Working While Mentally Ill

Working can be a complicated dance for someone with a mental illness.  The corporate world wasn’t designed for people like us and many of us struggle to perform in ways that most people take for granted.

When I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder I worked a really laid back low stress job. I was a doorman/front desk on the overnight shift at an apartment building. This worked well for me for years because I worked alone, had very little contact with management, and very little contact with people in general. I spent all night watching movies on my laptop or surfing the web. When I was symtomatic it was easy to hide and easy to work through because I was basically by myself for eight hours, it was like being at home. However there were time I struggled even there.

There are a lot of things that go on in the mind of a schizophrenic that make working difficult. When I left my job at the apartment building I started working at a hotel as a front desk agent/night auditor. One of my biggest struggles working there was teamwork. I have trouble working with people because of my schizophrenia. The distrust of people I feel coupled with paranoia makes small seemingly innocuous things into distressing events. For example, we all have lazy coworkers, people who don’t pull their weight. As a night auditor it was my job to close out all transactions for the day and start the next business day. Sometimes my co-workers wouldn’t finish their work and would instead leave it for me. I had no choice but to complete it so I could do my job and close out the business day.

When that would happen my mind would bypass the lazy explanation and I would instead take it personally. When the left over work came with an explanation such as a busy shift I would think they were lying to me. I would get worked up both for believing they were lying and the fact that they thought I was stupid enough to believe the lie. Then I would start to wonder what they say about me behind my back. The were many different situations that could set off this line of thinking. My mind constantly creates and looks for personal slights and attacks. This makes forming bonds or a good working relationship with coworkers difficult because you’re always on the offensive. You are constantly questioning their motives and so their is no firm foundation on which to build a relationship.

Not having a good relationship with your coworkers can make work seem like an unfriendly place. Because I was not really involved in the social aspect of my work environment I had no allies and no buffers against my paranoid thoughts. If I thought a coworker was trying to attack on in some way I was more inclined to believe it because I didn’t really have any positive interactions to compare it against. I couldn’t go “Susie Q wouldn’t say something like that we’re cool.” So I felt disconnected from the workplace and coworkers. I came in and did my job but I didn’t really feel like I belonged there or that I fit. Feeling that disconnection further fed my paranoia and I never really felt comfortable at work.

Another thing that I struggle with in the workplace is consistent work performance. This is mostly due to my mood disorder but my schizophrenic symptoms play a part as well. When I’m depressed its really hard for me to care about my work because in the moment I don’t even care about myself. If I’m suicidal I’m probably not going to be concerned with productivity and giving 100%. Sometimes I have moods that are largely characterized by anger mixed with anxiety. If something at work upsets me during this period I may intentionally do a bad job to get back at whoever upset me, usually management. That anger can also set off impulsive and careless actions. Giving a consistent effort when you are dealing with shifting moods can really be a struggle and sometimes giving your best at your worst wont be enough. Taking time off is also an issue here, sometimes I need a day off to refocus and heal but taking too much time is frowned upon and you are looked at as lazy.

Working when you are experiencing symptoms is not easy. At my current job I work in a cubicle in a big office setting. There are a always a lot of people around and that, at times stresses me out. If i’m having a particularly bad day with my paranoia just the fact that people are walking around can trigger my anxiety. I feel like they are looking at me. All the constant talking, yea those conversations are about me. When I first started this job I didn’t know if I would be able to hang on but I did and managing my symptoms in this environment has gotten easier but every day is still a struggle.

I have a habit of thinking i’m not trying hard enough. I’m never sure when to be kind to myself and when to tell myself to suck it up. I usually end up telling myself to suck it up. I’m not sure if i’m a victim of ableism or not. I keep trying because thats all I know how to do.

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