MY BRILLIANT CAREER
I had been working for a top 500 company for over five years. With a history of living on the street as a homeless teenager, I had clawed my way up, from an entry-level customer service position into a fairly senior managerial position. I advanced rapidly; my hard work and skills were recognised, leading to promotions. By the time this story starts, I had a high level of responsibility and decision making power and supervised a number of staff. A lot of my identity and belief systems were tied up in my job, not to mention my self-esteem and self-image. I loved my job and I was good at it.
Yet despite all this, I found myself in a position whereby one day I was considered capable with a bright future, and the next I was regarded as a threat - to the company, to the people I worked with and to myself. I was treated as if I was unmanageable, a liar, a thief, untrustworthy and incapable of responsibility. Overnight the company decided I was unable to do my job, simply because of stereotyping, stigma and discrimination.
It all started when I had a serious health problem involving a painful infection that spread to my jaw. I was in agony. Neither my dentist nor doctor were prepared to provide me with pain relief to get through this infection. I had no history of opiate use and it wasn’t because they thought I was doctor shopping, it was simply to do with government policy around provision of pain medications. I tried using over the counter pain relief, but it did not touch the sides of my pain. It was going to be a six week wait to get into the orthodontic surgeon to fix my problem.
In the meantime I located black market morphine. It worked, however I was using it without medical supervision. I found myself in the world of the illegal opiate market, simply out of need for pain relief.
A few days after the surgery, when the pain abated, I decided to stop the meds. But I found I had a physical dependency. I became very sick and I had strong cravings. Because what I had done was illegal, I had to keep it a secret. I would have needed medical support and time off my job to stop. I felt that neither of these was possible, so I felt I simply wasn’t in a position to stop using. Over the next 18 months I used opiates - morphine until that source dried up, then heroin and sometimes cold washing codeine.
I want to emphasise that during this period not only were there no criticisms about my work performance, I received positive reinforcement for my work. I continued to get promoted even as my tolerance escalated. Neither my work attendance nor my work performance suffered. I didn’t take any sick days during this period, nor was I ever late to work.
Then I ran out of money. My credit cards were maxed. My savings were gone. My use had exceeded my income. I hit a Friday and I was in withdrawals and I couldn’t even afford a box of panadeine. A formal detox was out of the question as it would interfere with my job. So I made the decision to go on Opiate Substitution Treatment (OST). I missed a single days’ work organising this. On return to work the following Tuesday I made the biggest career boo-boo of my life that is still having ramifications today, several years later. I told my boss!
I advised my boss that I had started on OST. I told her that while the dose was being adjusted, I might need to start later than I would usually, but as the company had flexibility, I would still be doing standard hours.
The change was instant.
At that moment, I was sent home on two weeks forced leave. I was told to pack my office and take it with me, effective immediately. I was told that they would get in contact with me about what would happen next.
The policy around sharing personal health information with your manager was that it was supposed to remain private and confidential, with the exception of particular staff in Human Resources. But within minutes, my life had become office gossip. Everyone knew. All my colleagues, the staff I supervised, even people I didn’t even know.
Why did I tell my manager? Apart from the fact that I have a “problem” with honesty, perhaps because my dependency was linked to pain, at least in the beginning, I thought I would be treated differently. Certainly I thought my excellent reputation would be taken into account, but I think I genuinely thought that I would receive understanding and sympathy.
I did not realise the extent to which stigma and discrimination is everywhere around drug use. I did not realise that even people that you think are your friends, or those you think possess great personal politics, think it is ok to discriminate against you if you use drugs.
I was effectively demoted, I was moved to a windowless back room, with a stand alone computer and a pile of data entry. It was boring, repetitive work. I had no contact with anyone else, let alone supervising them. I was left there for months, apart from lots of pointed meetings with my boss and Human Resources which they framed as “support”. I went from being an executive with high self-esteem and a great deal of job satisfaction to a depressed drudge working in isolation.
Meanwhile, they were checking if I had been engaged in fraud. They found nothing, because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was sent for a work medical assessment although there was nothing on my record to justify this; I was rarely unwell. I was performance managed despite a work history of praise and promotion.
The stress started really getting to me. They kept telling me they were making changes to my career to foster my well-being. When I challenged them, I sounded paranoid and emotional. I felt framed by stigma and any expressions of frustration reinforced their beliefs of my unmanageability. I realised my career in that organisation was permanently annihilated. Ultimately after more than 12 months of trying to resolve this, I resigned. I simply couldn’t take the bullying anymore.
After I left, I was incapable of working properly. I got a couple of jobs that were way lower than my skill levels. I lost references for nearly a decade of work, making me less competitive at interview for the jobs I should be getting. My career had been permanently damaged.
Eventually I found an organisation I could work for, where I could begin to rebuild my career and salvage my reputation, but it has been a struggle. I was sideswiped by stigma and discrimination, as so many people who use drugs are on a daily basis. Still, I firmly believe it: get knocked down ten times, get up eleven.