“Do you consider yourself to have a disability?” – a bipolar worker speaks out
“Do you consider yourself to have a disability?”; even if you’re completely open about your mental health disorder, you can’t help but think about it for a moment when you see this question in your job application. “Should I say yes?”, “is it considered a disability?”, “what difference would it make?” and so on.
I moved to London in September and applied for a countless amount of jobs. My criteria were clear- I want to work in a theatre or a cinema and I want to work in customer service as I have done since I was 16.
I couldn’t find many opportunities. It took two months until I finally came across something that seemed perfect, at my favourite London theatre. Filling out that application was stressful, and I decided to tick that “disabled” box. Keeping my bipolar disorder quiet in the past always hurt me (literally, put me in a place where I hurt myself physically) and I vowed after my last pill overdose five years ago I would never hide it again.
The next question was whether I require any adjustments for the interview. The only image that came to my mind then was of a physically disabled person who has problems with their mobility and would therefore need some sort of adjustment to accommodate them. So I wrote, “no, thank you” and moved on.
I got the job and no one ever stopped to ask, “what is the disability you mentioned in your application?”, in fact, legally they’re not allowed to, apparently. They’re not allowed to ask without my consent, and ticking a box isn’t enough for consent.
There were times I considered mentioning it to my managers, supervisors or colleagues, but then I didn’t want any special treatment. I wanted to be treated equally, and shouting it off the rooftops seemed odd and like it had nothing to do with anything.
However, my bipolar meant I took things a little differently. It meant being stressed, paranoid and anxious or getting depressed for no reason at times. It meant taking everything a little more personally and having moments in which all I wanted was to look myself in the staff toilets and cry nonstop. Unfortunately it also meant fighting with colleagues and those in charge because I have reached a point where I couldn’t take things anymore.
I was the one who vowed never to hide it, but because I didn’t come out with it straight away, it took me a couple of months until I gathered up the courage to apologize to everyone I felt I mistreated due to my symptoms and admitted “I will sometimes take things a little differently than I should, it’s because I’m bipolar. Please don’t misjudge me for it and if I act in a way that I shouldn’t, please talk to me about it”.
Most of my colleagues were very understanding and some adapted to this new “information”. Some had more problems dealing with it or were already too prejudiced against me to adapt. For example, some continued to misjudge and blame me for issues because of previous conflicts.
I don’t blame them, I don’t blame anyone. I still find it hard to understand or accept that I might, at times, think so differently and process things in a way that others don’t. People always tell us that we need to try and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, but what if the shoes are so tight it hurts to walk in them?
It did however; bring me to the point where it became unhealthy for me. Where I had to seek support once again since those terrible, harmful thoughts I haven’t had in 5 years crossed my mind once again. I got so scared of working sometimes, scared of what might be said to me and even more terrified of messing up, anything (which, at times, was a self-fulfilling prophecy).
It also meant I worked harder though, to make a good impression. I handled some situations so well I got amazing feedback from customers.
When I got to the point where I felt I can no longer continue this way- lying awake all night worrying about what might happen, not being able to eat cos you’re so afraid you might get fired for no reason (which also scares you twice as much when you’re not a contracted employee), losing hair, being constantly anxious, locking yourself in your room — that was when I finally turned and asked for help.
Once I turned to our union representative and was ready to discuss my condition, I found a lot of support from HR and even found out we have a welfare consultant in the building. I turned back to therapy and medication. But mainly returned to my mantra that “we need to talk about it”.
If I discussed it from the start, it could have made a difference. I truly believe that. First impressions are at times hardest to change (especially when they’ve been forming for a couple of months). It’s best to be honest from that very first moment. I am disabled because it affects me in every aspect of my life, and if I was a wheelchair user I wouldn’t hide the fact I need a wheelchair, so if I think or feel differently because of a condition, I should discuss it with those around me.
The only thing I suggest for us is to talk about it. Don’t hide or be ashamed of our disorderly friend because it is there whether we like it or not. It doesn’t make us bad employees — if anything, I feel like it made me much better with customers.
And for those working with us, our colleagues and managers, I suggest — be open-minded. If you can get training regarding mental health, even better because it is really hard to understand — it happens to me too when I talk to people with other mental health disorders.
From my own personal experience, the worst thing you can do is judge us or talk about us behind our backs. Nothing made me feel worse than hearing people are bad mouthing me behind my back. It was my sign that my anxiety and paranoia were all correct and were there for a reason. Don’t feed our monsters: talk to us.
Nothing made me feel better than a sense of security and support and it can make our day to day lives so much easier — or at least more bearable.