Why Getting Fired From Alberta Education is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

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NOTE: This piece was originally published on my other blog, The Blaed on July 13, 2011

I have a Bachelor of Arts degree, am in Grant MacEwan’s Applied Communications in Professional Writing Certificate program (going into my second year). In my past I have guest lectured at the University of Alberta (for 10 years running), ran a local theatre company, produced plays, written as a regular contributer for local magazines and been the primary caregiver for my parents. I tell you this so you’ll have an idea about me.

So I was excited to be able to work for the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Education (the specific department shall remain nameless). Here was a chance to step up my career. I had blocked out the trauma of working for the Government of Alberta three years ago and decided this was my chance to shine.

I pride myself in my ability to produce quality work quickly. This blog, for example, will go through one edit before it hits the line. Normally I’d do a couple of them, but I feel this is important. So, I can produce quality work quickly. Let me qualify that; I can produce quality work quickly if I know what it is I’m writing about and the style I’m writing in. I’m fairly adaptable, so I’m comfortable working in a number of styles but this easy, laid-back manner you see here is the one I like best.

So I was hired in June by the Ministry of Education to “tell Education’s story”. Specifically, I was hired in June to use my own laid-back writing style to “tell Education’s story”. “We want *you* to tell Education’s story,” I was told by the man who hired me. All right. I can do that. A week before I was hired I went online and tried to get a sense of what I was getting into. What I saw didn’t comfort me.

Go to the Ministry of Education’s website sometime. It’s chaotic, drowning in government-ese and dry as hell. It says little and what it does say is pretty useless…. in my opinion. However, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I needed this job and I needed to shine. I could do this.

Problems arose in the first week of my employment. I raised the possibility of doing a story on Mr. Bob Maskell, an incredible educator who’s made an impact on so many lives. That was shot down. Good try, I was told, but we couldn’t feature just one educator (who is retired), it’d look like favoritism. No, I thought, it’d look like we appreciate those teachers and educators who dedicated their lives to being the best they could. Never mind, they had another idea.

My boss plopped a document on the table; the “Framework for Action“. This was what they wanted me to write on. This document has been in the making for years and is extremely intricate. There are subtleties and nuances that would take years to decipher. Okay. In my own style, huh? I could do this.

To give you an idea of the task at hand, open the document and read it. I had two days, tops, to learn each section, its history and where it was going then write a 250 word piece on it. Factor in to that I’m not getting to talk to the managers who’s responsible for each section. No. I get documents in legalese and whatever I could find on the Internet. Still, I managed. I thought. First meeting with the boss I found out I didn’t have a clue. Back to the drawing board.

When you work as a journalist, you need to have a feel for your topic. It isn’t necessary to read every document written on it so long as you get an idea of what it’s about. It needs to be accurate, but you don’t have to know every aspect of it. For example, you don’t need to get a pilot’s licence to write about flying for a big airline . Not so with the Ministry of Education. I had to know these things inside and out and they are complicated. So, off to round two.

Between round one and two my mentor decided he was too busy for me so he passed me off to someone else in the office. Was I okay with that? Perspective time; I’m a summer student. I don’t have a lot of room for opinion. Keep your mouth shut and your head down. That’s the summer student’s motto. Even if it means being passed off like a bad date to a co-worker who’s first language is not English. Yes, she had a doctorate in research, but I’m a writer doing writing in English. I’m not a researcher translating my writing. That’s like a penguin trying to teach a duck to swim.

At this point I felt confirmation of my role was needed. My writing was too bland and needed more colour and excitement. I needed anecdotes and examples, my original mentor (still my boss) said. Okay. I can do that. So I let myself go and brought out my writing crayons, so to speak. Time for colour.

The second time around wasn’t as nice as the first time. What on earth was I thinking using anecdotes and examples? That’s not government style of writing. Also, I still had some tense issues (due to actions in the past affecting the future) but that’s easily dealt with. For example, I might write “the report he wrote yesterday will be discussed in tomorrow’s meeting.” Perfectly sound sentence, but not strictly grammatically correct. Also, I didn’t have enough examples and the writing was bland.

By this time I got the help of my new mentor and a co-worker to edit the pieces. I wasn’t seeing something, perhaps they’d see it. We’d edit two or three times before I was comfortable and then I headed for round number three. Oh good lord.

One of the pieces I’d worked on was particularly delicate so I went to the person who’s project it was and asked them to make sure everything was correct. When it was returned to me, this person had thrown out one section completely, two others were deleted (this person and the boss decided they weren’t needed. Was I asked? Nope. I was informed by e-mail) and another was so heavily edited it didn’t resemble anything I’d written. Okay, I thought, I had it wrong. I can do this.

I reworked the pieces and showed the boss who promptly got angry because they were unusuable.  They had no factual information and said little about the actual program. So, digging through my garbage, I got the original I’d written, retyped it and prepared to hand that in.

Now we get to round four. Understand that by this time I’m going home shaking, in tears and becoming dangerously depressed. If it wasn’t for the amazing support of instructors, friends, family and fellow writers, I would have either wound up in the hospital from a suicide attempt or from severe trauma. I could no longer look at my co-workers, let alone talk to them. I thought about giving up writing completely. It was my support network who held me up during this time and told me I could get through it and keep going. Several said I was too good a writer to quit. Even as I write this I’m crying. I can’t help it. I think of that time and can’t function.

By this time I was going to work not with the idea of producing anything quality, I felt like a hostage to a sociopath. All I wanted to do was give them what they wanted so they’d let me go. From 7 am to 4 pm, working through lunches and breaks, all I kept thinking was, “they said I could leave at the end of August.”

So, now I was given the instructions to “write in Government Voice.” Let me back this truck up a minute. There are classes dedicated to learning this style. There are writers who specialize in this style and take years to perfect it. Government writing style is very precise and there is an art to it. I have never written in this style in my life. This style is not interesting to me, it’s very bland and like chewing on drywall. However, those who can do it well have my utmost respect.

Let’s toss in here a round of computer problems that took three days to fix because the IT guys forgot to hook me up to the right network. Oh, now let’s add the fact that none of the people in charge of the projects are allowing me to talk to them. Instead, I’m handed documents in legalese that outline the project. I’m supposed to decipher these and make them understandable in government style. I leap over tall buildings in a single bound and dress in leather as a bat and stop crimes in my spare time, too.

So, back to round four. My boss walks into my office and informs me I’m texting too much on my phone. I text to keep me in touch with people who keep me sane, by the way.  He then spends the next hour and half to two hours asking me if I’m “supported” (I felt like we were talking about me needing a jock strap). Talk about turning up the pressure. Yes, on the surface he was asking me if he could help me. Yet, in the same breath he’d say things like, “I need results” and “I expected more.” This “chat” let me know I was on my last legs and yet I still had no clue what they wanted.

I called up my doctor, a wonderful man who knows me and knows I don’t ask to see him often, asking to see about medicating me for stress. I may not do well with most psychiatric drugs (learned that while trying to deal with my sleeping disorder), but maybe there was an herbal remedy he could recommend.

Yesterday I gave it one more try. I gave my boss work I wasn’t proud of, work I’d never admit to doing, work so sterilized of any life I didn’t recognize it. He hated it. No, not the sterilization. He liked that. What he pointed out was places I’d missed a comma (I got 15 minutes on that) or places he felt were unclear (three other people had read them several times. He was the only one that thought those places were a problem). In other words, he was looking for trouble and found it. By the time it was over, he looked at me and said, “if you can’t give me what I ask for, you’ll never make it as a writer in any corporation.”

He crossed a line. I reached past all the crap I’d been handed in the past month and stopped listening to him. The corrections he wanted took only a half hour to make but I drew it out all afternoon. I was going to quit at the end of the month. I kept hearing his words in my head over and over and got angrier and angrier. Over and over again I’d produced quality work that he’d told me he wanted. Over and over it wasn’t good enough. I had to spend three and half hours listening to Ministry of Education employees pat themselves on the back and being paraded around instead doing the job I was being paid to do. I had to listen to my bosses “are you being supported” speeches over and over instead of getting clear instructions. Now I was being told I was a mediocre writer and never going to be a professional. Yes, I was angry.

By the time I was fired this morning I didn’t care. I cried tears of relief as I packed up my things and left. Here’s what the boss who was so concerned if I was being supported did; he read my termination from a letter then walked out. He didn’t have the decency to ask me if I had anything to say or even say to me “don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.” He left and went on his way.

I feel better now being without a job than I have in the past month. I’m free and I can go back to doing what I love; writing. I don’t know what will come of this blog, probably nothing. I do know this; I wrote this on the fly and it’s not bad and it feels so good to just write again.

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One of Those Days

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Today I decided I didn’t want to do a damn thing.

Nothing.

So I didn’t.

Here’s some art I made. I call it “Sidhe”

Sidhe

Holding Health Hostage

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I’m a diabetic. Just like my father, my mother, my sister, my brother and even our family cat before she passed away. Diabetes doesn’t just run in my family, it holds marathons. So I’ve become something of an expert on the subject.

Getting diabetes was inevitable and not something I wanted. It’s a death sentence and a slow one at that. Yes, it’s manageable but not curable. Insulin is not a cure, it’s a means to help my body do what it can no longer do. However, living with diabetes is something that becomes background noise after a while and, after a while, you learn to accept everything that comes with it like the anxiety and depression. The struggle to merely maintain your weight. Losing weight is a dream of wisp-like faeries and morning stars to wish upon.

I’m also on Income Support. What was once called welfare. I’m there because of a variety of factors which include depression, anxiety, Nonverbal Learning Disorder and other crap. Diabetes and depression and anxiety are old bed buddies. When the sugars start sliding up and down, depression and anxiety are there to make sure the ride is memorable. Freddy Kreuger memorable.

But I live with it and I work with my doctor to keep the worst at bay. It’s here where I depend on my government to put in their own effort. As someone who lives on Income Support, I need my diabetic supplies covered. This is not an option. I can’t play guess which meds we’ll take today. Diabetes is a mean bitch if she doesn’t get her fix.

So about six months ago I fought with Alberta Health to cover a drug called Victoza. Originally I thought it would help me with weight loss as it’s been shown to have a great effect on it. That didn’t happen due to a slip and fall I took in January which prevented me from exercising for a while.

However, Victoza did do something.

I need to explain something here. There is a measurement that all diabetics are aware of and that’s their A1c. This is a test that shows what blood sugars have been doing over an average of the last three months. I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of Lothlorien magic going on here as well but that’s another story.

For someone without diabetes, their A1c should be in the range of 4 – 5.6. For someone with diabetes, the goal is to keep it below 6. Back in November, my A1c was 8.3. By the time June rolled around and I’d been on Victoza for only six months, my A1c dropped to 6.3.

That’s a damn near miracle.

However, this is where things get sticky. Apparently there’s a federal agency in negotiations with Novo Nordisk Canada over the price of Victoza. So, rather than cover the drug, there is a ban on any coverage at all. Simply put, they don’t want to cover it because that would weaken their negotiation strength.

When I approached Minister Sarah Hoffman’s office, I was told that they not only would refuse to cover it, they wouldn’t even try to get involved in these price negotiations because it wasn’t their job.

So let’s put this into perspective.

My health is being held hostage by a drug company, a federal agency and a provincial ministry because they all want to have the upper hand in negotiations over fucking pennies.

Meanwhile, over here I’m struggling to lose weight, maintain my health, watch my sanity and keep all these balls in the air while trying to start a business and placate Income Support.

And people wonder why I am fighting so damn hard for the basic income program.

So I’ve come to a point where I just want to curl up in a ball and say, “I give up” but I’m too damn stubborn for that. This isn’t the first windmill I’ve tilted at and it won’t be the last. This is my life and health I’m fighting for.

Just call me Don Quixote

 

Suicide & NLD

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again the issue of suicide has popped up again on the media radar. Both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have managed to bring it to everyone’s plate and now we get to watch as social media spins out its version of “thoughts and prayers” in the form of “reach out.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s good advice. Completely useless to someone who is currently flirting with killing themselves but good advice. What happens, though when you add Nonverbal Learning Disorder to the mix? Are we NLD Superheroes more susceptible to suicide as someone once suggested to me? To be honest, I don’t know. All I can talk about is my own experience with suicide and suicidal ideation.

If I’m going to be completely transparent here, and I must for the sake of this conversation, I have to admit that I’ve attempted suicide. Suicide by fate, I call it. As a teen who survived abuse and found herself unwanted by her family (my sister was my abuser), I felt tired. Tired of fighting to survive. Tired of trying to reach out to my family again and again and being rejected. Tired of trying to figure out how to live in this confusing world. I was tired down to my soul and I just wanted to rest.

I was nothing if not creative so I decided to let fate decide if I should live or die. At this time I was involved in an evangelical Christian group and fate was another word for God. If God wanted me to live, He’d show me. So, I took to jaywalking.

Here’s what would happen. I’d need to get from one side of the road to another. Didn’t matter what road it was, a residential street or busy thoroughfare, I’d jaywalk. However, I never bothered to check for traffic. I don’t know if any gods had their hand in my survival but even though I came close many times, I was never hit by a car.

My life at that time was pure chaos. Evangelicals pretended to care about my soul while  they dictated how I should live while my family showed no interest in where I was or who I was with. At the time my Nonverbal Learning Disorder was undiagnosed and I may have had a celestial being or two looking out for me because I never wound up on the side of a milk carton, either. Despite many opportunities to end up there.

So what does any of this have to do with Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

As I stated earlier, post-celebrity suicide is when everyone on social media advises those with mental illness to “reach out.” If you have NLD, that’s a whole new level of WTF.

Those of us who have to live with NLD are the proverbial odd shaped pegs trying to fit in a square peg world. We pretzel ourselves into being something we’re not just so we can be seen as high functioning. This places an unbelievable amount of pressure on us and only makes the existing anxiety and depression that are NLD’s sidekicks that much harder to control.

Having NLD means functioning in a different vibration from the rest of the world. The resulting clash that comes when our functioning meets the tidal wave of “normal behaviour” ends up in anxiety and depression. Does this automatically put NLD people at risk of suicide? I don’t know. I have no answers.

What I do know is the advice to “just reach out” is useless. As someone with NLD there’s a few questions I have about that. Reach out to who? Tell them what? When do I reach out? Is there a guidebook I can consult? Communication is one of the problems people with NLD have. Are the people we’re reaching out to aware of that? If so, do they know how to understand us?

Suicide is a problem and feeling isolated is a part of it. So instead of saying “reach out,” I’ll give some different advice. Go out and learn what your options are. NLD people are great at gathering information. So go out and use that to your advantage. Learn how to access the medical community. Learn how to build a network of support and coping mechanisms.

I don’t have any answers when it comes to suicide and NLD. All I know is what I’ve experienced. If you’re feeling suicidal, please know you’re not alone.

High Functioning Garbage

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Recent events have me ranting on about the label “high functioning” to the point where I’m almost frothing at the mouth. I’ve had this label all my adult life and I’d like to shove it up the mental health industry’s collective ass. Where it was once meant as nothing more than a measuring stick to those who had been trained in understanding such things (those people with PhDs behind their names), it’s become nothing more than a banner for the media and Hollywood to wave around while they pretend they know what they’re doing. In truth, this label does more damage than help and there is little or no understanding that comes with it.

Originally, the term “high functioning” meant someone who was able to function within society with minimal difficulties. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? The insidiousness of it is disgusting and we should start demanding it be dumped from our collective lexicon. Here’s what happens; the mental health professionals, psychiatrists and psychologists and such, get together and determine what is normal functioning in society. They decide on this narrow band of behaviour that includes employment, socializing, learning, etc. Now, if you behave according to those parameters, then you’re high functioning. There’s a few problems with this.

No one really knows what “normal” is. Is a family with a single mom “normal”? Then what about a family with two dads? Does that become abnormal? Or what about a family with a mother and father? Is that supernormal or ultranormal? What is the goal we’re reaching for here? Truth is, no one really has a lock on this. Psychiatrists and psychologists have an idea of what normal is but it’s a narrow bandwidth that isn’t able to adapt to a society that is in a constant state of flux. What was normal in the 1950s is no longer normal today and that’s all right. Society changes as humans adapt to their environment and needs. It’s what evolution built into us. So now we have a bandwidth that defines normal functioning in society that can’t adapt to change.

Right.

When I was about 8 years old, there was a boy living in our complex who had autism. He liked to sit at the door and watch the cars go by. He was especially enamored with trucks and would excitedly scream when they went by. Some of the truck drivers got used to him sitting there and would honk as they went by. This would send him into fits of excited rocking and arm waving while he giggled happily. We kids loved playing with him. He was always up for a game of tag, even if he didn’t really understand the rules and was always good natured and happy. We knew that we weren’t to touch him, he didn’t like that, so we’d wave at his face and that counted as a “tag”. The adults, though, tried to discourage us. They were concerned about us playing with the “retard”. He didn’t know his own strength, they said, and he could hurt us. Didn’t matter. We played with him and he played with us. That boy taught me more about acceptance and understanding than anyone else in my life. Yet, he was considered “low functioning”. To us kids, he was just a playmate. We didn’t care about his functioning.

I have Nonverbal Learning Disorder. If autism and ADHD had a love child, NLD would be it. Very little is known about it and very little research is done on it. Yet doctors classify me as being “high functioning” as I can navigate society. So what makes me different from that boy? A Bachelor of Arts degree? An ability to weave words into a magical world? My determination? Why am I any better than that boy who was able to teach me so much about compassion and happiness? Yet, if you look in the media, there is a clear difference. Watch any episode of “Criminal Minds” to see the difference between someone with a mental illness who is “high functioning” and someone who isn’t.

The difference? I learned to hide who I am and that boy didn’t.

That’s it. I’m able to navigate society because I don’t make the normies uncomfortable. I don’t make them cringe inwardly when they talk to me. They don’t have to suppress any feelings of pity when I’m around them. I can look, act and talk just like them so I’m acceptable. If they knew the cost I paid to be able to do this, they wouldn’t be so comfortable. I would give them more nightmares than that boy ever could.

I learned how to act and talk like the normies at the hand of my abuser. I was psychologically and emotionally abused all my life and learned fast to please my abuser. One of the things I learned was how to not talk about my “stuff”. To keep the anxiety fears buried deep even as I smiled and shook hands. To never cringe when someone touched me. In all things I had to make sure my abuser was happy and nothing was sure to bring down her wrath like talking about stuff best kept to myself or in the family. To this day it’s nearly impossible for me to talk about what goes on in my head because I’m afraid of being punished.

Until people start accepting that normal is a spectrum and not a bandwidth, we will get nowhere with mental health issues. We won’t ever accept men talking about depression or women talking about eating disorders. We won’t be able to see people in all their quirks and strengths and weaknesses. We will always demand they behave within accepted norms. Until the term “high functioning” is banished, we will get nowhere.

Exercise and the Crazy Person

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Two subjects I often write about are anxiety and exercise. However, I’ve never written about them together and how they interact. Recently, I got a glimpse into how my mind affects my fitness routine and vice versa. It was a moment of awakening for me and it occurred to me that not many people think about the connection. I’ve never talked with a fitness trainer who takes mental illness into consideration. Why should they? One is body and the other is mind, right? Yet there is a bigger connection between the two than you might think.

As a child, and then into my teen years, I enjoyed being physical. I was always moving and going. I swam competitively, biked almost everywhere I wanted to go and loved walking for hours. Like other teens, I went rollerskating every chance I got which worked out to be three or four times a week. It kept the darkness at bay.

My home life as a child was less than ideal. I was the victim of psychological and emotional abuse on an almost daily basis in a family that believed any physical touch was sexual in nature. I didn’t learn how to hug until I was 17 years old. There was a very dark nature to my being that often manifested in thoughts of suicide. I even came very close to trying to commit suicide a couple of times.

I firmly believe that the only reason I’m alive now is because I was so physically active. I didn’t know it then but the activity helped keep the worst of it at bay. Looking back, when things got really rough (like the time my sister grounded me for a year for saying no to her), I took to physical activity. It was a way of pushing everything aside and focusing on the moment.

When I had to take care of my parents, I didn’t have time to go out and exercise like I wanted. I couldn’t just get up and leave for a few hours to get away. As a result, those are some of the blackest years I’ve known. I never want to go back to that.

Recently, though, I started exercising again and I’ve noticed something that should be apparent to anyone. If I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack and go exercise, the attack stops or recedes to a manageable point. Go endorphins! Yes, endorphins kicking in is a temporary measure but it’s enough of a breathing space to give me room to quiet the attack. You cannot imagine how wonderful that is. Just to have that moment’s peace is amazing.

There are still challenges. Going to an exercise class fills me with dread and the thought of going to a gym is enough to make me want to wet my panties. Ideally, I would like to see someone try to tailor exercise to help with mental illness. For example, if someone has bipolar disorder, is yoga the best or perhaps martial arts? For someone with schizophrenia, is running a good idea or swimming? I think exercising is a good first step. Now, I think we need to take it a step further and start to tailor programs to help those who suffer from mental illness.

Shh… Don’t Hire the Crazy People

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Anxiety Attack

Anxiety Attack

Crazy don’t mean dumb.

I’ve always been fairly upfront about my issues with anxiety and the struggles I have in my day to day life. Recently I was advised to rethink the wisdom of sharing this information. After all, I’m a writer and entrepreneur and people won’t take me seriously if they know I have “issues”.

I’m well aware that there is a stigma around mental health and some serious myths about it. Since my usual reaction to advice such as this is to tell the person to stick it up their ass, I thought I’d devote some time to explaining why they should stick it up their ass.

  1. If you have mental health issues, you’re not reliable. I don’t know where this one came from but nothing could be further from the truth. When you have a mental illness, you’re very aware of how others see you so you work very hard to overcome that. Now, I don’t know how it is for others but, for me, anxiety is a demon with a pitchfork poking me in the ass on a fairly regular basis. If I don’t check things three times and have it ready to go well before the deadline, that ol’ demon starts warming up his pitchfork. Reliability is not an issue for those of us with mental health issues. Having a private crying jag in the middle of the day sometimes is but not reliability.Of course I'm crazy. I'm a writer.
  2. People with mental health issues can’t do the work. Now, I’ve heard this one again and again. I’m not sure if the belief is that the insanity will interfere with the work or that somehow our brains short circuit and we are unable to learn the work. Either way, it’s a farce. We may require some special consideration when working. For example, I have a friend with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who needs to have his desk in the corner of the office. It’s a small thing and helps him to feel safe and happy at work. Mental Health disorders are just a disability. If we were sight or hearing impaired, businesses would think nothing of accommodating us. We’re sanity impaired. We might need to listen to our headphones or a private area away from others. That doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t do the work. Make us feel safe and you’ll get 150% effort from us.
  3. People with mental health issues are unpredictable. Oh let me explain how untrue this one is. I have anxiety and I can give you a list of things likely to cause an anxiety attack. They’re called “triggers” and we want to keep them safely locked up. Anyone with mental health issues has a similar list and is more than willing to show them to you. We know how to avoid our triggers and like to avoid them. However, even if you were to dunk us right in the middle of our triggers, we can tell you exactly how we’ll react. That’s not unpredictable.

The idea that those of use who are crazy make lousy workers is one of those myths that somehow got started when I wasn’t looking. The truth is far different. We work damn hard and most of the time we come up with some very creative ideas. Okay so hiring fairies to paint the office wasn’t one of my better ones but there have been others and some of those have worked out.

Besides, there’s one other reason for hiring crazies; we certainly keep things interesting.

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