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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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.

What We Can Do

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There is so much misinformation about mental illness out there that it often leads to horrible assumptions on the part of the so-called normal people. It was just this situation that led me to write the Mental Illness Constitution last week. Out of frustration over the #BellLetsTalk day, I began to do what Bell was missing the point about; I wrote about what we mental illness sufferers wanted out of life. I, for one, was very tired of hearing other people talk about me and pretend to give a shit just so they could rack up social media brownie points. That, though, was talking about what I felt should be basic rights to those who suffer from mental illness should be given. Today I’d like to address the “you can’t” myth that blankets us crazies by those in the “normal” world. If last week was our Constitution, then this week is our Declaration of Independence.

  1. Crazy means lazy. Let’s get this out of the way. There is this thought that if someone has mental illness, they’re lazy. It’s not hard to see where it comes from. It’s hard to get out of bed some days when you’re fighting your inner dragons let alone hold down a job, clean the house, make supper or any of the other thousand things people do in a day. However, contrary to what people see, that’s not lazy. Those with mental illness work just as hard to achieve their hopes and dreams as anyone else. Actually, those with mental illness work twice as hard as the so-called normal people. Not only are we cleaning the house or getting that project done, we’re also doing battle with whatever dragon has come for tea that day.
  2. Crazy don’t mean dumb. I was told, by a lady at the Alberta AISH office, that I couldn’t have a disability; I was too intelligent. Now, putting aside the levels of wrong on that statement for a moment, it does reveal a problem in how those with mental illness are perceived. There is a belief that those with mental illness are stupid and unable to make decisions on our own. WRONG. Just because you saw a movie with a kid playing a banjo who obviously had some developmental issues, does not mean we can be painted with that brush. Those with mental illness run the gamut of intelligence just like “normal” people.
  3. Crazy don’t mean dangerous. Thank you, Hollywood for this one. Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Kreuger, Jason and a whole host of others. Here’s the truth; we’re a simple folk that just want to be safe. Most of the time that means doing small things to keep the dragons chained up. For me, it’s wearing my headphones when I’m on the bus. For others, it means washing their hands a certain number of times. Whatever it is, it helps us. We only get upset when you interfere with that ritual. Those dragons are mean and we have to live with them, not you. Please leave us our rituals and we’re completely happy.

This is a small example of myths those with mental illness have to deal with on a daily basis. When I tell people I have anxiety, I get the same reaction as if I had told them I carry baby corpses in my bag. A mixture of horror and fascination. Please throw out your assumptions about mental illness and assume you know nothing. That’s a starting point we crazies can work with.

If you have your own stories about misconceptions you’ve had to deal with concerning mental illness, I invite you to tell your story in the comments.

The Aftermath

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Butterfly on a Dandilion

Butterfly on a Dandelion

Almost a month ago, Robin Williams committed suicide and people, celebrities and the average person alike, came out of the woodwork to beg those with depression to reach out to someone. Now that the smoke has cleared and the immediacy of the moment is over, everyone has gone on with their lives proud of the fact that they did their bit. For those of us who live with mental illness, it’s not over and that moment that we finally got people paying attention to us is gone. Now we’re left to deal with the aftermath.

When everyone was shocked that Robin Williams could commit suicide, the battle cry was “talk to someone!” “Reach out!” “Don’t wait to get help!” Yet I didn’t see anyone stepping up to be that someone we were supposed to reach out to get help. I saw and heard a lot of platitudes but I didn’t see a lot of people actually doing anything. No one poured buckets of ice water over their heads or ran to raise money or even picked up a phone to make sure friends with mental illness were all right.

I suffer from anxiety and that’s no secret. Most days I’m all right but I have my very dark days when I’m shackled by my mind. When those days happen, there’s always a question on my mind that I have no answer for; who do I reach out to? It may seem like a simple answer. Reach out to whomever’s around. Okay. Let’s examine that answer.

First you try to reach out to family. Here’s the reality; family is often very tired of listening to the sad member of the family moan on about their life. They don’t understand but they try to help and offer such sage advice as “just get over it” and “cheer up” just so they can get on with their own lives. They’ve been dealing with their sad member of the family for years and one more phone call, one more coffee, one more dinner is tiring. Don’t get me wrong. I know they love their sad member but there comes a time when they’re just tired of dealing with it.

Then you reach out to friends. This sometimes works but it’s a hit or miss situation. While your friends love you, they have lives of their own and the sad friend can be a real bummer. They’ll listen once or twice but after that it gets old and they want you to move on. Besides, when you’re in that dark place, you feel like you’re a burden and you don’t want to make your friends more miserable about you than they are.

Strangers? Where? The Internet’s full of strangers who don’t give a damn. Worse, it’s full of strangers who will goad your depression on for the sake of their twisted amusement. They’re the ones who’ll bring popcorn to your funeral. No good.

Help lines. Okay, but they’re even more distant strangers than those you’ll find on the Internet. While they don’t have that sick need to watch Rome burn, they’re not invested in you beyond your basic humanity. They’re designed to help those who are suicidal and not every depressed person is ready to swing from the rafters.

So it’s all fine and well to mouth the words and platitudes telling those who battle mental illness to get help but then what? You feel good and move on with your life? Isn’t it time that we started doing something about it? Isn’t it time we started making mental illness a priority in learning how to treat it and help sufferers?

When all those people who were speaking those pretty words following Robin Williams’ death are willing to take action to help mental health sufferers then I will start believing it matters. I don’t need you to dump a bucket of ice water on your head or run a marathon. My challenge is this; reach out to someone you know suffers from mental illness and see if there’s anything they need. See if they want to go for coffee. Make sure they’re doing all right. You don’t need to film it but please do pass it on.

Please challenge yourself to just listen to someone who needs a sympathetic ear.

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