Dispatches from the Working Life

  • My day job is that of a public service librarian. I've literally made who I am, what I do. Interacting with patrons-members of the public-could be challenging, yet it's rewarding. I have the kind of job that allows me to be cheerful, gregarious and creative. It requires me to be cool under pressure and use my sense of humor.

     

    I've been here seven years and counting, and I've learned some things along the way that I want to share with those of you who desire to find part-time or full-time work. First, in the past five years, I've met numerous people with schizophrenia who are librarians. I much prefer public service to work in corporations. The collegial atmosphere satisfies my need for a nurturing workplace.

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    Three years ago, I "accidentally" disclosed what happened to me, via the employee newsletter. In October 2004, NAMI-Staten Island honored me as one of three volunteers of the year for my "courageous" accomplishments and leadership in improving the lives of people living with mental illness and their families.

     

    The Staten Island Advance, the local newspaper, printed a detailed bio of why the non-profit chose me, listing my work as the Living Life columnist for Schizophrenia Digest, and my extensive public speaking. A co-worker who lives on the Island saw the article and congratulated me, threatening to send it to the employee newsletter if I didn't.

     

    Little did I know the newsletter staff lifted the good news word-for-word from the newspaper. Co-workers congratulated me. One woman said, "You do so much volunteer work I feel like a slacker next to you." I don't know why it barely registered that I have schizophrenia-a serious medical condition that caused me to have a breakdown. I can only speculate that because I proved myself in the trenches with them, they respected me as someone they could trust.

     

    In the 1990s, early on in my work life, I knew that I would have to "act as if" I was already at the place I wanted to be, in order to be taken seriously. I dressed slightly better than my position called for, even though I was only an administrative assistant. It helped that I had a natural interest in dressing well. Mind you, http://www.dressforsuccess.org/ offers gently worn professional clothing for women, and http://www.careergear.org/ does the same for men, so money isn't an obstacle if you can't afford good suits.

     

    In the public speaking I do, invariably audience members ask, "What if I get a job offer? Should I invoke the ADA Act?" I believe you need to prove yourself, show your boss you can do the job as good or better than others, without disclosing. In 17 years of employment, I haven't required reasonable accommodations. If you do need them, speak up only after you're given the job, and before your illness causes havoc on your job performance.

     

    Another question everyone asks is, "What if I have to take my pills at work?" I was at a loss for what to say until it hit me in the face: take them. If you're accepted by your co-workers, do your job well, and have developed a rapport with them, chances are they won't bat an eye. So many people in America are taking drugs for one reason or another.

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    Myself, I sometimes work in the evening and have to take my meds with dinner. I've decided not to buy in to the self-stigma by worrying what my co-workers think. The bottom line: take your pills discreetly, but do take them. If someone asks, "What are they for?" you can say something like, "a multi-vitamin." It would be rude of the co-worker to press you after that.

     

    I'll tell you the truth: co-workers are just that: co-workers. Ideally the workplace will be like an extended family, but not always. You have the right to keep your personal information private. You also need to remember that you're there to carry out the mission of your company, and as long as you contribute positively to its bottom line, that's all that matters. Your real life often begins after five o'clock, so that's where your true friends will lie.

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    Do I suggest you disclose your condition to your employers or co-workers? Yes and no. It depends if you need to or not. For peer advocate jobs, which I recommend you apply for only if you're stable in your recovery, disclosure is routine. My job is in the mainstream-I'm a City employee-so I didn't have to disclose. I also have a union job, so it's virtually "fire-proof" as long as I don't royally screw up.

     

    To this day I'm not sure why I risked doing so. I know that in the "good news" section of the employee newsletter, it boasted of everyone else's awards and honors, so I felt I had the right to also be recognized.

     

    With the schizophrenia, it's possible co-workers will detect something-even if you haven't disclosed. I find that where I work co-workers aren't evil or backstabbing, like they were when I worked in business. Nobody's taken advantage of me. It's my firm belief that society should offer "protection" for those of us who are differently abled, going so far as to create jobs for people with disabilities, based on what we can do, even if it's limited.

     

    So much of my illness now is touch-and-go, yet I can say I enjoy my work and it helps me manage my symptoms. Just today I had a pleasant exchange with a woman who came to the reference desk. She recommended I read Night by Elie Wiesel.

     

    At work, it feels like I'm on stage. I'm out in the world every day interacting with people. To feel productive is the greatest feeling for me-I knew as soon as I got out of the hospital the first time that I had to go to work to boost my self-esteem.

     

    As it is, I rarely watch TV-I didn't when I first got sick, and I don't now, because to fill my head with too much information-including commercials-would actually numb me. I wanted more for myself. And that's your God-given right, too: to determine how you want to live your life.

     

    In future blogs, I'll talk specifically about ways to find the career you're suited for and would be interested in. Right now, I'll say that you could start out by doing volunteer work or an internship. Maybe one day your dream will come true and you'll have this kind of life. It really is possible for someone with schizophrenia.

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    I've been told I have a smile that could light up a room. Finding the job you like-and lighting up someone else's life in the process-is a true hallmark of recovery.

     

Published On: August 02, 2007