When Mental Illness Becomes a Job Opportunity

by Bill Brenner on June 8, 2011

I’m inspired by the story of a gal whose battle with serious mental illness became the path to a new career that’s allowed her to help people traveling the road she’s been on.

Mood music:

This is the story of Lisa Halpern, who took the stigma and smashed it into millions of tiny pieces.

I found out about her from an article written by Rachel Zimmerman called “When Mental Illness is a Resume Booster.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Schizophrenia helped Lisa Halpern land her current job.

Sure, she graduated with honors from Duke University and Harvard’s Kennedy School. She’s an athlete — her first triathlon victory was at age 10 — who is clearly smart, articulate and driven. (Telegenic too — in high school, she appeared as an extra in Beverly Hills, 90210.) But it wasn’t Lisa’s academic pedigree or winning personality that won her a top post as Director of Recovery Services at Vinfen, a Cambridge, Mass. nonprofit that offers psychiatric and other support services to about 7,000 adults and children.

What makes Lisa uniquely qualified to help others deal with the ravages of mental illness is this: Her deep shame, at age 26, over forgetting how to work a coin-operated washing machine; her paranoid self-exile in a dark basement apartment three blocks from Harvard; her sudden thoughts of suicide at life’s little annoyances, from a flat tire to a mediocre test score; her descent into an isolated, pre-literate cocoon, where she was forced to begin again as a child, with “Babar” read aloud by her mother.

That was years ago, after two hospitalizations, medications that made her drool and gain weight, and voices telling her to cross the highway median while driving. These days, Lisa’s on the national lecture and teaching circuit. She speaks at film festivals, major medical conferences and has led Grand Rounds at the hospital where she was once a patient on the psych ward.

Lisa’s job at Vinfen requires her to continually exploit much of her past experience to mentor, train and oversee a statewide network of 20 “peer specialists” who care for hundreds of clients. These specialists offer counseling, referrals, medicine and deep listening to those suffering from a range of mental and social problems. There are people with named disorders — schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar, addiction — as well as those whose lives have been shattered through homelessness, lost family connections and other childhood traumas.

Pretty inspiring stuff.

The article includes a video interview where Lisa tells her story. I suggest you check it out.

I love this story for a multitude of reasons. One is that I relate to her story of hiding away in a dark room and considering suicide over life’s little annoyances. I never considered suicide over the little things, but I certainly got into a very sick state over them. It would be a car problem, or the kids making a mess of the living room, or someone not immediately returning my call during my reporting for a story at work. I’ve lost it over someone calling me as I was trying to tear through a mountain of work. I’ve lost it over a movie getting sold out, and a restaurant not having a sandwich I wanted.

For me, losing it meant getting itchy, pacing around, arms flailing, a torrent of obscenities dropping from my mouth. Traffic would always set me off. I’d pound the steering wheel and the roof. I remember pounding the roof of my second car so hard and so often that the fabric came undone and drooped down between the driver and passenger seats. I tailgated people, horn blaring nonstop. Once, with my then future in-laws in the back seat, I blew threw an intersection, nearly hit another car, and then flipped off the other driver.

The temper tantrums would result in me getting physically sick, with migraines and shakes.

During the entire time, I had to carry on with the rest of my life as normally as possible. Trust me: That was never easy, especially when I worked as night editor of a daily newspaper. Every little thing in the chaos of a normal newsroom environment would shift me into panic mode. I’d rush through stories, leaving behind glaring mistakes. It would be about getting through the list and not so much about making each item I touched better.

Looking back, it would have been good if I came clean about my sickness and maybe started writing about it for the paper. I suspect my bosses would have liked the idea. Everyone likes to follow a train wreck in slow motion, and they like it even more when the train wreck story includes the tales of one or more survivors.

But I wasn’t ready to even contemplate the possibility that I had a problem. I hadn’t yet gone through therapy or any of the other things. Back then, through my cracked lens, everything was everyone else’s fault.

By the time I started this blog, I had gone through much of the treatment and was in a much better head space. Before diving into the world of Internet security I actively sought PR and newsletter-writing jobs at various local medical institutions. At the time I was thinking I could write more from my experiences with the Crohn’s Disease.

But by December 2009 I knew I loved writing about security too much to give it up. A blog became my way of trying to do what Lisa is doing for a living. The risk, of course, was that my bosses wouldn’t approve of my side project and order me to stop. But they didn’t. In fact, they have been nothing but supportive. Part of it is because they know it’s not going to interfere with my work responsibilities. Most of it is because they’re good people.

I’ve found my balance in a way that’s different from what Lisa is doing. But her story shows that for someone with mental illness, there need not be limits. You can aim high and help others in the process. And, you can even make a living from it.

Lisa Halpern inspires me. I hope she inspires you, too.

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