Scars & stigma

We’re in the process of job hunting in my world again, or at least, Rose is. Some industries tend towards the kind of contract or short term grant based work that make this a regular occurrence. I remember the days of job hunting before I came down with Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia, and it was a pretty simple business. Write a nice resume, arrange some referees, and send them out.

Now, the resume is only the start. Rose spends entire days writing long, detailed letters that must address each point of a job description. It’s basically like a math equation given in word form: If John had seven oranges… You have to repeat all the information that’s already in your resume, in interesting sounding ways, and big note yourself for pages whilst also sounding humble and grounded. Then you might get to an interview. This often requires bringing in a truly astonishing collection of forms already filled out. Some interviews also contain written test components and require you to wait while they are scored and then be called back. One really frightening one went for most of a day and involved a bunch of psychological assessments and group work with all the other hopeful applicants. I find myself increasingly jaded by the whole idea that this is a good way to select an appropriate employee. It seems like a good way of recruiting very slick, charming, narcissistic people, and probably a good few psychopaths. I know a lot of brilliant, caring, highly committed people who would never shine in this kind of setting. Fortunately, Rose does.

We were chatting with friends today about issues of disclosure around mental health when job seeking. For those of us with visible scars from self harm, it can be very challenging to confront questions in interviews. It always plays against you, no matter that is often part of a past that involves a lot of wisdom and strength and self awareness to have survived. There was talk about checking over the organisational policies to try and get a feel for their stance on mental illness in their employees. The consensus was to wear long sleeves and keep it hidden. One friend did that for the entire duration of her job because the organisation treated employees with mental health problems as liabilities. This was a mental health organisation, offering support to people in the community. The wrongness of this makes me sick.

All these places talking about stigma as if they have the answers, as if they, the enlightened few are here to tell everyone else, the ignorant masses, how to be better people. And these places are so often hotbeds of systemic stigma and discrimination. I remember when I spoke at Parliament House about mental illness, disability, and barriers to employment. I was asked what the government could do to encourage employers to retain people with disabilities. I said – lead by example and show it can be done. Demonstrate how to overcome every concern and issue the wider community expresses, with transparency and dialogue. Then people will be less afraid and more willing to engage. It might have been my imagination but this didn’t seem to go over brilliantly. The problem is never with us, and the solution is never ours to implement. It’s always someone else’s fault and someone else’s responsibility. We stand around telling each other to be brave and honest and  our every other sentence is a lie.

I’m very angry about this tonight. My faith and my hope keep being rewarded with hypocrisy and harm. Oddly enough, I’m starting to be glad that the Dissociative Initiative has been so hard to get off the ground, that most of those who shared my dream have been occupied by other dreams, or become too overwhelmed by the needs of their condition, to continue with me. It’s breaking my heart, but it’s also saving me from a form of failure that comes wrapped in a package that looks frighteningly like success. I’m starting to think that organisations or any kind of corporate structures should not have anything to do with the support of people in pain. But oh, how I do miss my little team. How my heart hurts every time someone emails me saying, please when is that Bridges group starting again? And how angry I feel every time I confront the sick reality of the profoundly flawed frameworks we have constructed with which to engage the most wounded, vulnerable, lost, and suffering members of our community.

Why do I need a job and an income? Can’t I just open a shelter for everyone who needs it? How do I engage without burning out? How do I not scream with frustration at the burden of all the terrible things I hear, when I walk in a world that is mostly unaware of this suffering? Trapped in secrecy and lies and the requirement that we pretend not to be what we really are, as if self harm scars are slave brands or the tattoos of a criminal, shameful pasts that you cannot escape but must forever conceal. As if being human and having suffered is something to be ashamed of, a weakness, a liability. This is wrong! I hate it! I hate it and I refuse to have any part in it. I will not lie, I will not conceal, I will stand and be counted, I will use my voice to speak for all those who cannot, because the risk to job, or to family is too great. This is wrong. Structures without courage or integrity cannot ever really serve people. They may abuse openly or poison slowly, but they always do harm. There is always a cost for engaging with them. It’s always too high.

12 thoughts on “Scars & stigma

  1. have had the need to self harm and due to the extreme heat waves in my State over the last month or so I have been acutely aware of how exposed any scars could be to others. I am a leader in my work place I want to be confident enough to challenge the myths re self harm, and often do in Professional Development programs I present and in the way I support clients and staff with issues. But when I am unwell and my little ones are raging my confidence to so this weakens. As a consequence I have recently chosen to self harm in places that are often covered, even by very summery clothes.


    • I’m sorry to hear you’ve been struggling with this lately, and there’s such a requirement of secrecy. Your ability to adapt to those requirements and find ways of meeting your needs while keeping your job is a good thing! I reckon that capacity will probably also help you figure out other ways of meeting those needs when you’re under less stress too. Take care.


      • Thanks. By seeing the time see you replied I’m inferring you must be having trouble sleeping too 😦 I’ve had the week or so from hell, experiencing such visual reminders of some of my abuse incidents in nightmares that I’ve woken up choking, in pain and utterly terrified. I am not enjoying my body remembering it’s pain.


        • Ugh, that’s really hard!! Actually, I was lucky, last night I was in bed late because I stayed out late visiting a friend and having a good time and taking a lot about the DI and what it would take to get it running again, and how challenging and rewarding friendships between multiples can be. I hope you find some relief from the body memories, hang in there.


  2. Hi Sarah,

    this entry leaves me feeling lots of different things. I hope some day when I get my wife thru the healing process, she will let us be part of the solution. I agree with you and am angry how people with mental health issues are treated, and yet for that very reason, my wife demands that we keep her d.i.d. a secret so that she doesn’t have to deal with how others would/might treat her.


    • I completely understand her concerns, and I get that the need to protect people’s privacy sometimes makes it really hard to be as much of an activist or advocate for them as we would like.


  3. Wow. You could be writing the story of my life. Seriously, I went through a whole lot of this in my last job. It was a dysfunctional work environment, where I had to lie about my illness and hide it. That stressed me out so much that I ended up breaking down and not being able to function there, and it was a mental health treatment center that I worked at as a therapist. I totally lost my touch with reality being under such intense pressure there. I basically had to keep my illness hidden because the attitude that the majority of the upper management had towards the patients we were serving was one of looking down on them. Now granted, I don’t think I should be treating people with mental illnesses and addictions if my judgements are off, which they were, but not one person in management there asked me if I needed any help or bothered to find out why I was doing so poorly and making no sense. Instead they decided I was a burden to their organization and a possible liability. Therefore it was not their responsibility to do anything but fire me. Then the courts wonder why people who are applying for disability due to mental illness aren’t able to work. Our society, especially in America, where I am, is one that has no use for people with mental illness. The fear people in the general public have is so high also, due to shootings here, where the person who does the shooting is always considered to be “crazy”. My own family can’t even deal with my illness, so I have to hide it around them. Trying to not switch parts around them, when they are the main triggers for me, is difficult and makes me avoid most activities with them sadly. I’ve been ostracized by them in the past though and I can’t risk having to handle that again. Sigh. I feel your pain.


    • Growl, I’m so sorry to hear that! It’s deeply frustrating. We are READY for a paradigm change in this sector, I really believe we are, I just have figure out how to kick it off… I’m sorry you had that experience and I wish you’d been better supported.


      • Thanks Sarah. If you get that paradigm change started, kick some across the ocean to America. God knows we need it here too.


        • I’m certain I’m not the only one working on it, and I know we need it everywhere!! I do believe that everything we do, all us little people, does, step by step, move us closer. I wish it was bigger and faster and easier, but every bit of compassion and connection and community makes a difference. x


I appreciate hearing from you

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s