Home > bipolar, depression, discrimination, employers, stigma, work > You Can Never Tell About Employers

You Can Never Tell About Employers

Since 2001, with a short break, I have worked for a university. I had to tell my first boss I am bipolar because there are some things I cannot do well depending on my mental state. For example, I cannot mark fifty test papers in a reasonable amount of time when I am depressed. The work is too repetitive. Luckily, she had another instructor take over my marking duties. Thankfully, I can deliver lectures and tutor students no matter what is going on in my head. Sometimes tutoring literally makes me crazy, and I hear my students’ voices 24 hours a day asking me questions, but I can deal with that. That’s okay. I also did some computer programming and sometimes I was very fast and sometimes I was pretty slow. Everyone knew I was bipolar and there was never a problem.

I had this idea of the university as a progressive employer with a protective human resources department, and an active union, and I figured I was in a safe place to have a disability.

In 2008, my first job with the university ended because we lost our funding. I got a job as a computer programmer in another department. I had 15 years experience as a professional programmer and I got a good (and deserved) reference from my former boss. For a while things went really well and I could do no wrong. My job was to write programs using confidential student data. I even had someone working under me. Then in 2009 I got hit with a depression and my deadlines started to slip. I thought my new boss deserved an explanation for my difficulties, so I told him I’m bipolar, too. Big mistake.

Suddenly his boss got involved. Suddenly I had to have daily status meetings. Suddenly I had to have every decision approved. I was told the university would make accommodations for my disability, but I had to be examined by their expert. Their expert was not a mental health expert, and he acknowledged to me personally that I he knew I was bipolar, but that he could make no mention of it because he wasn’t a doctor and was unqualified to make a diagnosis. I had my psychiatrist write a letter, which they “lost”. By my next appointment I had already been fired. Since I was not disabled after all, I was basically offered the same flex time I already had as an accommodation. You can be sure they rubbed their generous accommodation in my face later when they fired me.

Next they proved I was incompetent as a programmer. It is true that I have a degree in English, not Computer Science, and they made a big deal out of that. However, as I said I had been a professional programmer for 15 years at that point and I had a pretty good record. It didn’t matter. The head boss, who is not a programmer, decided that any bug produced during development was a sign of incompetence. Basically, according to her, you have to write your code 100% correct the first time. Therefore, I was incompetent. If you know anything about programming, this is utter bullshit. Never mind that none of the other programmers could program this way, either.

I was moved out of my office and isolated from my team mates. I was excluded from a new project where I had clear expertise. I was told repeatedly how I was failing to meet expectations (except now, years later I don’t think I was actually doing that badly).

I was so depressed that I believed every word of it. I made no effort to defend myself. Neither did the union for some reason. Maybe they felt that if I didn’t care then why should they care.

Instead I planned to end my life. That was something that actually made me feel really good. It felt like a way I could take control of the situation. I also got angry one day and I told someone at the HR department that I was going to kill myself. It got back to my psychiatrist, so I guess they didn’t lose his letter after all.

Luckily, before things got that far I got fired. It was such a relief. The head boss was so self-important about how she had been so patient and so generous and how I just hadn’t met anyone’s expectations.

I think the reality is that she didn’t trust someone who is mentally ill with the confidential student data (which, to be fair is extremely valuable and which is protected by strict government regulations). She couldn’t legally get rid of me for being mentally ill, so she had to prove I wasn’t, then that I was merely incompetent. So much for the university being a safe place for the disabled.

For 10 months I looked for work, convinced that I could never program again. Then, a software company saw my resume on Workopolis and contacted me about a programming job. I was so desperate, I offered to write them a sample program. They were very impressed and they hired me. It’s a small company: basically the owner and a bunch of programmers. The owner is a complicated guy, but he’s very much a businessman. Everything has a price tag. Despite impressing him at first, I put my foot in my mouth badly a couple of times. It seemed I could never say the right thing. Eventually I just kept my mouth shut and wrote my programs. Lo and behold I was doing it right. Lo and behold I was doing it just like the other “real” programmers. The other programmers told the boss about me and suddenly I was the boss’ new best friend. Wow.

So eventually depression reared its ugly head again, and again I started missing deadlines. Again, explanations were owed and again I sent apologetic emails, this time expecting the worst. Their response? “Take care of your health.”

You never can tell.

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