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"How do you like working here?"
My son and I were washing our hands in the bathroom at the grocery store. As was our habit on weekends, we'd driven over the mountains to the nearby university beach town to pick up picnic food and watch the dogs play in the surf. Frequently, we'd stop at this location for pick-me-ups: coffee, vegan blueberry donuts, and self-serve salads.
The store in question, a national chain, was widely recognized for inclusive hiring standards, local sourcing, and organic produce. It was also well-known for its excellent employee practices. Among its benefits included paid employee training, medical benefits, and internal promotions.
"Are you looking for a position?" The woman, a prepared foods employee sporting the store uniform smiled warmly. I briefly explained my culinary history and availability. "My manager is hiring. I can direct you to him if you have time to stick around for a few minutes."
We did, browsing the selection of salad ingredients until the manager appeared. My son busied himself with a muffin, while I chatted with the team leader about my previous culinary experience. The conversation seemed to strike a good chord.
"We could start you in as soon as three weeks," he noted, shaking my hand. "Follow up with the online application, and we'll complete your phone screening tomorrow."
On schedule, my phone rang around noon the next day.
"Your online application looks good," he said. "I'm going to ask you a few questions."
His inquiries were geared towards personality fit. He inquired how I might handle a conflict with a coworker, whether I'd need additional support for the role, and how I'd organize my time. I'd been honest since we'd met in the deli section, explaining my knife skills were rusty but I had more than adequate knowledge of culinary theory and operations.
On our phone interview, I was nervous. There were considerable gaps in my resume due to my illness. For periods of three months to two years, between jobs, I'd spent my time in psychiatric hospitals or at home recuperating. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, my resume gaps should be covered under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant hiring practices if a manager were to complain. During the phone interview, the manager's main concern was whether or not I'd been fired from a position before.
I had, back in April of the previous year. I'd resigned by request from a management position after nine weeks; my employers gave me the option to leave on my own terms. With no previous management experience, I was a poor fit. I filled the role until someone else could take its place.
"I can work with that," he replied. "It's attitude that counts for our team, and I like your responses. I'd like you to come in tomorrow to meet with my bosses. We'll decide then if the position is a good fit."
The next day, I arrived at the store, dressed in a button-down, black slacks, and non-slip shoes. His managers — two sharp, perceptive women — led me to a conference room. A team event was going on in the room next door; I could hear laughter and the sounds of a foosball game.
"It's our annual employee appreciation week," one manager explained. "We try to support our team as much as possible."
The interview questions were rapid, targeted again towards attitude, personality, and positivity. I offered feedback on work conduct: which responsibilities I could and couldn't handle, my strengths and weaknesses, my areas of expertise in the kitchen, whether or not I'd be interested in growth in the company, and how long I'd preferably stay.
"I see you working well with customers," one manager said, "I'd like to consider you for a counter position. We start at part-time, on probation, with one weekend day and several floating days during the week. Are you comfortable with that?"
I was. The main manager and I discussed details about start date and pay. However, the manager I initially interviewed with interrupted the conversation.
"Look," he said, "you gave a great interview, but I have some concerns on your resume. There are quite a few gaps here, and your employment experience doesn't account for them."
"I have an illness recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act," I explained.
"Do you have the work experience you claim to have? Is there something missing here?" he interjected. His hands, clutching his elbows, had turned purple from squeezing them.
Sometimes, my facial recognition skills aren't strong. It's a subtle symptom of my illness. Looking at his purple hands, wrung tight from tension, I knew I'd missed a behavioral cue. But which one? I thought about his words: "You gave a great interview." Why then, after discussing hours, pay, and a start date, was he pulling back? We'd discussed my resume gaps on the phone. Was my resume an actual issue or an excuse to falter on the job offer?
His questions, unmentioned during our phone interview, surfaced. Why hadn't I graduated college? Why did I start culinary school and not finish? Where was my fine dining experience on my resume? Why were my internships short? Struggling to hide mounting anxiety, I offered brief, polite answers. When none seemed to reassure him, I came clean.
"My illness comes in episodes, hence the gaps in my resume. Sometimes, they're longer than others. It's a schizophrenia-spectrum illness."
Schizophrenia is an elusive word. Few understand that, like most mental illnesses, it's a spectrum, with multiple subtypes and an array of symptoms. Both my diagnoses are categorized as serious mental illnesses (SMI). According to the National Institute for Mental Health, approximately 9.8 million Americans find themselves in my position: seeking employment with a stigmatized health condition.
An employer, hearing schizophrenia, often assumes the worst: violence. However, violence is rarely due to mental illness alone. In a study by the American Psychological Association, only 4% of criminals' behavior was due to schizophrenia, and only 10% due to bipolar disorder.
While no criminal, I'd exhibited violent behavior during episodes. Unflattering details of my illness are available online: promiscuity, depression, and volatile rage. Beyond my articles online, local court documents describe my suicide attempt and episodes involving my child. Once, in a fit of rage, I'd spanked my son, destroying my parenthood in a single blow; my ex-husband pressed charges. Whether or not I like it, I have experienced the violence of my diagnosis.
Where employment was concerned, was my recovery good enough? It had been over 18 months since I'd been symptomatic. I'd held service-industry jobs, cared for my child on weekends, and had flattering personal references. I'd balanced the precarious tight rope of living with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Would my current behavior be enough to offset my track record?
Unfortunately, this is not how potential employers approach hires. The public reacts to schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses by the vocabulary we learn from the media: public shootings, homicidal crimes, and unpredictable behavior. Given my diagnosis, was I likely to be hired if knives and other sharp equipment were present? It seemed unlikely.
Despite presenting good character and sound judgment, I knew my interview was over.
The culinary manager stood up and turned to his bosses.
"We're going to need to speak in the hallway for a few minutes. We'll let you know what we decide when we return."
The job offer was no longer on the table, no doubt about it. Shortly after, the manager would return, with a legally acceptable cover for why not to hire me. I'd been in this situation before, sitting across from an employer for a position I was qualified for, with the choice between honesty and employment.
I'd needed to disclose my illness because episodes do happen. They happen often, when cortisol levels reach too high, when we adjust my medications, when I experience rejection or romantic slights, when I do not get enough sleep, when there is family tension, when I get a physical illness, when I am tired. For my mental health, the tipping point is fragile. Stability is not a constant state but a brief experience to savor.
With each relapse, disability paperwork sits on my desk, beckoning me to give in, to watch movies and reality TV shows, to resign to living at home with my parents. I forcefully resist a life where I have no personal agency: no money, no achievements, no independence. In an act of defiance against my disease, I keep applying to jobs, unwilling to wave a white flag of permanent adolescence. Yet each time, the same thing happens. A hiring manager steps back in and delivers the news: "We're keeping our options open for other candidates."
Schizophrenia is unpredictable and misunderstood. While illegal, these hiring decisions reflect not the company but the fears of the individuals themselves. Shaking the employer's hand, the few times they'll let me, I choose to walk away gracefully. "Thank you for the opportunity," I say, meaning every word.