Why I Had to Leave My Job

October 22, 2014 § 5 Comments

Y’all madfolks (and non-madfolk allies) might not know that in my other life–when I’m not blogging about bipolarity or whatnot–I work as a social justice organizer and community educator. Or that in my previous life I was an academic, that I came up in the academy writing about issues of embodiment and was greatly politicized there around issues of disability justice. Anyway–

I made the decision to leave my current position the other day at a community organization that does impressive and absolutely vital social justice work in my hometown. This organization is very effective in challenging the broader powers that be, but the internal dynamics are also very difficult. I’ve come to believe that this is because of the constant confrontational stance we deliberately take vis a vis power structures–we end up turning on ourselves in ways we become accustomed to position ourselves in relation to oppressive forces externally. So there’s a lot of bickering, a lot of unnecessary meanness, a lot of public scoldings. There’s also a kind of manic intensity to the work that makes it really hard to draw boundaries and take care of yourself.

Leaving was a hard decision for awhile, and for awhile I didn’t know I was even making it–I just kept hearing a little voice whispering slow down, take a break–and then, yesterday morning, it became not hard at all.

What happened was this: the past few weeks have been stressful and I started getting sick. Physically, but more problematically in terms of its disruption to my everyday functioning, mentally. I started having a lot of anxiety and then began to rev up and feel manic (er, hypomanic I guess). When that happens I don’t necessarily need to do anything more than scale things back and slow down. Reduce my stimulus. Focus on one foot after the other, cautiously. I still feel that if I had been able to just take like a month off last spring, I wouldn’t have needed to go into the hospital. But I wasn’t able to–or felt I wasn’t able to, plus I was manic so I didn’t want to stop–so I just kept getting worse and worse, and then I crashed into depression and had to take a week off anyway because I became unable to work. And at that point, I was having so many symptoms that, even with a week off, I could not put off psychiatric care even a few days, at which point I checked myself into the hospital. At that point I had just been diagnosed and was completely unmedicated, so I was desperate to see someone and get on the right meds so that I could keep going without having to break down completely. So that’s what happened last spring, and why since then I’ve been very concerned to maintain boundaries around my time–because if I get too stressed out or can’t keep a regular schedule, I start having symptoms.

Now, my boss knows about my bipolar diagnosis. I was very open with my coworkers about getting diagnosed and going to the hospital. (Though I did not tell anyone about my even more stigmatized borderline diagnosis–ha.) And I’ve had conversations with my boss about the kinds of things I need to do to maintain stability and how that affects my performance at work. So when I started having symptoms this past week, I decided that I would let people know that I needed to scale back some of what I’d been working on. What always tips us over into dysfunctionality as an organization is that the amount of programming we do is very intense–we basically have a big community event every weekend, plus long term planning for even bigger community events–and then, because we are also a social justice organization, we feel compelled to jump in as community organizers when urgent issues arise. Which they always do. And which is okay, because we care about those issues. But it’s just that little extra when we’re already at capacity that ends up making me sick.

So yesterday when I went into work, I told my boss that I had been having a lot of panic and manic energy and requested that some of the organizing work be delegated to other folks so that I could focus just on programming, thinking that if there was a more critical need it was the programming we were doing. In other words, I told her I was getting sick and asked for accommodations. She got very frustrated and irritable and scolded me by saying that if I delegated those tasks, I’d be putting more pressure on the full time workers who were already doing a million things and staying till 9pm every night etc. She granted the accommodation, telling me just to focus on the organizing work, but she also made me feel like shit in the process and implicitly suggested that it was my illness that was the problem, not the insane workload or how we divide up the labor.

(Note that “full time” at my work means available for *everything* and willing to work as much as it takes–sometimes 50-60 hours a week–to get it done. Note too that I am the ONLY worker in the organization with a child. Or a partner who also lives with psychiatric disability. And so the stakes involved in my staying stable are high.)

After this exchange, I left the building because we were asked to move our cars from the lot for other folks who needed to park there. I texted my boss that I was very upset from our conversation and that I was taking some space to cool off, would return to finish something I had left unfinished, and then leave again. I called my partner and cried. I called my mentor and cried. She told me to come over to her house right away, where she reassured me that what happened wasn’t my fault. Afterwards I went back to work and finished what I said I would finish. And then I left again.

Somewhere between work and home I came to the understanding that I’d had enough and needed to leave, and started composing a letter in my head. When I got home, I wrote it all out and sent it to all the staff members and the board of the organization. Before I paste the letter here, I should say that I’ve left other intensely stressful jobs in dramatic ways and I wonder what this means–is it part of my illness/instability, that I become so anxious that I get crazy? Or am I more attracted to crazy, high stress work environments because of my own intensity? Or is the world just generally unaccommodating to folks more vulnerable to panic and affective/energetic swings?

Anyway, here is what I wrote, with apologies for the funky formatting–for some reason when I paste text, it loses its paragraph returns:

I am writing to let everyone know that effective at the end of this month, I’ll be leaving as staff.
My reasons are simple: I am a person with a disability–albeit invisible most of the time–and find the organizational culture to be ableist (and also transphobic [I’m not trans but my friend who works there is]) in ways that are really upsetting. While we as an organization are badass and do powerful, important work in the community, the internal dynamics of the organization also feel unhealthy for me.
It’s not because I am incompetent or defective or abnormal or weak or fragile or lazy or uncommitted or don’t want to help others–that is ableist.
It’s not because I’m not up to the challenge of social justice work–that is ableist.
It’s not because needing to take care of ourselves is selfish and individualistic–that is ableist. We take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others–whether those others are children, parents, partners, or the community.
It’s not because, as someone with privileges of color and education and sexuality, I have the luxury of drawing boundaries around my time. I do have those privileges, but I draw boundaries around my time because I actually don’t have a choice. There are very real consequences for my health and for my child if I don’t draw those boundaries. Like privileges of color or gender identity or sexuality or education, there are also privileges that come from not having medical conditions or life circumstances that interfere with your ability to work all the time, even when it’s the work of social justice movement building.
It’s not because part-time workers are not doing their fair share and causing full-time workers to work too much. That pits workers against each other and undermines solidarity and teamwork, when in fact those are policy decisions outside our control as workers. Or, if they are in our control, they are collective decisions that we are all responsible for.
The deeper problem is that requiring full-time staff to work 50+ hours a week and be available at all times privileges a certain kind of ability. Who can live up to that kind of demand except someone who is able-bodied and without significant responsibilities to vulnerable others?
As I’ve learned from the disability justice movement, it is not people with disabilities who are the problem; the problem is social environments that are disablING. This is as true of social justice spaces as it is of wider society.
As [famous indigenous rights activist] told me a couple weeks ago, you need to take breaks when you need to, in order to keep going in this work. She said that when she was at the peak of [famous indigenous rights movement], she got really sick and was forced to stop for awhile. She said she was forced to take a break for a few months. And yet when we hear her speak, it seems like we only see an icon of strength and toughness and refusal to give up. We don’t see the person who gets sick and depressed, the person who wants to give up, the person who wants to do self-destructive things, and who needs to take a break so that it doesn’t get worse, so that she can keep going in a good way, coming from a place of love and healthiness. There’s no good way to talk about those kinds of things here, so we don’t learn good ways to handle that aspect of the work for ourselves or to support each other. We’re expected to keep a stiff upper lip and just keep pushing even if we’re hurting, because that proves your dedication to the community–and that’s ableist. I was so appreciative that [she] did talk about how hard it is and so appreciative that she helped me see that when I get depressed and want to give up, all I need to do is listen to myself and take a break when I need to. So that I can keep going.
So that’s what I need to to do. I feel like it’s hard for people who don’t live with (what we call) mental illness to understand, because for you it’s easy. You don’t get anxious or depressed or manic when you get stressed out–or you don’t get stressed out as easily–and you see other people who do as lazy or selfish. That’s probably just internalized stuff that I’m projecting, but that’s how it feels.
In any case, I love you all and I will always support the work [you do] in the community. I’m not angry at anyone, and I want you to know that I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned. [Description of various loose ends I’ll tie up.] I’ll be around and want to stay engaged in the community when I can. Because I care very much about the work.
After [x date – originally the end of the month, but I later decided not to go back at all], I do need a much more flexible, non-staff relationship to [organization]. I won’t be able to help with [super big huge community events coming up]–the intensity of the pace and the long hours involved are just too hard for me at this point. I hope you can understand.

***

That’s my story. :/

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