Academy for Educational Development, AED, Bigotry, Bipolar Disorder, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, False Accusations, Hostile Workplace, Juan Mezzich, Ken, New Voices, New Voices Fellowship Program, Paranoia, Racism, Sexual Harassment, Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, Western Psych, Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the fact that this week ten years ago, I endured what was the beginning of a three-month period of a hostile work environment (one that was already not-so-optimal to begin with). It was brought on by my then immediate supervisor’s paranoia and jealousy, and intensified by his then undisclosed bipolar disorder. I’ve written about my three years of hell with Ken before on this blog, most notably in “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1” from a couple of years ago.
What I haven’t really discussed at all was how I felt about all of this as I went through it. As a man, as a Black man, as a person who believed in social justice, including in a workplace in which we funded social justice projects. I’d only been accused of sexual harassment one other time, by a boss whose best friend had been harassing me at work for the better part of two months, in the early part of ’89. Now, fourteen years later, here was Ken, at an HR meeting he set up, accusing me of saying things that I never said, of thoughts that I never had.
I was already used to being guilty before being innocent. With police. In a public setting, like a supermarket or bookstore. But not at work, and for the most part, not while I was at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon. Why? Because I tended to be at my most guarded while at work back then. In fact, during an exit interview the year before, a former program assistant at New Voices said that I needed to be “more open” at work if a team like ours was ever to reach its full potential. She may have been right. If only I had bosses who were more open, more relaxed, less accusatory, and in Ken’s case, on his meds.
There are few things worse in one’s job or career than reckless false accusations. Even if proven completely untrue, there are some who’ll choose to look at those accused with less trust and more suspicion. And Ken, for all of his bluster about social justice, had proven himself to be as much of a bigot as former executive director at Presidential Classroom, an openly admitted bigot. He could’ve accused me of insubordination, of wanting his job, of not doing my job well enough. Instead, Ken relied on the whole hyper-sexualized Black male motif, as if my testosterone was dripping right out of my penis, like some animal in heat.
Of course, some of you will say, “He had untreated bipolar disorder. He didn’t know what he was doing. Cut him some slack.” No, I can’t and I won’t. As I’ve noted in another post regarding Ken’s condition, bipolar disorder doesn’t equal insanity or irrational behavior necessarily. I worked for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health between ’89 and ’92, and for Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic at Pitt between ’89 and ’91. I became pretty good at understanding the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. I did learn a thing or two from having Dr. Juan Mezzich as a boss while I worked at Western Psych between my junior year and first year of grad school at Pitt.
One of the things I learned was that bipolar disorder generally exaggerates existing thoughts and behaviors. The psychosis can often be exasperated by stressful situations. For those with the illness, the highs are way too high, the lows so low that suicidal thoughts can become prevalent. If one tends to be paranoid, the paranoia becomes heightened, as was the case with Ken. Still, even with bipolar disorder, he was acting on his bigoted and paranoia template, there long before bipolar disorder manifested itself in him as an adult.
I understood all of this, even as I went through months of accusations and arbitrary changes to my work schedule. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a part of me that felt rage, wanted revenge, wanted to take the physically and emotional stunted twerp and stuff him in a garbage can. Or that I didn’t come to work at AED every day between November ’03 and February ’04 with thought that I should just quit, turn around, go home, watch my newborn son Noah and figure out my next step. Most of all, there were times I wanted to choke Ken until he told the truth, that he was a jealous-hearted bastard who lied about me to HR in order to put me in my place as a Black guy working under a White guy.
But I didn’t. I didn’t because I knew that I was right. I knew, somehow, that things would work out in my favor. I knew that God and the universe would vindicate me. If my life is proof of anything, it’s proof that my truth wins out in the end. Those thoughts dictated my actions and counteracted any feelings of rage or violence I had during those cloudy days. To Jonathan Martin and so many others out there, I think I know how you feel right now. Please hang in there, and hang on to the truth.