After Years of Unemployment, Here’s How I Succeed at Work With My Disabilities

I am an author, artist, public speaker and government official. I also have Asperger syndrome and atypical schizophrenia. While I’m currently working, this wasn’t always the case. Every day when I arrive at work, I stop briefly in the foyer of my office building to reflect on how fortunate I am to have a job after living on welfare benefits for 15 years. There is no such thing as a typical day for my mind — every day is a new adventure (or challenge). Succeeding at work when you have a mental illness and other challenges is mostly a matter of finding the right support and building your own strategies. Here are some things I do to help me succeed at work. If you face similar challenges, these strategies might help you, too.

1. I start my day off on the right foot.  

I usually arrive to work at around 7:45 a.m. — and typically I’m the first one in. I love having the building to myself for a bit because I get overwhelmed when there are so many people bustling around. Some space at the start of the day can mean the difference between being having a stressful day and a productive one.

2. I organize my work in a way that works for me. 

I check my emails regularly and organize my tasks using a series of spreadsheets. I have to be organized because I can’t hold information in my memory for long. I have an enormous, color-coded spreadsheet for everything I do. I think my colleagues find me a little amusing with my elaborate, multi-colored Excel documents, but I know it’s a fond sort of amusement, not a hostile one, so I don’t mind.

3. I connect with my co-workers, even if it means simply saying, “Good morning.”

After 8:30 a.m. my colleagues start arriving, one by one. I say good morning – small talk I’ve learned after nine years of professional employment. I find that being friendly, helpful and kind is a great strategy for someone like me who can come across as a little odd. I imagine it means my colleagues and managers find it easier to like me. A nice person with autism and a mental illness is more likely to be seen as endearingly eccentric rather than the more hostile label a grouchy or angry person with my issues might attract.

4. I take a breath and think before jumping to conclusions. 

One day, on my way to buy lunch, I passed my general manager’s office where she was sitting with my director, doors closed. They both looked at me as I walked by. Because I couldn’t read the expressions on their faces, I started to panic – surely I had done something terrible and they were discussing drastic action that needed to be taken. How much savings did I have if I got fired? I had to resist the urge to knock on the door and apologize for everything I might have done to cause offense. I was fairly certain I hadn’t done anything terrible, but the paranoia runs deep.

I stopped, took a deep breath and reminded myself this is a frequent occurrence; my poor behavior has never been a reason for closed-door discussions between my managers. It was just my brain making two plus two equal 467.

5. I take a minute each day to recognize my accomplishments. 

As I eat my lunch, I like to reflect on the time this sort of anxiety and paranoia meant I was unable to work at all. My journey to employment took seven years. I had setbacks, one resulting in hospitalization for psychosis brought on by extreme anxiety during a dishwashing job. I was determined, though, and never gave up on my dream of employment. In order to achieve the apparently impossible task of getting to where I am now, I built my confidence through gradual exposure to different employment situations. I got to the point where I could work full-time and grasped the first opportunity that presented itself to me. I have been in my current job since 2007, and I’m proud of my achievement.

6. At the end of the day, I relax. 

At the end of the day, I take the bus home. After unlocking my front door I’m greeted by my big, beautiful black cat. Mr. Kitty is truly the best thing in my world, and a great stress-relief mechanism. I’m always tired when I get home from work — physically and emotionally — and having a black furry friend to give me cuddles helps me to unwind from the challenges of the day. I love my work, but like many worthwhile things, it can be difficult.

Follow this journey on Jeanette’s website.

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