I’ve had pet rabbits for a number of years. Barson, Frito, Bailey, Emo, Bennett, and Happy to date. All good bunnies, a lot smarter than I thought they’d be (I got my first rabbit in college and had no life experience with the critters), and mischievous as all get out, each and every one of them.
Let’s talk about Emo. She was a tiny rabbit, and she died of kidney failure. There were no signs of illness in her, although the vet said she had been sick for at least a month. As the vet explained it, prey animals instinctually “hide” their illness until they just can’t any longer. Why? Because in the wild, a prey animal that shows illness betrays itself as easy prey for lazy predators who pick off the young and the weak (an instinct of predatory animals, as it is).
Something about this vet’s explanation of why it seemed Emo got sick “overnight” got me to thinking about how many times I’ve been fired over the years. Think about this. I new I was starting to get symptoms. They were getting worse. However, I had a young son and wife to support, and if I took the time off necessary to treat the upwelling symptoms, then I would also be betraying myself as “sick” to my coworkers and boss, and that ran the great potential of being “let go” for some reason that had nothing to do with the actual illness per se, but definitely I would be “let go” based on stigmatization associated with mental illness. Don’t argue with me on this one. It’s true.
So what was my option? I hid the symptoms as best I could, all the way until I couldn’t any longer, and then I was in now in crisis with severe mental health symptoms necessitating inpatient treatment regularly.
Emo hid her illness by instinct, and had I known when her kidneys were first having troubles, there are medications that could have helped her live a longer life. Rabbit instinct is to hide it until it’s essentially too late to reverse the damage.
I would hide my illness similarly, because I didn’t want to lose my job, until it was too late to reverse the damage . . . and I lost the job anyway.
This is not an uncommon story amongst peers. And when it hit me that many current employment models are built on the foundation of staying well to accommodate the job (such as to be able to keep a productive 9 to 5 position), it also hit me that jobs should be available to peers to accommodate their symptoms.
As usual, let me give you an example. When I was chairing Local Collaborative 2 in Albuquerque, I hired a young man with a mental health diagnosis as my administrative assistant. He was to maintain my schedule, manage my communications, set up my meetings, etc. The thing is, one of his worst symptoms was a sleep hygiene nearly impossible to maintain. So, I hired him, and I told him, “You need to be at every meeting. Other than that, do the rest of the work when you’re awake.” Boom. I created a job for a peer that ACCOMMODATED HIS SYMPTOMS rather than forcing him to stay “well” in order to do the job. And get this. He took initiative at every turn. He made my life easy, although managing LC2 was incredibly taxing on me personally.
With programs like OPRE’s CPSW training and the jobs being made available to CPSWs, there are more and more job models that work on the premise of getting help for the peer long before crisis occurs. The recovery from crisis, in my experience, is so much harder than getting additional help when my symptoms become harder to manage. And, keeping me outpatient is much less traumatic . . . and ultimately less expensive for insurance companies, if you need a practical fiscal justification.
Still, the pervasive employment model of forcing a peer to stay “healthy” to keep their job is so similar to prey animals instinctually hiding their illness until it’s too late to help them . . . it’s almost instinctual for a peer to think in terms of “I have to hide the symptoms and force myself to e ‘normal’ so I won’t lose my job.”
Or lose custody of my son.
Or lose my girlfriend.
Or lose my family.
Or lose my et cetera.
The models are wrong. Accommodate the peer’s symptoms, don’t force the peer to hide being ill. It’s the humane thing to do, and all the cool kids are creating new job models like the singular one I did. You want to be one of the cool kids, right? Sure you do.
We’re people with skills, talents, and intelligences like everyone has to offer. Don’t force us to behave like a rabbit with malfunctioning kidneys. If that sounds ludicrous, it unfortunately isn’t. Be one of the cool kids.
By the by, we at Stand Up To Stigma are creating education programs to help employers develop peer-accommodating employment models. We’re part of the cool kids.