Are You Seeing The Forest or The Tree?

Forest for the Trees.jpeg

I’ve wanted to talk about reasonable accommodation for a long time, but I had to leave my former employer before I felt comfortable doing that. It turns out not every employer takes the definition of “reasonable accommodation” to heart.

Reasonable accommodation says that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, employers can’t discriminate against you because of a qualified medical condition. The definition of disability is opaque. Suffice it to say most, if not all of us in the chronic and autoimmune community are covered.

But what does being covered by reasonable accommodation actually mean?

The ADA says that if our conditions get in the way of us performing our duties, employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for us. This can include special office furniture, flexible schedules/telework, or even altering duties. For over a decade I had informal accommodation, mostly in the form of telework to make up for doctors’ appointments that would have eaten through all my vacation time. I am a contractor, so I made arrangements with my client and company staff on the project. No one seemed to care as long as I got my work done, which I did.

That changed in the summer of 2016. The details of the situation are for the next posts, but this situation turned out to be so detrimental to my health that my doctor wrote a note saying I could no longer be on that project. Nineteen months later, I still haven’t recovered.

My former employer’s failure to comply with reasonable accommodation laws caused more damage than I thought, and not just physically. One of the people responsible for the decision to keep me in the bad situation was someone I’d worked with closely for nearly a decade. I trusted him, which is not something I do easily or often.

When this colleague blocked my escape from the situation, it felt like betrayal, and man did that hurt. But instead of allowing myself to be sad and hurt, I did what they told me to and let righteous indignation sweep in to fill the vacuum where the hurt and sadness should have been. I built a bubble to protect myself from feeling what I didn’t want to. I was afraid that if I felt that, I would fall down a rabbit hole and not be able to climb out.

So, I built my bubble, and in doing so, I kept out all the good stuff, too: the excitement of a new job and good, impactful work; the satisfaction of maintaining this blog and connecting with some amazing people; and the support and plain old happiness I get from simply spending time in the company of people I love and trust. The mental effort it takes to maintain a protective bubble like that is massive. That’s the vicious circle I should have been looking at.

I have maintained my bubble since I started that awful project, and when my colleague, who was also my boss, couldn’t even be bothered to say, “Sorry to hear you’re leaving. Good luck in your new job,” a couple of months ago, it made it worse. After a decade there was not even an attempt at common decency, so I withdrew even more. Without the good to balance the bad, I felt more and more exhausted, making me less and less inclined to attend to my own health needs.

Now that I know what to look for, it will be easier to let go of my bubble, especially now that I don’t work for that company anymore. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. I will have to allow myself to feel things I don’t want to feel and just be ok with it – my version of “leaning in.” That might take a while.

While I am not in a good place right now, I am not in a state of mind meriting a formal diagnosis, but obviously, my mental health has had a major effect on me physically, and it has derailed me for now. I believe it was actually dangerous for a while, with my diabetes out of control, and the resulting weight gain, which makes everything worse physically and metabolically. The one thing I did right, even during the worst of it, was go back to my therapist. I had been doing so well before that, I hadn’t needed treatment. But I needed it then. It felt like a lifeline.

Everyone has issues, sometimes more serious than other times. This is why it’s so important to have someone who can help -- a good therapist, access to a hotline (link to hotline listing), or someone who is trained to help you out of the more serious issues. I may have gone years trying to hold up my bubble, fighting with myself over what got my limited energy. Now it’s time to make improving my mental health a priority, and with it will come the energy I need to put myself back together physically. Or at least it will be a big step in the right direction.