A few years ago I worked in an office with several forensic psychiatrists. They didn’t meet with patients as my own life-saving psychiatrist did; rather, they reviewed disability files to help determine whether the claimant was capable of re-entering the workforce.
Every week we’d all meet to go over difficult cases and get feedback from each other. The sole layperson in these meetings, I attended as a learning experience, and I was often shocked and offended by what the psychiatrists said about the claimants. “I wish I could have time off work because of stress,” they’d say, or “Oh, boo-hoo. She had a panic attack once and hasn’t been back to work since.”
While not every claimant needed extended time off, and it’s often therapeutic to get back into the swing of things, I didn’t appreciate how even the psychiatrists’ valid opinions were expressed—with judgmental bitterness. These attitudes made me feel really uncomfortable; I worried what they meant for the claimants who had legitimate reasons for needing extra care. The review team labeled the claimants, and then surmised the validity based on that label. How could these reviewers assess the situation and then offer a fair, professional opinion when they couldn’t contain their personal biases?
So I spoke up.
I met with both the owner of the company and the woman who ran the meeting and was disappointed to realize they didn’t take any of my concerns seriously. When I told them I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), their tough demeanor changed. With a sympathetic look on his face, the owner said, “You shouldn’t feel bad about that. We all have quirks.”
“I don’t feel bad,” I said. “The point in me telling you I have OCD is to illustrate that you can never know who might have a mental illness. If I have OCD and no one realized it, who else here is going through something and may feel alienated? What if someone makes a joke about schizophrenia, not knowing someone three chairs down has a relative with schizophrenia?”
“You know, those are closed meetings, and our reviewers need to feel comfortable to let loose. This can be a very stressful job,” he told me. “The meetings aren’t going to change. But you can develop a thicker skin and be less sensitive.”
Blood rushed to my face. “No,” I said. “I won’t be less sensitive. I like having a thin skin. It’s a huge part of who I am.”
I didn’t realize I’d be so assertive, but I also hadn’t realized he’d refuse to meet me halfway. Everyone else—those who were making rude comments in meetings and joking about alcoholism and “being OCD” in the break room—they were okay. They had permission to continue being insensitive. On the other hand, the powers-that-be said that if I was going to be so upset by the meetings, I should just stop attending them. Even when faced with the effect of the stigmatizing language, they dismissed me. By labeling me, and others, as having a mental illness, they seemed to feel their actions were justified.
I knew I had to quit this job. It was eating away at me. I sat down and had heart-to-hearts with the highest-ranking people in the company, and they told me to toughen up. They defended what was happening; they were okay that misconceptions were being perpetuated. And they didn’t care that one of their own employees felt uncomfortable in the workplace. I’ve wondered if they’d taken me more seriously if I hadn’t outed myself as having OCD. What I considered a strong point in my argument could have been the weakest link—I was just another squeaky wheel with a mental illness, not unlike the people who needed some time off from work.
A few days after I’d been told nothing would change, one of the psychiatrists joined me for lunch. “I want to thank you for reminding me what it means to be a good psychiatrist,” he said. “I work in forensics. I don’t have patients, and that makes it easy to forget that these claimants are people, too.”
I left the company knowing it hadn’t all been for naught. My frustration turned to empowerment, and within a year I’d signed a deal to write a book for teens and young adults with OCD. I may have had a positive impact on only one person at that office, but now I’m spreading my message of acceptance and sensitivity as far as I can, to anyone who will listen.
Alison Dotson is a writer, copyeditor, and proofreader who was diagnosed with OCD at age 26, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional bad thoughts, but she now knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation, and has been featured as an OCD advocate on the International OCD Foundation Blog, the Huffington Post, and in Glamour magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and two rescue dogs.
Alison is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life. You can find her book, along with other books about b‘ing stigma-free, in our bookstore.