Stigma Fighters: Mark E.

My career ended with a phone call on Monday, 25 October 2010. “Mark. Dam Neck demands you have no contact with anyone at work.” With those words, I had a choice to make. Leave work on Medical Leave for mental health problems, or be fired.

I chose medical leave.

The end of my career started in May, 2010, when a friend at work told me, “I have breast cancer.” She asked me to keep it secret. I did.

Also in May, 2010, I realized a second friend was dealing with depression. She couldn’t do her work, got awful headaches and backaches at work, spent her weekends as far away from work as she could, and she drank too much.

The people we worked with avoided her. They gossipped, “What’s wrong with her?”. Management began stripping her of responsibilities. All of which fueled her depression. All of which hurt her.

I grew angry.

In June, 2010, my friend with cancer went out for surgery, and what happened at work stunned me. The group sent a get well card and flowers, then continued working, every day, like nothing was happening. I watched, and was dumbfounded at how cold, how antiseptic the entire process at work had become. I was me. I felt things. My friend was hurting, fighting cancer. I wanted to do something. And I did.

I started writing. I started my first blog, and let her know where it was. I promised myself I’d write every day until her ordeal was over. Other than doing my best to be her friend, there was nothing else I could do.

The day she returned to work, I was consumed by a desperate need to escape the place I worked. I remember the sense of that place being artificial, inhuman, uncaring. I couldn’t stay there. And I couldn’t leave. I was trapped. I started having headaches at work. Headaches I couldn’t cure with pills.

Everyone that watched me said the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. The stupidest thing anyone could have said to me. “Don’t care. There’s nothing you can do. Take care of yourself, and your family, and your job.”

I wanted to scream. I wanted to show everyone how screwed up what they were saying and doing had become. How they all acted like their work, their paycheck every two weeks, mattered more than another human being.

I couldn’t stand being there, with them, under those conditions. I had to escape to the beach behind the building when I couldn’t take it any more. The workplace had become cruel and heartless. The people had become nothing but expendable, replaceable parts in some nightmare machine. Repeatedly, I escaped to the beach, where I stayed until the urge to escape was gone. Until I could face being inside that building, in that place, with those people again.

On Saturday, 11 September 2010, my cancer fighting friend and her family had an end of summer party at their second house, on the Nottoway River. I attended. I knew how I behaved at such events. How I hid along the walls and watched everyone as I listened to fragments of conversations, and tried to understand how people knew when to talk, and what to say.

She’d asked me to show up. I couldn’t say no.

Everyone noticed my pacing along the wall. Everyone checked on me, to make sure I was OK. I kept explaining I was. My friend even told me to relax. As if I wasn’t. As if she couldn’t tell I was.

Friday, September 24, 2010 was the day I voluntarily entered psychotherapy, having tried to avoid it for 12 weeks. I’d fought it because I knew the doctor would tell me, “You’re in the wrong place. The wrong job. It’s time to change.” Ten minutes into my first therapy session, the doctor said I was in the wrong place, in the wrong job, and needed to change.

On Thursday, 7 October, 2010, my wife and I took a trip to West Virginia, to the mountains. We returned home on 10 October, thinking everything was going to be OK. I was finally back in control. I’d worked through everything. I was ready to return to work.

But everything changed on Monday, 11 October 2010 with a phone call from my boss. “Dam Neck requests you do not return to work.” He said my behavior was disruptive and disturbing at work, and I was to work at Northrop Grumman until things were straightened out.

I sent a text message to my ill friend, explaining what had happened. She sent one back, “Don’t make any rash decisions.” Rash decisions? I’d probably be fired the next day. There were no rash decisions to make.

I went to work on 12 October and somehow didn’t get fired. Everyone agreed my behavior was abnormal. No one wanted to fire me. Instead, it was the start of a two week trial, to see what the next step should be.

That two weeks ended on Monday, 25 October 2010, with a phone call. “Mark. You are to have no contact with anyone you worked with at Dam Neck. No phone calls. No email. No contact of any kind.”

That day I left work on medical leave. That day I survived the start of a multiple day panic attack. That day I walked until my heels bled, and my toes blistered.

Everyone I knew. Every friend I had. Every person I had any contact with. Was at work. And on that day, everyone was gone. It was the worst possible thing anyone could have done to me. No one but my doctor knows how long it took me to recover from that single phone call.

In the weeks following that day I learned I’d been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and an unspecified anxiety. I learned I was experiencing panic attacks, some of which lasted days. I spent October 25th through December 2nd more angry than I have ever been.

I tried to return to work on December 2nd. On December 9th, I was back on medical leave. I knew, on December 9th, 2010, I’d never return to the work I’d done for 28 years.

I spent December trying to figure out what to do next. I spent January waiting to be authorized to return to work by my doctor. In February I returned to work. And was ordered to undergo a “Fit for Duty” evaluation. It wasn’t a physical exam. It was a series of mental health tests. I started those tests on Friday, 11 February 2011. I finished them on Monday, 14 February 2011, and was informed of the test result. Asperger’s Syndrome. An Autism Spectrum Disorder.

At that point, I waited. I waited for Dam Neck to come forward and say I wouldn’t be allowed to return. I waited through March, April, May, and into June for the DONCAF to declare my clearance should be reinstated. Then, I waited for Dam Neck to declare I couldn’t come back.

The waiting ended on Monday, 20 June 2011, when Dam Neck informed everyone I was no longer needed at work. My last day at Northrop Grumman was Tuesday, 05 July 2011. I’d worked at Northrop Grumman for 29 years, six months.

I’ve been told I can file for partial disability, because I have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and am unable to work in the career I once had. Even my family members have suggested the disability option.

Currently, I’m working full time at Geek Squad in Best Buy, where I demonstrate I’m fully capable of working with other people 5 days a week. If I were disabled, and unable to work, would I be able to hold a full time job?

I’m not disabled. I’m different.

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Mark woke up from a life long sleep in 2010. In doing so, his life changed. The changes continue to this day. He’s been married to his wife for 29 years, and likes to inform people, “She’s one of the few things I’ve done right. I’m not hosing that up.” Their two human children are grown up and moved out. They have three feline children named Kaosu, Delilah and Ansem. Delilah always gives him kitty kisses right on the nose.

  • Miranda kate

    I’m sorry the human race treated you this way. And I’m so proud of how far you have come in dealing with your anger. I’m so glad I know you. xxx

  • Lisa Shambrook

    I truly wish the world was able to celebrate and harness difference, everyone is so valuable in their own way. We don’t need (or want) to be the same. I echo Miranda’s words. x