The Big Issue : Edition 483
THEBIGISSUE1–14MAY2015 23 THE DIAGNOSIS OF bipolar disorder explains the moods that rise and plummet, sometimes within a day. My son learns this at 16, but adolescence and treatment don’t mix well. Mainstream schooling doesn’t accommodate erratic behaviour and high levels of creativity. He quits the education system in frustration and finds that employment opportunities are scarce. Money comes from sporadic, casual jobs. When he leaves home, the Disability Support Pension is a welcome support, but he wants to earn a portion of his income himself. It’s about self-worth and belonging. Happy to start small, he is given hope by an appointment with a government employment provider specialising in jobseekers with disabilities. His CV, which outlines his paid work – delivery boy, kitchen hand, some casual work in council youth services – is rewritten by the agency into something bland; something that makes him disappear into dullness. ‘Starting small’ makes him suck it up. Months later, he’s no closer to an interview, let alone a job. The road’s a long one. During one summer of fraught searching, a caseworker doesn’t send him to interviews “because it’s January”. “Doesn’t she get that I still have to eat, no matter the month?” he asks me. “Come home,” I offer. He wants his independence. “Something will come up,” he insists. And it does – an interview for a job stocking service station confectionary machines. “I can handle that!” he says, hope rebuilding. The three-person interview panel is overkill. Though daunted, he fields their questions well. Until one says, “Agency tells us you have bipolar disorder.” “Yes, well managed. I take my meds and see my doctor regularly.” A pause. “How do we know you won’t go crazy and kill somebody?” the interviewer continues. My son searches their faces for signs that the question is a poor joke. There’s none. They only see the ‘dis’. Not the ‘ability’. Jobless. He doesn’t lodge a complaint. Years slip by. A spasmodic labouring job promises future training. It lasts a year or so, before ending when he asks for the ‘promised’ apprenticeship. Returning to the agency, he despairs when advised to stop job hunting and “just stay on the DSP”. Online, repeatedly getting no response to his applications, he wonders when he became invisible. His psychologist suggests he go to TAFE. “Study community development and welfare services,” she encourages. The irony doesn’t escape him. Years of counselling, tweaking medications and levelling out highs and lows, muster his courage. The classes engage his social awareness and his creative problem- solving. He gains some confidence. He still wants an independent income, so registers for casual work with a new agency. This caseworker secures him an interview at a supermarket with a policy of employing people with disabilities. He becomes one of their best trolley collectors. Not just because he makes sure all trolleys are in the bays before he finishes his shift, but because he also gets to know the customers, like the woman he learns has Parkinson’s disease. He brings her a trolley as soon as he spots her. She calls him “her angel”. The man who idles at the store entry, ranting aggressively at passers-by is calmed by a gentle conversation. “People pretend they don’t see him,” my son explains, “but he needs someone to know he’s there.” He completes the two years of studies with a high-distinction average, and begins applying for community development jobs. Disappointment follows. Has he wasted his time studying? Some months later, he lands an ongoing casual job with an organisation offering mental-health services. The role fits together the mosaic of his past experience, his creativity, his personal journey. The organisation values his lived experience of mental illness. “Ironic, hey?” he laughs. Not forgetting those customers unnoticed by others, he keeps some shifts at the supermarket. It’s more than a decade since that early diagnosis. There are still dark days and overly ebullient ones, but the shadows aren’t so long now. He feels visible. He knows he’s luckier than most: those who lack family and friendship networks; those whose conditions aren’t amenable to treatment or are exacerbated by abuse, isolation or homelessness. Now, he’s another voice for those who manage disabilities not obvious to the human eye. Those who struggle in silence. He understands that little things can hurt or hearten. He has compassion, empathy and courage; more than the largest bank of trolleys could ever carry. He’s my son. He has bipolar disorder. And, in him, I see one of the best men I know. » Lucia Nardo is a Melbourne-based writer who teaches at Victoria University and in community settings. See lucianardo.com. WHERE MANY ONLY SEE A DISORDER, OR NOTHING AT ALL, LUCIA NARDO SEES HER TALENTED AND ABLE SON. TYPOGRAPHYBYLUKEDONOVAN DO YOU SEE HIM?