar Disorder in the Workplace

Where, oh where, was the good advice when I was working last year? I was alone except for the sympathy of my husband, who thought everyone I worked with had personality disorders.

Since the question today over at Ask a Bipolar is about how to deal with having a mental illness in the workplace, I thought I would talk a little bit about what happened to me between September 2009 and September 2010.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in July 2000. I am not ashamed of it, but I am sensitive to the stigma that is attached to it and I think that one of the places we still have major stigma is in the workplace. Employers see mental illness as a huge liability and, even though legally they are not allowed to discriminate because a person has a mental illness, most people do not share that information when they are trying to get a job. I had been on disability for so long because of my mental illness that when I decided to go back to work in 2009, I was very leery of letting anyone I was interviewing with know about my disease.

The place where I ended up working was a small psychological practice in town for a ridiculously small hourly wage. They did counseling, but they also did a lot of testing and evaluation. One of the things I was required to do when I interviewed was to take a couple of psychological inventories. Being a psychology major in college and having a bachelors degree in the field helped me a lot in figuring out exactly what answers they were looking for on those tests and I guess all the results came back okay, since they called to offer me the job the next day.

I found my new employers intimidating, to say the least. Everyone seemed so well put together, educated, smart, and proud of it, and there was a clique-ish atmosphere that I just could not break into. I did not belong there from the day I started, but it took them not so gently "nudging" me out the door a year later for me to accept the fact that that particular office was an extremely toxic environment for me and not a good fit. It made my mental illness symptoms worse. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it because I was right out there in the front office, trying to get my job done with as little fuss as possible. My anxiety was at a fever pitch from the first day and my focus and memory problems seemed to get worse every time I went to work. I would dread Tuesdays because the one girl who was really nice and who seemed to actually like me did not come in. On Tuesdays, the middle school atmosphere was unbearable. I felt like I was living an episode of "Mean Girls." There was whispering behind my back and discussions I was not included in. These were grown women who never got over wanting to be the popular girls. I was uncomfortable from the first and I am sure that showed. And did not make me any more likeable than when I started, although I tried very hard to do everything that was asked of me without question and to have a good attitude.

Being so incredibly anxious did not help me at all. Because of my anxiety and memory problems, I made more than the average number of mistakes and I was spoken to time and again about what I had done wrong. The rules were numerous to the point of absurd. It didn't help that it was a very small office and there was no one for me to talk to there about how I could perform better at my job. My boss would call me back to his office at least once a week to give me a talking to about this little mistake or that little mistake and my anxiety would go higher and I would make even bigger mistakes. I would ask how I could improve and was told over and over again just to not do that again. I was never given anything I could take as constructive criticism. I tried for a year to follow their rules exactly and never, ever got it right.

Having two chronic illnesses, when I started looking, I didn't try to find a full time job. The one I found seemed to be a good fit, because I would only be working three days a week. When I interviewed, I tried to pin the owner of the business down about whether it would be three or four days, because the ad had said it might start at three days and go to four eventually. He did not seem to think that four days would ever really be necessary when I talked to him, so I thought it would be okay. Unfortunately, he either lied to me or misled me, because it wasn't long before they were asking me to come in four days a week. I compromised on three and a half. The extra half day pushed me over the edge, both physically and mentally. After having major surgery last April, I asked him to keep me to three days a week for the summer, since we had an intern.

Because the office manager's husband had a major heart attack while I was on medical leave from the surgery, I went back to work early to accommodate her being out, even though I was nowhere near ready physically. I was constantly working around her schedule and coming in on days that she was out on her numerous vacations. She was a world traveler in every sense of the word and actually an incredible photographer. The problem was, she only worked for vacation money and she had been there so long that she got whatever time off she wanted. It didn't matter whether it was convenient for the other employees. When she wanted to be out, she was out. The other girl who worked in the office got absolutely slammed after I got there, because I was so limited in what they would train or allow me to do whenever the office manager was out.

My nine month trial work period for social security came up in July of last year. Since I receive disability income from the government, there are certain rules I have to follow if I have a job to keep my benefits.  I saved pay stubs and receipts for the first nine months I worked and then sent it in to have it evaluated to determine if I could keep my benefits.  It was determined that I was not making enough money to lose my monthly income from disability in July, but I had to keep my hours down and they kept pushing me to work more.

So, I asked my boss if we could meet so that I could tell him that I was on disability and that I needed to keep my hours down and only work three days per week. I had struggled with the decision of whether or not to share this information, and felt like (a) it was none of their business what my financial situation was and (b) that it would definitely affect how they looked at me. But the end of the trial period forced my hand and I had to do something because they wanted me there four days a week. I was barely handling three and a half days and was asking them to reduce my hours.

I think I intended to tell him about the bipolar disorder when my trial work period was up, but the only time I ever lied at that job (that wasn't a lie by omission) was when he asked me why I was on disability. I told him it was because of the fibromyalgia. I found this man so intimidating that I simply was too afraid to tell him I have a mental illness. He has been a psychologist for over thirty years and I knew he would not understand. I shouldn't have worried so much, because he didn't understand about the fibro either and, without my knowledge or telling me they would need me to leave, he and the other professionals in the office began looking for my replacement. She came in the form of a hand picked intern (by one of the professionals who really didn't like me) from a local university. The writing was on the wall and I just didn't see it. A fax came in sometime in August from this woman asking for more details about my job. I saw it and wondered if I needed to worry, but my job was clerical and she was working towards a masters degree. I figured any job they would be talking to her about would be professional. Apparently not, because I later found out that they hired her.

I had been watching the politics in that office from the time I started and it seemed clear to me that there was an "us" and a "them." "Us was the "sane" people who worked there and "them" was the crazy people who came in for counseling or evaluation. Because of the negative comments of the staff, including two of the psychologists that worked there, the more time that passed, the more certain I was that telling them I was bipolar could only result in a negative outcome. I didn't like the job at all by the time my trial work period was up, but I was planning on staying at least another three months to get through the holiday season with a little extra money. I also did not want to quit without them having the opportunity to find a replacement for me. Ironically, the day I got fired, I had asked my husband if he thought I should let them know then (September) that I was planning to leave after Christmas and he had told me that they didn't deserve that much notice because of the way I had been treated.

There has been some research done that indicates that working in a hostile environment can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. I completely believe that. It is almost a year since I worked at that job and I still have trouble going to that part of town. I am still afraid that I might run into someone who worked there, so I avoid going out as much as possible. This is not normal behavior and I know it, but I can't seem to help myself. I still worry that I will see one of "them." Not long after I started my blog, the two women who I had the most trouble with found it and started making anonymous, nasty comments. I had started my writing by talking about the fact that I had been fired and they tore me apart mercilessly. I do take some of the blame for that, because I was absolutely not nice in those posts. I eventually took them down, because I thought it was the right thing to do, and set my comments so that nothing could get through unless I had read it first. Eventually they stopped reading, or at least they stopped commenting. Hopefully they have moved on to torturing someone else at this point.

Before I was diagnosed 11 years ago, I had a fairly high level job at a small law firm as a legal assistant to the managing partner and quasi-office manager.  Although I was very, very good at my job, I also had something of a reputation as a "bitch" because of my anxiety and my inter-personal problems with some of the staff. I didn't know then that my conflicts with some of the people who worked there were really a result of my mood disorder, so I couldn't figure out how to fix it. But I liked the job, I was good at it, and it helped me to focus. I was very organized and I got things done. My boss never had to worry about missing a deadline because I implemented a calendar system for him. He told me in a phone call last year that every attorney he has taught that system to since I worked for him has never missed a deadline. Attorneys who refused to follow it didn't do as well and some of them got into trouble because they missed a court date or due date for documents. I made sure that every file was up to date and that if something needed to be done and I couldn't do it, it would be on his desk for him to do. I helped with trial preparation, worked personal injury cases, and wrote drafts of legal documents. By the time I left, I had gotten so good at the writing part that my boss would barely look at what I had written before signing off on it.

When I decided to go back to work, my old boss asked me fairly insistently to come back and work for him. He was even willing to create a position for me by firing someone who he wasn't happy with. If we had lived closer to that office, I might have seriously considered it. It was a great offer and I knew I had been good at the job before I had my breakdown in 2000. But I knew that with a very long commute and the fibromyalgia, I was going to be burned out both physically and mentally before I even took my bipolar problems into consideration. I had to regretfully turn the job down. And unfortunately landed the job in this town for very little pay and a lot of aggravation. I missed being able to make decisions and having the autonomy to get things done without someone over my shoulder all day. I do much better at a job when my employer believes I am intelligent and doesn't sweat the small stuff. I also make fewer mistakes when I don't have someone constantly watching me. That legal assistant job was the best job I ever had, but it is no longer something I am capable of handling. As hard as it is for me to admit that, I am getting there.

Last year, I got accused of sending out a report that wasn't properly formatted or on letterhead. I checked the date it was sent out, afraid that I had made the mistake, and realized I wasn't working on that day. But, despite the fact that I tried to meet with the doctor who was supposed to review the report before it got sent out (the same woman hated me and who found my replacement), she wouldn't talk to me about it and I ended up in trouble with the owner because of it. It was pretty much the last straw for me and it became more of a matter of when I would leave the job, not if.

I worked very hard at that job. I did everything possible to make it work. I was nice, even when I wasn't being treated nicely. I came in on days I wasn't supposed to work. I thought I was doing my absolute best, but my best was not good enough.  I had problems because of my bipolar disorder. I was told after they fired me that I had a "negative" attitude. Did I? Maybe. Does this mean I should not work? Maybe. I certainly qualify for the disability payments I receive, but it was an emotional blow to realize that there really is a reason I am on disability.

Before having so much trouble at this job, I kind of believed that if I just tried hard enough, I could go back to work. After trying as hard as I possibly could to do a job that I thought I should have been great at, I know now that I cannot work for anyone who increases my stress level. The office environment is simply not a place where I can work. It has taken me a year and I am still bitter and hurt. But I can get through the day now knowing I am working on something I enjoy so much more, setting my own hours and deciding when I am able to work. Even though I have not made a cent yet from my writing, I am happy doing it. And I am lucky that the government agrees that I cannot go out into the work force, which allows me the opportunity to do just that.

I really hope that someday the disability laws are enforced the way that they are meant to be enforced and that employers will see mental illness as just another disability. Accommodations should be made for mental illness just as they would be for people in wheelchairs. It's a shame that we still feel as if we can't tell potential employers up front about our illnesses. But it is the sad fact of life. The bald truth is that no matter how badly I was treated, I should have been able to deal with it and figure out how to handle it and I couldn't. Would it have made a difference if I had told them up front that I am bipolar? We'll never know, but I suspect I would never have even been hired.



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