I lived at home during my college years. I was beginning to struggle with depression…it wasn’t a full thing yet, but I was too spacey and low-energy to both take classes and hold down a job. But by my junior year, it was becoming a challenge to pay for gas, meals, stuff like that, so there was no avoiding it. I had to find work.
So, the employment thing: it started in 1995. I was 20 years old.
These are the jobs I’ve had.
My first job was at Toys R Us.
I picked up an application, filled in all of the requisite details. On the section called Job Experience, I wrote, “not yet”. On the section where you list your personal strengths, I wrote “unknown”. For some reason they hired me, put me on a cash register.
The register was a nightmare; I was too shy for it. When people talk to me, I have to pause a lot and think about what they’re saying. This slowed down the process. Every customer would hand over toys, then small talk…I’d pause, listen to them, think…then ring up a toy, pause to listen some more. Interactions took forever, I could never multitask the chatting/register thing. Long lines of restless customers ensued.
Eventually, the managers got tired of seeing me gum up the front of the store, so they kicked me off the register, told me to stock shelves. That went a little better. I just roamed around, toting boxes back and forth, stocking, killing time.
Still, the shyness and anxiety took a toll. I’d need breaks from people. You couldn’t get those in the break room…those just had more people. So what I did was carefully examine the stock room; it was huge, filled with many hundreds of boxes. I picked a low-traffic spot and built a secret fort.
In the very back of the stock room, you’d find the largest boxes…the high end items like swing sets and above-ground pools. I shifted these around in such a way so as to create a hiding spot behind them. I went all out, gave it a concealed entrance on the side that ran to a much bigger space between the boxes and the wall; I grabbed a bean bag chair, pulled it into the space, turned the whole thing into a pretty cozy set up.
Most days, I’d stock shelves for awhile then climb into my fort, wait out the shift.
As long as I had some downtime, customers weren’t too much of a problem. They generally asked the same few questions, wanting whatever the popular toy or video game was at the time. It was easy enough to deal with. “We’re out of stock,” was the usual answer; I’d say that a lot, try to let them down easy.
One day a customer caught my eye, waved me over. He was looking around, nervous. He proceeded to speak in a low, conspiratorial voice. It felt like we were about to exchange top secret information…but instead, he held up a doll- an African American baby- and whispered, “Do you have any white dolls like this one?”
“White dolls?” I asked.
He kind of fidgeted and added, “All I could find were the black ones. Can you check in the back, see if any white dolls are left?”
I whispered back, “I got you covered.” I gave him a little wink. I went back to the stock room and just killed time for a few minutes…I wanted it to seem like I was actually digging around for plastic white babies. Then, I picked up the intercom and announced- over the entire store, in my best pilot voice- “Gentleman requesting the white doll only…your item is available at the front of the store. Gentleman requesting the white doll only…your item is ready.”
In my head, I thought I could do this and then find the guy in time so that I could watch his reaction. That was the plan: announce, run out, just rubberneck the situation. But he fled the scene much faster than I was anticipating. I went to look for him…he was gone.
I asked the cashiers if anyone had passed by. They pointed at the exit, said yes. They said the guy was going full speed.
The cashiers were laughing. They were with me. But the store manager wasn’t thrilled. He came around the corner pulling his hair, apoplectic. I don’t remember what he said…I just remember he made some fair points and there was a lot of yelling and then I was written up.
I’m not saying the intercom thing was the right thing to do. It just felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity; the moment took on a life of its own.
That was my first (known) infraction, but it was the beginning of the end. This store had a 3-strike rule with write-ups…third one meant you were fired.
Sometimes, for no real reason, I’d get moody and argue with managers. It wasn’t their fault. During shifts, I’d get kind of stressed or mentally tired or whatever and mouth off. Eventually the third write-up came around (managers were catching on to my secret forts) and they kicked me out.
Thus ended my Toys R Us experience.
Money remained an issue, so I got another job pretty quickly. This one was at another national chain, Service Merchandise…it sold everything: toys, blenders, treadmills, jewelry, etc. I stocked shelves again. Unfortunately, this was a much smaller store…the stockroom wasn’t big enough for a concealed hiding place. I was bummed out.
One day a manager told me that I was being transferred to the jewelry counter. I told him that this would be a disaster for everyone involved…that I didn’t have the personality to sell stuff.
He said that, out of the dozens of people who applied to work at this place, I was one of the very few who did not ask to work jewelry. He said everyone wants to work that section because the pay is commission based, so the money was better.
When I insisted that I had no interest, he said “With jewelry, that’s actually a good thing. That means you’re honest…and my primary goal is to get honest people in that section.”
I was reluctant, but I thought about it and decided to give it a shot.
I set store records for low sales. I just couldn’t overcome the shyness enough to sell things or even say very much. The job was basically me milling about and being awkward for 8 hours. It was like I was being paid to hurt store revenue.
It was an odd scene. Customers would walk up and say things like, “Rings!” So we’d stand there and look at rings. The manager would always tell me to hold items up, move them around so that they caught the light, looked more appealing, but I felt manipulative doing that…like I was trying to hypnotize people into buying crap they didn’t need. So me and the customers…we’d just stand there and look at rings or whatever, not saying very much.
To keep salespeople competitive, the manager would print out everyone’s sales totals once a week, ranked from best to worst. He’d stick it up in the break room and everyone would gather around, look at it, compare numbers. People were into it, they loved competing, chatting about rich/poor customers and notable purchases.
I just ate lunch in my car, avoided the break room. I didn’t need to see the list. Sometimes I’d ask the manager, “Am I last again?” and he’d say, “Yes! But don’t worry! It’s a new week!” I’d proceed to tank that week also…then the next…and so on.
I just kept to myself at this job and people liked me okay. The only time I got into trouble was when the manager overheard me telling a customer- who was struggling to make a choice- that we should probably just “flip a coin” and get it over with. I got a lecture over that one.
After a few months of social stress and low sales numbers, I’d had enough on the jewelry counter; I quit. I didn’t work again for about a year, I just focused on finishing college.
By the time graduation came around, the depression had turned into a full thing. So, even though I had a degree in psychology, I wasn’t in a place where I could plan out next steps. I moved into a small, crappy apartment, and tried to think it through…I needed to find a way to pay the rent, buy food, yet live with depression.
My life at that time was like an airplane going into an emergency landing…the engine was on fire, the whole thing was going down, yet I was trying to exert a modicum of control over the crashing part.
I couldn’t handle an actual, post-college job, so I decided to try a temp agency. I thought that might be a decent middle ground.
I went into the temp place…told them I had no skills…said I would do anything, on one condition: it had to be a graveyard shift. My eyes had always struggled with a painful aversion to lights. And I was sleeping through most days anyway. I was ready to try night hours for awhile.
First job they came up with: working on an over-night crew at a huge home improvement/appliance store. Our job was to come in after hours and re-arrange the store according to some new schematic the company had come up with. We’d shuffle in at midnight, disassemble giant shelving, move items around, then re-build the shelving and re-stock it according to the new design.
It was scheduled as a one month project. I lasted about four days.
The problem is that my brain doesn’t process left-hand/right-hand information very well. Most people are one or the other, whereas I’m right-handed for some things, left-handed for others. It’s called cross-dominance.
Sometimes, as I’m doing things, it can take a few seconds to determine which way the right/left preference will go. I can start with one hand, feel unsettled, switch. The end result is a lot of clumsiness. It’s infuriating.
It made the new job a challenge. To take the shelves apart, we had to climb ladders…pull out the large, metal support bars that made up the frame of the structure…and hand the bars down to people.
On the second day, I was on a ladder…someone handed a bar across to me and I dropped it. These things were heavy. It crashed to the floor, made an ungodly sound; fortunately no one was standing below us. People laughed about it. Two days after that, I dropped another bar…this time it barely missed another worker. People weren’t laughing. Later that shift, the same thing almost happened, even though I managed to get a handle on the bar in time.
I could see where this was going. I told the manager I should probably leave. He didn’t disagree. The other workers looked visibly relieved. Pretty sure I saw one guy look heavenward, as if a prayer had been answered.
Back to the temp agency. Second job they came up with: file clerk.
For a few months, the local hospital needed someone to help straighten up the file room, get it organized. I’d go in at midnight, sort through files, get it all ordered according to their system.
It went okay. I had the file room to myself, so that was nice. There was no place to build a fort, but I did find the next best thing: the doctor’s lounge.
Near the file room, there was a secondary doctor’s lounge that no one used during the overnights, so I would sneak in there and take naps.
The only notable thing about the file clerk job is that, in the office next to mine, there was a room full of transcriptionists. They sat at computers, did busy work. One of them was a grad student who was studying opera. I had a small crush on her, so I would talk to her sometimes in the break room.
I’ve never known how to flirt…my head takes social data and re-arranges it into pointless confetti, so it makes a lot of interactions tough. I had barely been able to make friends up to that point in my life, so romantic connections were seemingly impossible. I couldn’t get the hang of it.
Still, I would try. My version of flirting is to walk up to someone I like…stare at my shoes…and ask about 500 questions in a row. I’ll just churn them out, one after the other, and wait for some sort of magic to happen. I never know what I’m doing; the magic never happens. Flirting doesn’t work that way.
Anyway, that’s how things went with the opera singer. I’d pelt her with questions…she was nice, she’d answer them, go back to work. The end.
That job went by. I filed, took naps, asked the opera singer 500 questions. Eventually the file room was all organized and the project ended.
After that, the temp agency said they only had day jobs available. I waited a few weeks…nothing came up. I had to try something else.
I finally took my psychology degree and went to this mental health center. It was a big campus with all sorts of buildings offering a variety services.
With a bachelors in psychology, it’s hard to find a good paying job. A PhD: you’re set. Masters: plenty of good options. But a bachelors degree basically tells employers that you’re a member of the Psychology Fan Club. It’s nice…nothing wrong with it…but it doesn’t really pay.
Anyway, I rolled into Human Resources at this place and said, “Whatever you got…it’s fine.” They said they didn’t have openings for me…but if I wanted, I could go on the waiting list for a part time job as relief staff. Relief staff: this means you cover hours when full time staff are sick or on vacation. So not only was this a part time position (meaning, no insurance)…I wouldn’t even be guaranteed regular hours if I did get the job. And they wanted to put me on a waiting list for that.
I said it was okay. I’d do anything. Only after I agreed did I think to ask which department this job was for. They said this would be at one of their new programs: an experimental psychiatric facility for clients with schizophrenia. Voluntary, non-restrictive setting. Ten clients…one staff on site per shift. These would be clients coming out of long-term institutional settings (like the state hospital) and I would be teaching them daily living skills and how to independently manage their medications.
I told HR to sign me up.
The waiting list thing didn’t last long: staff began to call, ask if I could cover shifts for them. Even though I preferred nights, I needed all the hours I could get, so I agreed to any requests. I would work any time, without notice. This got the staffs attention, so I became their first call when they needed time off. Even as relief staff, I ended up working long, regular hours.
When I first started at the facility, I was a little nervous. I didn’t know a lot about schizophrenia, couldn’t imagine what the work would be like. Turns out, it’s nothing like what you see in movies and television. Shifts were quiet…the clients were nice, mostly kept to themselves. It wasn’t the wild, chaotic scene popular culture likes to invent about mental illness. I just gave out meds…helped clients make meals, complete chores. We’d hang out, watch movies, go to the grocery store. Some clients would quietly interact with hallucinations. Other clients stayed in their rooms, didn’t have a lot to say.
Schizophrenia can change a person’s social awareness, make them less aware of, or perhaps less interested in, the rules and expectations involved with interactions. Hallucinations and/or delusions can become a primary focus, and everything else just seems irrelevant. This isn’t always the case, but the clients I worked with were not interested in the usual give and take of conversation. They did not initiate discussions or engage in small talk. About half the clients had blunted affects…which included a lack of facial expression. I usually find facial expression to be confusing.
Compared to the average social interaction, my client interactions were relatively straightforward and low-stress. The most difficult part of the job had nothing to do with clients…it was the staff meetings, where I had to sort through the inane obstacle course of office politics.
Staff would come up to me before and after meetings, describe their conflicts with other staff, gossip. My response was usually to nod a few times, count to twenty and walk away.
I was never popular with the other staff.
Supervisors didn’t know what to make of me. They liked that I was low-maintenance…I did the work, was never late, worked well with clients. But I was silent and overtly bored during meetings…didn’t get along with staff. I confused a long line of supervisors.
I only ever paid attention to one employee..the one who worked the overnight shift. I wanted that shift. I told the person (on a regular basis): “I want your job…if you ever leave, please let me know, I would love to apply for it.”
I waited. And waited. Eventually…a year and a half after I started as relief staff…the overnight person left. She gave me a heads up. I applied. I got the position.
It ended up being an okay situation. A shift with no other staff…the night hours that I prefer. I liked the clients; they liked me.
That’s the story of how I finally found stable employment. I ended up working at this facility for more than a decade.
(Then I fell in love and moved away and now I’m unemployed, but that’s a whole other thing. That’s an odyssey for another day.)