ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Delivering Pizza While Mentally Ill and Medicated

By Jack Bragen
Thursday May 31, 2012 - 04:11:00 PM

In 1988, I was in a difficult position. I was twenty-four years old. I was facing impending eviction by my parents. My parents had suggested that I needed to either get a job or get SSI. Meanwhile, the house I lived in was being sold, per the terms of my parents' prior divorce. In my despair, I decided to try a pizza delivery job, not knowing if I would be able to handle such a job, but acting from limited options. 

While I do not have permission to publicize the name of the pizza place, I have good memories of them as one of the few employers who would accommodate my disability. 

In the first couple of nights on the job, I kept getting lost and would deliver the pies hours late, to the tremendous ire of the customers. Upon returning to the store, my supervisors would ask where I had been, as I had been gone for an abnormally long time. 

The owner of the store didn't yet know that I was disabled, and was on the verge of firing me. I begged him not to fire me and said if he would give me a couple more days, that I would "get the hang of" the job. He agreed to give me a little more time. 

At that point, I decided not to let the manager of the store (the owner's wife) pressure me into running out the door (to appear speedy I guess), until I first took the time necessary to look at the map and see where I was going. That strategy paid off, and I began to deliver the pizzas in a reasonable amount of time. 

In 1988 and 89, cell phones were mostly car phones, and their use was not widespread, and GPS devices of the kind we are familiar with had not yet been invented. Thus, at the time, it required a bit more skill, compared to today, to find the places (where the pizzas were to go). 

A couple of weeks into the job, the owner confronted me, saying that I appeared to be "on drugs." It was at that point that I disclosed my disability, telling him that I took medication and not illegal drugs. He required a fair amount of convincing, which included sharing some of the details of my illness, and at that point, he accepted my disability and allowed me to stay on the job. He told me that he believed he had obsessive compulsive disorder, a less severe type of mental illness (that I believe actually helps some people be more successful). 

I found that with fifteen hours a week of work, I was able to earn close to a thousand dollars a month, which in 1988 and 89 was enough for me to live on, since I found a HUD subsidized apartment to live in. More than half of my income was from tips, and I would take this money home in cash, averaging about twenty dollars per night. I often deposited some of it in my bank account. With some of the cash, I also bought things that I needed, such as gasoline. The Reagan administration had introduced the requirement of food workers to report their tips to the IRS. Some of the employees understated this. Meanwhile, I tried to be as accurate as I could. 

The owners of the company liked me to the extent that I was chosen to pick up the head boss at the airport. I was offered a vacation, which, looking back on it, I should have taken. I turned down this vacation, and was overestimating myself. 

For a while they had me work at another store in their chain. I was framed by coworkers who were trying not to be blamed for having a car accident in which there was body damage to the company vehicle. To this day I am not certain that the owner believed my denial of guilt. 

After seven months on the job, I felt burned out on that type of work. I gave two-week notice with the belief that I would be able to work elsewhere. This materialized into several short duration, temp laborer or janitorial jobs and this was followed by collecting Social Security. 

Overall, I believe I was successful at the delivery job. Most employees at pizza delivery stay on the job for less than a year. In the short time I was there, I outlasted quite a number of other employees. 

Pizza delivery doesn't require a huge amount of brains. However, when in my twenties, I held quite a number of "idiot" jobs and was quite proud of them. Most of the actual difficulty involved seems to be that of getting along with coworkers. 

Performance isn't always the main determining factor in successful employment. Usually, in work environments that I perceived as hostile, I would not succeed in keeping that job. I have done some jobs where a lot was expected. The difference for me was usually whether or not I "gelled" with my employer and coworkers. 

The good thing about representing oneself when negotiating accommodation for a disability with an employer is that you circumvent being treated as incompetent, as a "special" person, or as someone who cannot truly do the job but who is being hired for the purpose of a tax credit. I had other jobs in which either I didn't disclose the disability, or else I negotiated the terms without assistance from mental health workers. Such a situation has always worked out much better than trying to do it through the mental health system where one is already considered mentally inferior to a "normal" person. The mental health system when providing sheltered employment destroys the entire idea of improving a person's self esteem. Providing more self esteem and self worth are the main reasons for a person with severe mental illness entering employment, since we aren't doing it to survive. However, this is a generalization and doesn't describe everyone.