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Robert David Jaffee

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Mental Illness and Finding the Right Job

Posted: 10/28/11 03:03 AM ET

About 10 years ago, I gave a talk at the Long Beach office of Project Returns, a self-help group run by and for the mentally ill in Los Angeles County. After I finished my prepared remarks, I opened up the discussion to questions, at which point an attendee shot up his hand and said, "How many times have you been fired?"

I chuckled. "None," I said, "but I have quit many jobs."

That moment stays with me because it gets to the core of one of the biggest problems for those suffering from mental illness: holding down a job. But it is not simply a matter of competence. While there are some mentally ill individuals who have been fired due to perceived laziness, there may be even more who have languished in the wrong fields for too long. That has caused them much psychic pain and has led them, as it led me, to quit many positions, even some that might appear to be highly prized.

For instance, Keris Myrick, the subject of a profile in this past Sunday's New York Times, who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, once quit a job at Cal Tech's admission department. On the surface, one might ask why she would have done a thing like that. Here, she was working at one of the most prestigious research universities in the world and presumably being well-compensated for it.

Yet those with mental disorders need a special kind of environment in which to thrive.

As Myrick, who now heads up Project Returns in Pasadena, cried to her mother over the phone one night, "I wasn't meant to be in admissions or higher education -- it's suffocating me, my creativity. I need to be in charge of my life."

I can recall quitting many jobs over the years for the same reason. My misadventures in the law and business, fields I no doubt entered to please my parents, stripped away at my self-esteem.

Like Myrick, I too was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder as well as schizophrenia in the late 1990s, and I too have been able to subdue my illness. There are many reasons why. I received excellent therapy from a wonderful psychiatrist, who encouraged me to find a community of writers, after years of toiling in the wrong fields. He also got me started on a regimen of antidepressant and anti-psychotic medication.

Then in 1997, after returning to L.A. after my first psychotic break, I started dating my then-girlfriend, Barbara, who is now my wife. She enriched me with the love and wisdom that I had lacked for years. Finally, I got a job as a proofreader/copy editor at L.A. Weekly.

While I was never a chief executive, as Myrick is, I did for many years work with then-copy chief, David Caplan, in overseeing the editorial side of the paper on Tuesday nights, when we put the paper to bed. I loved being the final sentinel before we released the copy to the printer. It was an adrenaline rush for my brain to read through all the articles until the witching hour of the night, and it did wonders for my self-esteem to demonstrate a great degree of skill in the midst of my colleagues.

Perhaps, none of it would have been possible without the nurture of Connie Monaghan, my first supervisor at the Weekly. In early 1999, when I was becoming unhinged, I confided in her about my fears that I was being framed for a series of heinous crimes, a metaphor for my lifelong feelings of alienation and powerlessness. Connie was understandably disturbed and stepped out of the room for a moment, but to her credit, when I called her about a week later after getting out of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, she said, "I don't want you to feel weird about coming back."

Later, after my first day back at work, I found a note attached to my time sheet. It was from Connie, who wrote that I was a "pretty, special person."

Thank God for Connie, David Caplan and so many of the others who made L.A. Weekly a wild, raucous and delightful place to work. My nine years there were some of the best and most fulfilling of my life, and they validate the point made in the New York Times article, that Myrick "needed a high-profile position, not a low-key one, to face down her spells of paranoia and despair."

We should not forget that Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, endured two severe, depressive episodes, and may have attempted suicide as a young man, according to Joshua Wolf Shenk's book, Lincoln's Melancholy. That Lincoln kept busy as a high-profile lawyer and politician helped him to stave off his mental illness, which, needless to say, did not prevent him from leading one of the most sublime lives of anyone in this country's history.