One of the things I’d really like to do in In the Circle is open up about my journey living with schizophrenia. I have already started to do this. You can read my previous posts here. Most people living with such a condition tend to hide it in shame, as I tried to do for many years. There is so much stigma attached to mental illness, but as I’ll illustrate with reference to my experience returning to Biglaw which I referred to briefly in a previous post, the people who are judgmental, ask personal questions and gossip about you behind your back are usually uneducated, like most of the people in our neighbourhood in South Auckland. My personal trainer lives in Epsom, a lovely, leafy affluent suburb in Central Auckland where people are generally refined and educated. They have tact and discretion, which is rare where we live. When she eventually moves out of home, I’m going to ask if I can board there with her parents. Our nosy next door neighbours (who I absolutely loathe living next to) asked a lot of personal questions during the acute phase of my illness, which completely invaded any privacy I hoped to have about my condition. While they may have gotten more information out of me than I wanted to reveal in the past because I was too polite to tell them to mind their own business, they’re not getting any more. Hopefully they’ll shut up and leave us alone, but people like that are never satisfied. They seem to know which buttons to press and actually enjoy upsetting you. People like this are truly evil. I still can’t believe one of the neighbours had the audacity to ring Counties Manukau and made them visit me while I wasn’t well, without first asking my mother who I live with, or my aunt and uncle, who live across the road from me (and live next to her, if it’s the person I’m thinking of). Like I have said in an earlier post, they’re always peeping out of their window, spying on us because they have nothing better to do with their time. Even if I do have a mental illness, at least I use my time constructively and try not to hurt others. In fact, even though I’m the one with a mental illness, their behaviour is actually worse than mine. Also, as I have mentioned previously, after one particularly bad psychotic episode when I ended up being hospitalised, the lady on the reception desk in the mental health ward of Middlemore Hospital told everyone in the Indian community my parents used to belong to about my condition. I have no time for people like this. Some information is private and confidential. If you work at the hospital, especially in the mental health section, you need to behave in a professional manner and keep patient information to yourself. When I worked in Biglaw, I couldn’t go blabbing about details of my cases or transactions to everyone around town, because I owed an ethical duty of confidentiality to clients, not to mention the firm.
Opening up about what has happened to me has actually set me free. I feel a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I want to share my experience with others in the hope that it might resonate with someone else out there who is on the same journey, because I haven’t been able to find many resources to help me. As I have said before, I want to leave a legacy to others and this is it. I have had to map out a treatment plan and devise my own therapy, despite the fact I’m not a doctor. It angers me that I have to do all the thinking from first principles and sell it to my specialist, who is reputedly the best psychiatrist in Auckland. He always ends up agreeing with me, yet I’m paying him to help me. Most of the doctors I have encountered since my first psychotic episode are absolutely hopeless and it makes me wish I became a doctor myself, despite the fact that Science was always my weakest subject at school and I never thought I was smart enough to become one.
One of my former colleagues from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer wrote me a message some time ago, saying how much she liked my blog because she had never read anything quite like it before. This made me feel happy. I highly value originality. The information about schizophrenia on the internet is downright depressing. The only high-achiever living with schizophrenia that I could find was a law professor in the States called Elyn Saks, who obtained a JD from Yale.
I hope to write more about my experience returning to the workforce later on, but for now, I wanted to share the thank you letter that I wrote to my employer Bell Gully upon my departure after a particularly bad depressive episode. Outside the legal industry, big law firms have a bad name. My firm was amazing. They hired me even after I fully disclosed my condition and did their absolute best to accommodate me. It was nice to reconnect with Tim, Belinda and Campbell who were in my cohort from law school and who had progressed to senior positions at the firm. I just love how they had the class not to probe into my unusual part-time working arrangement, which definitely wasn’t implemented so I could spend the afternoons shopping. What a refreshing contrast to our neighbours’ behaviour!
Here is the letter I sent the partners of Bell Gully.
Dear partners of Bell Gully,
A Christmas gift from Anita’s Garden - Jersey Benne and Agria potatoes
By way of background, I was a summer clerk at Bell Gully (2002/2003 intake). I completed a training contract at Freshfields in London (thanks to a referral from Garry) and worked in the International Arbitration department at the firm’s Paris office. I re-joined Bell Gully in 2015 and worked in Garry and Dean’s team.
Every year the partners give staff a Christmas present, but it’s hard to think of a good gift for the partners. Dean and Garry regularly enjoyed fresh produce from our garden, so I came up with this idea. I have always wanted to thank you for accommodating me with a mental illness the second time around. This letter is long overdue and I wish I had written it earlier. Sometimes you just don’t know how to express your gratitude. Employing someone with schizophrenia and depression is not a decision to be taken lightly. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the Board for making the final decision, Haydn and Anna for welcoming me into the Corporate department and Garry and Dean for having me in their team. I would also like to thank Louise Alexander from Human Resources who met with me fortnightly to provide support and Tim Fitzgerald from my cohort who is a wonderful friend and helped me greatly in a time of need.
Since leaving Bell Gully, I launched a start up called Anita’s Garden. I maintain an active blog and write a weekly gardening newsletter. I run a boutique plant nursery, hold workshops to educate people about how to grow their own food and consult on garden design and development. It’s an exciting journey which is at times a little terrifying, as I prefer advising businesses on risks rather than taking them myself. I am forever grateful to Bell Gully. My role helped me get back on my feet again after a long period of sickness and unemployment. It also helped restore confidence in myself. Having a mental illness really affected my self-esteem but I was blown away by how accepting the firm was of me. This helped me learn how to accept myself despite my condition. The fact that the firm was willing to accommodate a novel situation like mine and find creative solutions to my problems encouraged me to find a way to work around my condition. I’m fortunate to function normally 90% of the time. I’m also lucky that my condition hasn’t impaired my cognitive functioning and memory. I work more when I’m well so I can take time off to recover when relapses occur. People complain that law firms are not doing enough to address the issue of mental health but I disagree. Bell Gully actually saved my life. Being a part of the firm helped me to develop a more positive mindset, which has given me the strength to carry on.
I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas. All the best for the New Year.