A bit of context
Like most people with a severe mental illness, I do not currently work. I have not worked since summer 2014 when a particularly bad time ended me up in an acute day treatment centre. For two years prior to this hospitalisation, I was working in a lively project administration role. Full on 40 hour weeks with a highly stressful environment.
I’m 28 now but have worked in some form or another since I was about 16. I started off in small roles, hotel maid, waitress, you get the drift.
I’ve always had trouble with anxiety, since I was in primary school. I have a vivid memory of 7 year old me being driven to school, when my mum pulled up to the gates, I froze. I couldn’t move or speak, or get out. I just knew if I did, something horrible was going to happen. It resulted in me going into full scale meltdown, the headmaster had to come and ‘fetch’ me.
I believe This was my first ever panic attack.
As I got older, and more opportunities presented themselves, I secured a position as an audit apprentice with the local government. This was around when I was 20, just before I got diagnosed with BPD.
I would find it really hard to go into work. I had to take a lot of sick days, because I couldn’t cope with a multitude of things. Mostly I could not stand it when I got things wrong. I can’t take criticism at all, my brain would spin and I would get a fight or flight response. This usually resulted in me spending the next 3 hours turning the words used in said scalding, over and over in my head, trying to rationalise what had happened.
”Did she say ‘x’ because she hates me?”
”No it’s just her job, stop being stupid. You are so fucking stupid and needy and weird.”
”But what if she does hate me, what if she’s using her power over me to target me because she thinks I’m a shitty person?”
Over and over and over I would ruminate. This meant I would get behind on work and the cycle would continue.
This slowly built up and up until one day I was told to ring around the council employees talking about a software I knew nothing about. My heart went into my mouth. It was my first real job, and I was struggling silently. So I just said I would do it, all the while on the verge of vomiting or imploding.
I must have sat at that desk in a sort of paranoid trance for about an hour, planning my escape from the building. I decided I would wait until lunch, and leave casually so no one would suspect anything.
So I left. And refused to come back.
This continued into my next job. A phlebotomist with the NHS.
And the next one…my Project admin position.
This position taught me a lot about disclosure. I started the job with a lie. I told them my years gap in employment history was spent looking for the right position. When in actual fact I had been switched drugs so many times I didn’t know my arse from my elbow, let alone how to set up an invoicing system.
After an award winning interview performance, I got the job. For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This didn’t stop me being ill though, as my sick days racked up and I was starting to be questioned about why I was ill so much, I had to come clean.
Not only because I was done with lying, but I had become friends with my work colleagues and I felt I was cheating them. Before disclosing I had blamed sick days on period pains and migraines, and unfortunately there was nothing they could do the change those records. So I was given a formal warning.
The more sick I became, the worse I felt about having to say ‘I’m too depressed to come in today’ which was the truth, but I hated the words coming out of my mouth.
I felt a lot of shame. Mainly because we were such a small team and I was literally letting the entire company down. (6 people ran the whole thing including me) I started to revert back to my old excuses of period pains and migraines and peppered in some (true) med change side effects. This was easier to say, but still, a lie.
This went on until I eventually left.
After I quit, I went into hospital. Then after that I had a couple of smaller breakdowns.
In spring 2015, I was put in touch with a psychologist, and was given the option to be put on the list for Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT)
I had a choice to make.
I could continue finding jobs, starting new careers, fooling myself into thinking ”this is the one”. I might do well for a while, maybe 6 months with no sickness. I could even go years. But at the back of my mind, where truth resides, i know BPD is a lifelong condition. I will never be ‘cured’, I will never get rid of it I just needed to learn how to manage it.
So I made the decision. I decided to stop looking for fly by jobs and fix myself. I had worked and paid enough taxes previously to be eligible for contribution based benefits, which would be (and still is) my income.
I am 6 months into DBT now, and learning so much I cannot begin to put it into words. Since this post is about work and not DBT I won’t try.
I will have completed DBT in July 2016. I promised myself upon completion I would look for full time jobs in my chosen profession (I want to work in social care or mental health. Figures! See Jung’s theory on the wounded healer)
Yes I will have to start at the bottom, but I’ve done it so many times before, I am an expert at reinventing myself.
I have no worries about finding a position, my CV writing skills are on point, and I seem to be a wiz at interviews. My main worry about finding and securing my dream position, is disclosure.
Under the Equality act 2010, Employers in the UK are not allowed to discriminate against anyone with a disability when choosing a potential candidate for a role, this includes mental illness.
In fact there are some companies that pride themselves in employing people with disabilities (see ‘two ticks’), and operate under the Guaranteed interview scheme. The scheme does exactly what it says on the tin, guarantees disabled people an interview (if they meet the minimum criteria for the job vacancy.)
Whilst you do not have to disclose to a potential employer that you have a disability, in my experience it makes it more difficult to get help later on if you don’t. This doesn’t have to be straight away, it could be after you have been offered the position.
I have been to 2 interviews for part time positions since I quit my job. Both asked me to account for the year’s gap in my employment history. I think it’s fair for an employer to ask this question as they want to know what you have been doing with yourself. If they are going to invest in you as a person, they need to know their investment is wise. If you are going for a job in a law firm, and you have spent a year’s gap volunteering, looking after disabled children, they are going to want to know why you have decided to become an trainee lawyer. (For example)
In light of my past experiences with non disclosure, I decided to go into future interviews will ‘full disclosure’ and tell the sugar coasted version of why i had gaps in my employment. No potential employer wants to hear you spent two weeks in hospital out of your face on benzo’s and looking for patterns in the floor tiles.
Fortunately, the Equality Act stops most employers asking questions about your health before offering you a job. But does it?
No it fucking doesn’t.
Both of my interviews asked me what illness I had and how it affected my work. I skimmed over this question with grace, all the while fighting the urge to tell them they were breaking the law.
This leads me to the ULTIMATE question.
TO DISCLOSE OR NOT TO DISCLOSE. WHEN TO DISCLOSE, AND HOW MUCH.
My current belief is to disclose at all times. Controversial and idealistic I hear you say!
Yes this may jeopardise your chances of getting the position. Don’t forget, it’s just one, or a few people making the decision to hire you. What’s to stop them from thinking, actually they don’t want the ”hassle” of hiring someone with depression, or schizophrenia or anxiety.
This all comes down to trust. In yourself, your fellow man, and the ‘system’.
You can omit certain details, make a glossier version of sick you, turn it on its head and say, actually with all you have had to deal with in life, you are the perfect person for the job.
Please don’t be afraid to challenge the employer or interviewer if they are in fact doing something illegal. Like breaching the equality act. After all they are going to want you because you are a dynamic go-getter who is not afraid to speak his or her mind. If the employer were in any way worth working for, they would see YOU, a strong person with life experience and an amazing wealth of knowledge, and not your sickness.