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.