Meeting of March 15, 2011 - Employment of People with Mental Disabilities
Good Afternoon Commissioners and thank you for inviting me to testify as a witness today.
My name is Anupa Iyer. I am a third year law student at Seattle University School of Law and a legal intern at the EEOC. As a law student I have worked as a research assistant, received a fellowship to work for an NGO in Hungary doing human rights work, and interned for a protection and advocacy agency in Washington. Prior to going to law school, I spent nearly three years working successfully as a technical recruiter placing high level IT contractors at fortune 100 companies. And before all of this, I spent close to five years working as a union organizer for one of the largest US labor unions.
All of this information is laid out on my resume. What you don’t see are the gaps on my resume- the years spent locked in a psychiatric institution, due to my mental illness.
Twelve years ago, at the age of seventeen, I had my first experience with mental illness. I was spending my summer in Geneva interning for an organization at the United Nations. It was a dynamic and exciting time of my life- it my first time away from home and I was in love. Sadly, my summer, which had begun with so much promise, crumbled before my eyes, propelling me to confront a lifelong battle with mental illness.
A few months later, I began my junior year at UCLA. Stuck in an unfamiliar environment fraught with competition, I struggled with an eating disorder; the act of purging eased my intense psychological pain. I stopped caring about my friends, family, and academics – my thoughts were consumed with achieving physical perfection. Trapped in a deadly diet of coffee, caffeine pills, and apples, the pounds slipped away and so did my life. Despite my difficulties, I graduated from UCLA at nineteen and started working as a union organizer.
The tightly knit façade I had woven looked appealing to outsiders. I was young, attractive, and jet-set across the country organizing workers to stand up for their rights. No one could see the cracks appearing beneath the surface, except me. At twenty, I was financially in ruins. The salary I made I spent on expensive clothes, blowing thousands of dollars in a day during manic episodes. To escape my depression as calls from creditors mounted, I racked up more debt. That new dress or pair of shoes let me be someone else, if only for a night. At the end of every month I had to beg my parents for rent money. Without them I would have been forced to live on the streets.
By twenty-one, I was unable to cope with my untreated eating disorder, later exacerbated by the emotional agony of being raped, by a stranger. I self-medicated by abusing alcohol, cutting and burning myself. Aching for relief – a permanent bandage for my wounds – one night I attempted to end my life with a bottle of vodka and a handful of sleeping pills. I nearly succeeded. This was first of five suicide attempts and over eleven voluntary and involuntary commitments in various psychiatric institutions around the country. I will never forget the moment the police broke down the door of my apartment and I will never forget the feeling of being trapped in Howard University’s psychiatric ward.
For the next two years, instead of visiting with workers and attending protests, I spent much of my time in a world of psychiatric institutions. In many facilities, my every move was monitored by a camera. If I wanted to use the bathroom, I had to ask for permission. It was humiliating. My prescribed regimen of anti-depressants left me unable to read, write, or hold a conversation. I felt like a failure: I was unemployed, in and out of hospitals, living with my parents between hospitalizations, and my only source of income was a monthly SSDI check which my parents kept. I was defined as a patient, not as a person, and not by my potential. Instead of reading my favorite authors, now I spent my days absently gazing at the T.V., finding solace with an extra large box of Crayola crayons and a Disney princess coloring book.
Frustrated with life, I would act out and end up in the hospital. I was such a bad patient that hospitals were reluctant to admit me. My parents were given two options: apply for guardianship and force electro-shock therapy on me or send me to a group home. I was told by my doctors that I would never be able to go back to school or hold a decent job.
Tired of living as an over-medicated zombie, I came to realize that getting out of the institution and making a life for myself was my only option. Work was my salvation. I contacted my old employers at the labor union and told them I wanted to come back to work. They found me a job in Seattle and gave me some money upfront to relocate. They did not know that I was calling them from inside the walls of a psychiatric facility. So one morning, I packed my bags and walked out against medical advice. Once free and settled in Seattle, I committed myself to living my potential, the potential the doctors never saw. I decided I was going to live.
Reintegrating into society by working and living independently was not easy. I was afraid that yet again I would fail and wind up back in the psychiatric ward. In the institution or living with my parents, all of my needs were taken care of. Now, I had to learn how live on my own again. It was a struggle to balance my recovery with my job as organizer. I needed to leave work early once a week to see a therapist but I was reluctant to tell my boss why. After nine months of grueling hours working with the union, I had to quit to maintain my recovery from mental illness.
Finding a new job was difficult. I tried applying for positions at the local mall or at restaurants. Almost no one called. And if they did, the first question they asked was “if you have a college degree and worked as the national recruiter for a labor union, why do you want to work here?” I could never answer that question. Even worse, my years of institutionalization left gaps on my resume that I was forced to creatively explain. I believed if I told them the truth they wouldn’t hire me.
Eventually, when I got a job in IT recruiting, my fear that I would be stigmatized was actualized. To pass my probation period, I had to take a test and this gave me severe anxiety attacks. I decided to talk to my supervisors about my anxiety and my mental illness. Instead of being supportive, they at laughed at me and gave me a nickname which was used freely by coworkers, “crazy girl.” When they called me by that name I forced a smile, kept my head down, and let them ridicule me. I felt like I had no other option so I stayed at that job for a year and a half. After I left, I did similar work for another company and I was successful. Despite my success, people at the new job knew my history with mental illness and mocked me too. I never complained. Instead, I worked harder to prove that I am capable.
These traumatic experiences led me to discover, albeit the hard way, that the voices of individuals with mental illness have been quelled because of the stigma that society has placed on the disease. These experiences motivated me to pursue a law degree with a concentration in international law and poverty law.
Eight years after my first hospitalization, I gained the confidence to share my story because now I feel respected and not feared. Driven by my passion to change societal perceptions of people with mental illness, I worked at Disability Rights Washington and at Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC), an NGO in Budapest Hungary, and now I am a full-time intern at the EEOC. Additionally, while in school, I worked as a research assistant to a Professor. These jobs have been tremendous experiences for me.
My work gives my life meaning. It shows me that anything is possible, that I am capable, and that I have a right to dream and dream big. Because of my mental illness, I need small accommodations, such as the ability to leave work early once a week to see a therapist and occasionally a day off when I am struggling with depression. This is how I deal with my mental health. It is different for everybody. This doesn’t mean that I can’t do the job, that I am incapable of working hard, or that I am stupid. For me work, school, and internships have given me a chance to be recognized as someone other than a sick girl or a hopeless patient. Despite being stigmatized when I worked as a technical recruiter, I still felt proud when learned new skills. Remembering when I was unable to read a book or do a children’s crossword puzzle, it was wonderful to read, understand, and fill a position for a software developer at a large IT company. These moments helped me realize that even though I may have a mental illness and I may need help sometimes, I am still a capable human being.
Work and school helped me to recreate my life. With each passing day, I shed my identity as a patient and rebuilt myself as a student, advocate, and future attorney. The girl I used to be is not the woman sitting here today.
Working is critical to my recovery from mental illness. Now, I cherish every day of my life. It truly is a gift. It is one more day where I get to wake up to the sound of my alarm, not to a nurse screaming at me to take my pills. Knowing what it feels like to be locked up, drugged, and told that my life is meaningless, that I will not make it outside of a group home, and that I will never hold a real job, I find myself working harder because it means so much to me and I don’t ever want to return to an institution. Every day and every task I get - researching cases, writing a report to the World Health Organization, or making Xerox copies - I do with a smile. Because in that moment I realize that my life matters, that I am capable, and I am free.