Storying Sheffield

For now though, I will hide in plain sight

Thanks to E. for this piece.

I’m not sure how common this is but I have very little and confused memory of the last 10 years during which I have struggled immensely with my mental health – in many ways.

Low mood, anxiety, mania, and psychosis had been the overarching theme of my life between the ages of 16 and 26.

I reached some very low points in the years following my graduation. Lots of this has manifested itself in difficulties with the jobs I have had. And at the moment I am unemployed – last having worked in May 2019.

I took a few months break when I left my job at a Further Education music college. I was living with my partner. Our tiny flat was two roads back from the sea front and we had a balcony. The flat was great in summer.

I was given the immensely helpful opportunity of free weekly contact sessions with a dedicated and hugely relatable Work Coach to help me work out what my next career move was whilst considering my mental well-being first.

I was referred to this service by my psychiatrist. This doctor was also the most understanding and relatable person I have had contact with in the NHS mental health system. I was his patient from December 2018 until last week.

With the advice and help I got from my Work Coach, I was able to apply for a job that seem suited to my current situation.

It was a position at the NHS – Ward Clerk in a hospital.

It was part time hours to ease me back into working (I had previously suffered two challenging knock-backs that led to me being unsuccessful in passing probationary periods, in job roles that I was more than qualified and capable of doing).

There was no commute – the hospital was 4 minutes walk from my flat (I had previously had long bus journeys to and from work and had struggled to remain awake during these hour long trips – I put this down to my cocktail of medication, unhealthy lifestyle of drinking and staying up late on work nights, but, it was probably mostly down to lack of motivation and interest in either of the job roles I had – which I was bored brainless in).

Ward Clerk was a public facing role (my favourite part of work was interacting with different people in different roles and walks of life – a love I cemented in your third year module which took us out of the university bubble and got us interacting with real people with real stories and unheard narratives).

I worked on the application for many days as the cost of living where I was living was not sustainable on Universal Credit.

Although I lacked direct experience in the job responsibilities, I was able to employ the transferable thinking you taught me and I was invited to interview following a successful written application.

The interview went as well as I could have imagined. Again, I was able to employ the honesty and humanity I admire in the way you approach all and professional and social relationships. (It called to mind your controversial first year lecture on Narrative and Plot. – I recall lots of students found it strange and hard-to-follow, but there was solid core of us that found deep meaning and critical thoughts inspired by your openness and honesty along with the lack of spoon-feeding (which I always hated; having attended the lowest ranking school in my home town by GCSE pass rates – entirely lacking in a spoon with which teachers could attempt to feed our young minds)). That lecture is one of very few memorable academic moments of first year.

I digress.

I quickly built a friendly rapport with the two interviewers and later that evening I was offered the job by phone. They advised me that the HR clearing process was likely to be completed in 6 weeks but it may take up to 12.

Having had a two month recuperation break from employment, this seemed to be a long time but I focussed on enjoying the end of the summer whilst I filled in form after form for the HR team (outsourced by the NHS).

My DBS came back within a couple of weeks and I was relieved to see it was clear, having been worried about an incident with the police that occurred 3 months earlier.

My references took a little chasing but both came back within the 6 – 12 weeks period and were accepted by the employers.

That left Occupational Health.

I had discussed how to approach declaring my mental health condition to the employer with my Work Coach.

They advised me to follow my own thoughts on it as it was not a legal obligation but was my own decision.

I have always approached job applications with complete honesty as I have no reason to lie – my qualifications, experience, and expression are excellent (I have got to interview stage on every application I have sent in since the age of 16…it’s the actually working bit I struggle with. ).

Therefore, I decided to declare my full medical history, if requested, and filled in the forms completely honestly and fully. My thinking was that, even though I had experienced discriminatory treatment within the education sector on two occasions, this was the NHS – surely their staff mental health provisions and procedures would be superior to most employers’.

After the initial completed questionnaire was received by the clearing team, I was given more directed questions about my mental health history to complete. My Work Coach was concerned that this seemed wholly unnecessary but I decided to continue with my open approach and sent back my responses promptly. Several weeks, and numerous phone calls from me to the employer later I was invited to attend an Occupational Health interview with a nurse. I was disappointed to see this appointment was scheduled for late November. The 12 week window had well and truly passed.

At the Occupational Health Assessment I was relieved to find the nurse was confused as to why I had been sent. They approved me for a start date and advised no adjustments needed to be made. I was told to ring my prospective manager as I would be able to start the next Monday.

My hopes of a start date were quickly smashed, though, as I was told by the manager that I had to wait until HR had sent an approval form.

I was, eventually, able to secure a start date of the 3rd December. Over 4 months after my conditional appointment offer.

As you may be able to imagine, my mental health and motivation to begin employment (not to mention my financial situation) had suffered immensely during this time. As the date crept closer I struggled to contact anyone at the Ward or from HR who could advise me on the specific details of my first day.

I was told on the Friday before my start date of the Monday that there was one more thing to be done and then I would be sent the details before the weekend.

Then, at 4.45pm on the Friday, I received an email from the Ward Manager – I would not be able to start due to a training audit by HR. I was told I would be contacted with another start date.

This disappointment led to a migraine attack which then led to a dip in my mood that lasted a long time.

I, nonetheless, pressed for more information and explanation from the employer. After 2 weeks, and many failed attempts to speak to the ward manager or the HR team, I contacted ACAS – I suspected I had been discriminated against for many reasons but the main evidence was that the reason for my not being able to start was constantly being contradicted and changed.

I put in a formal grievance to the employer and was immediately told it had been passed on to the HR lead.

It was a further couple of weeks before I was able to be put on the phone to the HR lead – she had no knowledge of my complaint but tried to belittle my concerns and blame me for lying on my application. She also called me ‘untrustworthy’ of her on our first conversation when I stated I would be sending email confirmation of our discussions for her to agree to.

It was January 2020 before I had any further contact from the employer – this was following my decision to use ACAS early conciliation to air my grievances officially and I worked out a small sum of money I would consider compensation for the loss in earnings and injury to feelings this discrimination had cost me. The employer refused to engage with ACAS or investigate my complaint and, instead, requested I send them a further professional reference.

I was unwilling to attempt to begin this role by now and felt all the professional relationships were already tainted.

However, I did not want to cut my losses as I had done in the previous unsuccessful jobs when my mental health and confidence had been even lower.

I had managed to arrange free legal aid and intended to fight their decision until I couldn’t anymore. But I made the decision to decline the offer and explain my reasons why in a lengthy email which I suspected they would not read.

I spent 2 days writing the email and it was 7 pages long before editing. I managed to get it down to 1 and a half pages of pure explanation in a professional manner that was unapologetic yet respectful.

I don’t care if they read it or not; I sent it.

That was when I hit an extended period of hypermania and intense emotional experience.

I call these episodes ‘highs’ as I was given the diagnosis of Bipolar for 5 years before it being changed to ‘traits of EUPD’ by the medical team.

I most often view my mental health and mood changes through the scale of depression – low mood – stability – hypermania – mania/psychosis.

I usually sat in the negative half somewhere between the border of low mood and depression.

Manic episodes were rare for me but they brought about a lot of issues and were more concerning to my family and friends.

However, I found the elevated energy levels to be much more enjoyable – until my bubble was burst.

Recently my forays into mania have been much more frequent and extended. I realised that if I can keep myself safe and healthy then allow myself the time to ‘ride the high’ they can make me become super insightful and critical and allow me to consider alternatives to my negative self-thinking.

This time I realised that fighting the NHS in court was not going to make me feel heard.

That’s all I wanted.

I began to write a new narrative of my life and mental health. I had lost trust in a lot of the NHS mental health services and decided to look internally while I was experiencing this detailed critical thinking mindset.

I underwent lots of emotional exploration and used writing and reading and music to connect to deeper feelings and infer meanings from the emotional moments that puncture my life narrative.

This was an emotionally difficult and lengthy task but in the month leading up to a move to a new city with my partner I had plenty of time to dedicate myself to my thinking and creating and crying.

There were also real moments of joy and nostalgia and gratefulness on this microscopic re-examining of my well-thumbed life story.

I began to gain some clarity which led to a lot of my self-doubt, guilt, and shame becoming dust that I wiped from my shoulders with shocking ease.

However, they were initially replaced with anger and grief for my past self who had been through hard and harmful experiences and never explored them – instead swallowing them down as moments of shame, guilt, and self-doubt.

The anger was an essential stage, though, and I began to hone it into an empathic anger through listening, and really hearing, the music and teachings of my favourite artists and activists for social change.

Their controlled anger that is veiled by their generic categorisations – like hiding in plain sight – felt a call to arms.

‘Don’t be downtrodden – they can tread on you but you chose how much it hurts you.’

I am in a much happier and motivated and optimistic place than I have been since I was 14. I’m planning for the future and getting stuff done. But the best bit is – I remembered how to do things my way.

One day I hope I can spend my full time work efforts on my literature company which I set up recently.

For now though – I will hide in plain sight – working to earn money to live but not forgetting myself in the process.