I asked Anna for a follow-up to the post she did exactly a year ago as so much has happened in her life I almost got dizzy following her life in Facebook and in messages. I asked her to focus on her work life for reasons you will understand when you read this but as much or more happened in her personal life!
A year ago, Pia asked me to write a guest entry for Odd Girl In about my life at the time. So much has happened since early 2013, that Pia thought it would be interesting for readers to hear how my story has unfolded in a that time, so here I am, readers of Psychology Today, fast forward one year in the future!
I loved 2013. It was a year of getting it together. I was asked to be in two college friends’ wedding, which took place in December. In 2013, I was finally offered a full-time job. And I ended up starting it and losing it in two weeks. I was in an amazing relationship that wasn't meant to last romantically beyond the year. I moved again, this time out of the house of my married friends who were helping me get on my feet to renting from another friend who needed a tenant. And it was the year I got my new career on track.
It was March of 2013 when I interviewed for, and was hired on the spot, to be a debt collector. That was not a career path that many people would picture me in. I almost didn’t apply, but when I kept seeing the job pop up everywhere I went, I decided I needed to give the application a try.
I decided to be excited about this job and find some way to enjoy it and make it my own. I was going to excel because it was a people-oriented verbal job and that’s what I was good at. I was going to make a living wage, and have a work schedule that allowed me to be more a part of the normal ebb and flow of society. I was choosing to love my job.
However, the job was not made for my learning style. You see, my NLD brain needs to learn from listening, taking notes, and asking clarification questions. If I can set up my on-the-job training this way, then I can learn the step-by-steps and programs for a new job that focuses on creativity, writing, or human interaction quickly. If the training cannot be set up that way, or my trainer doesn’t believe in teaching the way I need to learn, it will take me a very, very long time to catch on.
The company had a very specific training style for debt collecting: a week of classroom work, and then a week of jumping right on the phones, making real phone calls with real people, and you are really trying to collect debt. I needed to commit the script to memory, learn how to navigate through the computer program, do math calculations, and figure out how to deal with a real person on the other end, all at the same time. When I describe that, people usually tell me that sounds like it would be hard for everyone. It’s not. My brain takes details apart. I see all the small tasks as separate pieces. I need someone to frame the big picture for me, and help me talk myself through the details. When I learn that way, I’m a learning whiz. When you tell me to just do it, I crash and burn.
Now that I know myself so much better than I did before my diagnosis, you'd think I would have been able to speak up the minute I found out we had two days of practice on the phones with real people before we'd be sent off to do our jobs FOR REAL. But here is the problem that happens in my life time and again; I still don’t know how to ask for what I need from people who don’t understand that people have different kinds of minds.
I was part of a class of four new hires. I couldn't think of how to speak up in a way that wasn't “disclosing my disability” (disclosure is always up for debate in the world of workers with hidden disabilities. We are often discouraged to do it because employers are not trained in what it means to have a hidden disability). I didn’t want to draw awkward attention to myself.
While I tried to think of how to explain the situation to my trainer, I just started doing what she asked. And I started failing. It was so humiliating. One of my least favorite things in life is when I look in the face of someone who is watching me fail, especially when failure is not an option.
We had a chance to privately discuss our progress with the trainer, but it was way too late in the process. I let her know about my “learning style” rather than telling her I had something she had never heard of before. Many people think “I have dyslexia, I have ADD, I have ________” is “using your diagnosis as an excuse.” I think it’s the best explanation you can give regarding the reality of the situation. Still, I have to live in a world that doesn’t see the unique way someone’s mind works the way I do.
She let me know that I had not improved at all, which was no surprise to me. I knew what we were doing was not how I learn, so I was not going to improve. She told me that the job was not for everyone, and people either got it or they didn’t get it at all. For me, that wasn’t true. I know I have to learn differently than most people. The problem is many people do not believe me because most people don’t learn the way I do. When someone doesn’t understand that and they are in charge of my learning I don’t know what else to do but try my best to conform, and fail.
I had the morning of the next day to show improvement. I had to give it a try, even though if I was being honest with myself, I knew I couldn’t learn the way they expected, and I certainly couldn’t learn that way in one morning. I came in an hour early for work the next day to make sure I was prepared, my heart pounding, and my stomach hurting. How can you not have anxiety when you are about to set yourself up to face failure head on?
I tried so hard to conform my learning to the way that most people take in information. Like every time before, it didn’t work. I was let go from my new position by 3pm that day. I was brought into the trainer’s office, with my hiring manager to get the news. I tried one last time to explain that I knew I could learn the job if I was taught in a different way. They both just stared at me. I couldn’t be unemployed again! I had worked only part time and been self employed the last couple of years, I didn’t qualify for unemployment anymore. I couldn’t get disability on NLD alone. I was found to be too emotionally healthy to get it from the depression or anxiety that can come with NLD. In a panic I disclosed my NLD.
My face flushed red and my heart started pounding. They just stared at me. It meant nothing to them. It just made me look worse. They said same more things, I put a smile on my face, shook their hands, and left the room. I didn’t even finish out my second week. I had a huge feeling of anxiety and shame as I gathered my bag and walked out the front door, using a crazed smile to hide my tears from anyone who saw me. I was sure all my friends would be disappointed in me when I told them I lost this job. That they’d start thinking I was stupid and not worth their time. Later that day, and that weekend I learned they didn’t, but I felt like I failed at not only this job, but at my goals of a better life.
I wasn’t going to give up. I drove out of the parking lot and around the corner to another business parking lot. I was determined to get work. I started making phone calls to people with whom I had networked to find jobs. I jumped on my email on my phone to start emailing others.
I noticed an new email for a job I had applied to a while back and nearly forgotten about.
“Hi Anna, could you come in for an interview?” It read.
“Yes, how does tomorrow sound?” I typed back.
A few months before, I had applied for a job I hadn’t known existed. A community mental health facility needed an employment specialist. This person would help people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, depression, and other mental health needs find or keep work in their fields of interests, skill, and ability. Ever since watching the movie “A Beautiful Mind” I realized that people with mental health challenges were people I could understand and relate to in the sense that they were intelligent, capable people with brains that caused challenges for them, and that other people didn't understand what they were going through. That's how I felt having a learning disorder.
On top of that, I knew something about looking for work. I was always told I was professional and a hard worker, so I could easily share those skills with my clients. If I could interview for almost any job (even a job that was a terrible fit for me) and be hired, then I certainly could help my clients increase their interview skills. I aced the interview, and was offered the job about a week later.
And, guess what? I was allowed to learn my way-- my supervisor does what she does because she believes that people with hidden disabilities can use their talents to have employment success. She was open to my learning style, and, when I needed a face-to-face training after the initial training, she let the person involved know that I would be coming down for a question-and-answer session. It was no big deal.
And I could use my people, writing, and creativity talents to EXCEL AT THE JOB. My coworkers have made comments about how good I am at my job. I’ve even been told by some of the top people in my field in my state that they are talking about my work! My clients feel very comfortable working with me because I truly have their best interests at heart. For my clients, returning to work after getting a mental health challenge on track is hard, honestly, even harder than my struggles with NLD. The people who come to me are amazing, hard workers who are not going to let their mental health challenges take over the rest of their lives. They are going to succeed, work, and be positive citizens. After my four years of job searching and trying to choose jobs around my NLD strengths and weaknesses, I understand where they are in their lives.
I feel privileged to go to work with these people every day. I wish we didn't have mental health and learning disorder stigmas in this world. These people have amazing stories to tell, but many of them never will due to ingrained societal biases. I’ve dealt with those biases in my life. Sometimes I feel afraid to explain the way my mind works to people I am becoming close to because I’m worried that they won’t understand me. People often believe I have some sort of self esteem problem. It doesn't make someone a bad person for not understanding something foreign to them. However, if we keep hiding these stories from the world for fear of judgment, others will never be able to learn from them, and those suffering from mental health challenges or learning disorders will continue to feel the need to hide them.
I cannot tell others’ stories, but I can continue to tell mine. I can speak up and tell the story of having something like NLD, and how that affects my direction. I can own that, but can also let the world know I'm really not any different than anyone else. We all have our faults and imperfections. The only difference between me and someone else is that my imperfections have been bundled together and given a name, a diagnosis, that should be used to help me live a better life.
I would like diagnoses of the mind to become accepted by society as a condition that needs to be managed, like diabetes or asthma. I would like people to feel they can explain their learning disorder or mental health needs and not have to see that face of judgment and confusion that I have seen so many times.