How Stigma Works

Some of the folks on Pendulum and The Bipolar Planet may remember back in 1999/2000 when my employer gaslighted me. Things like writing me up for being unable to get to work during a flood. Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that would have improved my productivity.

No, really, what I asked for was a little cubicle at one end of the very noisy computer lab to cut down some of the fan noise and block the visual stimulation of people wandering in and out of the room all day. And that instructions be sent via email instead of verbally, and that stated task priority be filtered through my supervisor to assist my then-lithium-impaired memory. And that I be allowed some leeway in the time I start my day because of a co-morbid, or perhaps drug-induced, sleep disorder. All told it may have cost about $1000 for a couple of cubicle walls. Not a hardship for them. Perhaps it would occasionally inconvenience an engineer who wanted some soldering done first thing in the morning, but in the main I worked alone in the lab – nothing but me and ten or so distractingly noisy desktops and servers.

One engineer gaslighted me a number of times – telling another department that I would do a task for them, but not bothering to actually ask me to do the task. Or giving me incorrect instructions that led to two or three days worth of worthless measurements. He would assign the task last thing before he took a couple of days off, so I couldn’t even ask for clarifications. You can guess how bad this made me look. The negative effect on my self-esteem was incalculable.

There were two other handicapped women working there – they got us really cheap, I suppose. This fellow engaged in the same sort of behavior with them. I thought it was rather odd that he often talked about his kid, but never about his wife. At some point I caught on – the gentleman was a truly wretched misogynist.

It got to me. I began to think that maybe it was me, not discrimination and stigma. Maybe I really was incompetent. Maybe the bipolar disorder was really progressing toward total disability. My self-esteem plummeted. I was about to quit my job when one of the other victims suggested that I go on disability for a bit to get my head back together. So I did.

When I came back, the company refused to give me internet access. That meant no searching for component datasheets, no on-line parts orders, no package tracking. I literally could not do my job without it.

It was the worst kind of nightmare, the kind that follows you home at the end of the day, the kind that intrudes into your dreams, the kind that wakes up with you in the morning, the kind that makes your entire world lose its color and taste.

Eventually, the Director of Human Resources called me into her office and forced me to accept a “mutually agreed-to separation.” The woman even told me that I’m not suited to work in the electronics industry.

I want to know one reason why it is good for society to prevent the mentally ill from working.

The victimized co-worker that I mentioned later helped me put together letters to HR, took me along when she went down to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to file a complaint, and took me to her lawyer. I wouldn’t have done these things on my own.

For the record, the EEOC gave me a “right to sue” document, but I had another episode and so was unable to follow through.

Since my self-esteem was so shot, I was unable to find another job. Instead I went back to school and finished up my BS in Engineering Science – with a minor in Mathematics.

It’s been on my mind because I have been cleaning out old files including all my records about my complaint with the EEOC. Folks, if someone discriminates, report them – after you are terminated, of course. Even if you don’t profit from it – and you probably won’t – it lays a groundwork for future employees who experience the same thing you did. Three different women called and asked for my EEOC case number within the next six months after I left.

Yesterday, just out of curiousity, I looked up the Director of HR on the ‘net. She now heads up a local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter. If that’s what NAMI is all about, teaching HR people how to use our illnesses against us at work, I will never give them another cent.

NAMI.

I went to a local meeting one time. It was frightening.

This fellow brought his college-age daughter and talked about her in the third person throughout the meeting. He kept his arm around her as if she might jump up and run away. As if she might open her mouth and express her own opinion. As if she were his property. No wonder she was sick.

Another couple complained why can’t the doctors medicate their son against his wishes. The son is crazy, he can’t make a rational decision! Well, their son’s wishes are not irrational just because they differ from the parents’. When there are drugs that really work and don’t have debilitating side effects, the seriously mentally ill may feel better about taking them.

The NAMI facilitator glanced at me and then carefully said, “Forced medication is against the law. It violates the patient’s rights.” I know damned well that if I weren’t there the conversation would have gone differently.

I can’t imagine being wrestled to the ground and forcibly injected with intoxicants. I can tell you this – if you tried to do that to me right now I’d fight you until I ran out of strength. Of course, you would then be able to say, “See, see, she’s irrational, she’s being violent.” This is so much more than an issue of the patient’s rights – it is a violation of their person on the order of rape.

My opinions and my wishes are not irrational just because they differ from my family’s – or from NAMI’s.

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