My Enemy, The Stigma
One of the most heartening, and heart rending, experiences I ever had was my encounter with "Kate". She spoke in front of a vocational preparation class that I attended before I found my current job. Kate is a heavy-duty delusional paranoid, far sicker than I am. The medicines she has to take would likely sedate a horse.
Kate had just lost her job in a grocery store because the store chain had gone bankrupt. Kate had also been a horrible victim of what we call The Stigma. Her entire family had abandoned her and shut her out, with the usual nameless and groundless fear that mental illness is somehow contagious, and the usual irrational conviction that clinical delusion is somehow a moral failing.
One of the reasons I write about these things is to confront and combat The Stigma anywhere I find it.
Kate's job accommodations have to include time off for relapses. Our chemical cocktails sometimes gradually lose their effectiveness and have to be remixed by our cocktail shaking physicians. Kate has to watch herself like a hawk. She has no safety net of family and friends to help watch for signs that the delusions are returning. So Kate has to be ready, on nearly instant notice, to check herself into the hospital while still partially lucid.
When Kate visited my class, she stood up in front of a group of total strangers, white as a sheet, obviously sweating with anxiety and fear. She told us in exact clinical language the details of her illness, the reaction of her family, the loss of her job, and her plan to cope with it and find another.
It was harrowing. She spoke in a rather flat, nonchalant voice--which almost sounded as if it were coming from someone behind her left shoulder--while her terrified and anxious figure wavered in front of us. As she spoke, she gradually lost some of her fear, adjusting to the audience as she saw our empathy and sympathy with the horrible mental pain still present in her recovery.
By the time we reached the question and answer period, our relations with her were nearly normal for those of guest speaker and class.
I was so moved by her that I made a point afterwards to tell her how much I admired her courage, learned from her story, and was inspired by her recovery to push harder for mine. She just glowed, and we were, to my great honor, casual friends in the Vocational Center from then on. Later, her luck got better and she found an accommodated position in her old job specialty, physical therapy.
Her example is one of the reasons, perhaps the major one, why I can be so frank about my own condition and my place in the separate world of the mentally ill. Beyond our actual difficulties, The Stigma sometimes bands us together with the emotional intensity of the circus sideshow people in the old movie, "Freaks".
Yes, The Stigma can be that strong and that pervasive.
So I am a Customer Service Representative. I did this job, among many other jobs, before my latent bipolar condition overwhelmed me. Back then (the late 1990's), I worked with 7 other reps using a headset, working off of four separate phone lines, and at a hectic pace.
We were lucky, though. Our medical insurance operation was a small enough company that we simply worked hard and didn't have to meet call number quotas or meet a standard of only so many seconds per call, figures whipped up by some work productivity hotshot who couldn't handle a headset and four phone lines on a dare.
So I do it again. But there would be no way under my current medication that I could handle four full lines all day. I also cannot handle too many eight hour days in a row. My accommodations are a staggered schedule, a two-line phone, and routine back-up by my healthy boss, a wonderful African-American lady, whose taste runs to beautiful afro-centric dress, and who is a little whirlwind of efficiency in our office.
Other vocational avenues are closed to me in recovery. My last full time job was as a cabinet maker, in a shop where there was a constant din of panel saws, mechanical planers, belt sanders, hand sanders, and hand drills. I was also an amateur woodworker with a little shop of my own.
Now I simply cannot abide more than a few minutes at a time of machine noise. I am slowly trying to make the transition to all handwork for my recreational pieces. But I have to make several new tools (buying them is beyond my means) with the machines before I can go entirely over to hand working. Under the circumstances, my progress is glacial.
But it is progress. It is recovery. It takes place each and every day, one day at a time, for Kate, for me, and for all of us--despite the pain, despite The Stigma, and despite the chronic feathery fear of relapse.