Roughly two and half years ago, I was diagnosed with two major illnesses, not of the mind but of the body. Both of these rather colourful diseases are associated as “gay” illnesses. And as a gay man, I felt the brunt of social stigma and resulting loneliness as I was thrust headlong into the healthcare system, a matrix I knew little about navigating, but with which I had no choice but to comply.
The inevitable was a course of treatment for both these diseases; one of which was highly toxic in nature, and ultimately rendered me house-bound for over a year.
Psychologically kicking and screaming I attended the myriad of specialist’s appointments, while still attempting to balance my vocational life. I was working at the time for an Ontario-wide mental health organization as their head of marketing.
Upon commencing the first course of treatment, I had little choice but to require disability from my employer. Now, you would think that being a mental health organization, this would have not been an issue. Alas, this was not the case. I was pressured by my then employer to disclose my status, otherwise disability would be withheld.
Now I should mention that one of the many side-effects to this treatment was an exacerbation of certain innate tendencies. To be more precise, I have suffered from depression for most of my life, and although I am happy to say that I have it under control now, through the magic of modern medicine, the depression that lurks so fastidiously in the dark regions of my psyche came out to play (as it were), taking full advantage of my tenuous state.
I remembered my employer once saying to me that depression is merely a choice, and that those who suffer from this should just get over it. The glass can be half full if we choose to see it that way. Well, armed with this in mind, alongside a whole host of other reasons that seemed somewhat logical at the time, I thought it better not to disclose anything, believing that it was my right to be able to seek disability.
What ensued was a battle of survival. As things escalated with treatment, my body grew more weak and my mind frail. I was in essence on the other side of the coin. After years of spreading the message of “hope” for those that suffer, I needed that hope. And from the very organization whose mission it was to support and extend the helping hand, when all else fails – the doors closed and I was left to fend for myself.
With the last vestiges of sanity, I fought to survive, through a variety of means, most of which ended up being threats of setting the human rights tribunal on them. Now, I have to say, it is really not in my nature to have to take such a callous approach. But what fascinated me, apart from the irony of the organization itself, was my innate will to survive.
After numerous emails and negotiations, I was finally granted disability. But needless to say, I had burnt my vocational bridges to the ground, out of necessity. I was left psychologically beaten and battered.
Plenty of organizations in Canada help support those who suffer, through advocacy work, educational outreach, public awareness and fundraising. It is their mission and mandate to get the message out to the public that mental illness should not be feared; that families need to come together in the face of adversity; employers should accommodate and not oppress; and that you too most likely know someone who is coping with mental illness and therefore it is incumbent on us as a society to be better informed.
Two and a half years later, I am happy to say that I am cured of one illness, and live somewhat harmoniously with the other. My anger and bewilderment regarding this episode has all but faded. But I am still left attempting to unravel the paradox.
The question looms for me: Do our mental health organizations exist to protect others, or merely to protect themselves?
What are the motives of those who are paid? (I am deliberately excluding the commendable achievements of volunteers.) At the end of the day, is it to change the world, as they so strongly disseminate through numerous press releases (some of which I have had the fortune to write), or is it merely for the pay cheque?
From my own experience, I knowingly shake my head in disgust, and lean toward the latter.