To Tell or Not to Tell


Yesterday’s book launch was a moving, amazing day for me. Hard to put into words, but I will try at some point. This week I’d like to share a post originally written in June, 2012:

I’m an advocate for OCD awareness. I believe obsessive-compulsive disorder needs to be talked about, openly and honestly, so that we can foster understanding and acceptance. Silence is not an option and only serves to perpetuate the ignorance and confusion that already surrounds this mental health disorder.

So when Dan was filling out employment applications, and they asked if he had any “medical conditions,” what do you think I advised  him to do?

Lie, of course.

No question about it. I’m a hypocrite, and the first to admit it. But as I’ve said before, OCD is messy, and it’s a lot easier to write about my thoughts and feelings than to actually carry out my own advice. I, like everyone else, am a work in progress.

The reason I gave Dan this advice (and I am not going to address the fact of whether he took it or not) is that I thought, rightly or not, that once the employer saw “OCD” on Dan’s application, he would not even be considered for the job. Who knows? That may or may not be true. Maybe the employer has OCD and Dan reporting it would be a plus?!  So I realize that while I have no problem talking about OCD and advocating for awareness when I know I’m dealing with people who are already accepting of the disorder (sufferers, those who care about someone with OCD, health professionals), it is much more difficult, and scary, to be open and honest when you have no idea who you are dealing with or what their reaction will be.

Back to the application. I was surprised to even see this question as I believe, because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is illegal to ask about health conditions in a pre-employment application. However, I know this law is complicated, and I am far from an expert. In fact, I am just learning about how it affects those with OCD in the workplace. Because my son has been in college for the past five years, my interest and knowledge of the ADA has always focused  on disabilities within the higher education system. I have so much to learn!

I’d love to hear from those with OCD in the workforce and how they have handled this issue. Does your employer know you have OCD?  Do you feel you have been treated fairly (or unfairly)? Any advice for those with OCD who may be entering, or considering entering, the workforce? Insight from those who have “been there” is invaluable.

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23 Responses to To Tell or Not to Tell

  1. sethgillihan says:

    I’m so glad I could be a part of the celebration yesterday, Janet! It was wonderful to meet so many people who know and appreciate you.

    • Thanks, Seth. Of course you were a huge part of its success. Several people have already told me they learned more about OCD from your talk than they have ever learned elsewhere. That’s pretty impressive if you ask me!

  2. Mr. Militant Negro says:

    Reblogged this on The Militant Negro™.

  3. says:

    It is illegal for an employer to ask on an application and in interviews before hire, certain questions, under federal law. States also have individual laws. There are with protections for people regarding our civil rights (disability, race, gender, nationality, convictions etc.).

    It is never a good idea to lie on an application because, it is my belief, first of all, it is not the right thing to do, Also, it can come back to haunt you (even 20 years later they can fire you if you lied on your application or resume). Also, if you write in their you do NOT have a medical condition,you cannot ask for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA should he need in the hiring process or need one after hire. It will often say on applications that any blanks will be considered an incomplete application so what is a person to do?! People using 12 steps need to keep it honest for their continued sobriety in whatever program they are in and, if someone is like me and an OCD confessor, they cannot be dishonest or will end up having to come back and confess. People do not want to be looking over their shoulder for the truth to come out some way.

    I was a job developer in Silicon Valley for 10 years and worked just with people with disabilities who were clients of the Dept. of Voc. Rehab. This included people with all different barriers to employment- disability, prior convictions, immigrants and refugees, people with English as a Second Language. The barriers were not THEIR barriers- they were barriers created by society discriminating against certain groups of people. So, it is very important everyone know their rights before applying for a job: just to name a few: employers cannot legally ask about: medical conditions, marital status, year of high school diploma and many more. I encouraged people to put down, in many situations N/A because the questions were Not Applicable. If an employer asked WHY did the person not fill it in, we worked on ways to present it. One way is for the person to say, “I know this question should not be on an application form and did not want to put you in an awkward position. ” Ex-offenders have many rights too and cannot be asked certain questions due to possible discrimination. There are many ways to educate people on how to successfully complete an interview and maintain their rights no matter what is asked.

    The other part is, do you really WANT to work for a company that discriminates against disabled peoples? If you or anyone else have questions about how to answer certain questions regarding employment apps or resumes, please feel free to contact me and if I can help, I will. I am not an attorney and it is possible some of these laws may have changed since 1999 but I believe most have not. You can also check with the Dept. of Labor, the Vocational Rehab in your state, and the EEOC. I hope this is helpful, All best, Lorre

  4. Nancy says:

    For some, hiding their “level” of OCD works. Although my experience watching my child go through High School, college and early working career is that it will eventually be sensed by those around the person. My child eventually was told to take the 12 week Family Medical Leave and get the situation straightened out or my child would lose the job. With our help (and our financial support) there was some help. It really isn’t fixed but I guess it is a start. But getting the right kind of help is really the key. We all hope that with treatment there with be anything to tell!

  5. katherine querard says:

    oh my, does this post hit home. I too have a son with OCD, pretty severe, coupled with ADHD. He is helped tremendously by both medication (for the ADHD) and exposure response therapy for the OCD. When I filled out our son’s application for private school (6th grade), i “over-shared” – as our elementary school principal later advised – with the information that our son had both of these diseases (from another post on this blog, i no longer use the word “disorders”). The reaction was immediate and upsetting. We were bombarded with very formal requests for official diagnoses, therapist analyses, IQ reports, treatment history, copies of 504 applications, etc – many of which we did not have and even if we did would have been reluctant to share. Long story short, he was not accepted (which, of course was a blessing in disguise) but i was appalled by the way that administration handled the whole affair. Later that same year, our son “shared” this same information on the sheet distributed on the first day of school by his middle school teachers under the caption “Is there anything else i/we should know about your?” However, this time, the responses were uniformly warm, welcoming, curious and helpful. Our son at 12 yrs freely shares this information with his friends and adults who coach and/or teach him. So far, there has not been negative consequences. i do wonder though if this will follow through to the workforce.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Katherine, and it’s so interesting to read of two totally different responses to the same information. And good for your son for feeling comfortable enough to share with his friends and teachers. He sounds like an amazing young man who gets a lot of support.

  6. My place of employment not only knows about my OCD but celebrates my advocacy work: psychology professors invite me to speak in their classes; the disabilities office invites me to speak on panels and in chapel; the school newspaper published op-ed articles I write about mental illness.

    I’ve never been treated unfairly because of it. Ever.

    Likewise, my book editor knows I have OCD and is curious about it– and she is excited that my next novel will include a character with OCD.

  7. Mary P says:

    My son had to quit work last summer due to severe OCD. He was up front with his employer and they understood even though he had to quit without notice. He simply could not drive, touch a computer and the list goes on. They have kept in touch with him to see how he is progressing and have offered that when he is able to return that they will have work for him. Their kindness and understanding has been so appreciated. My son has also been open about his OCD with his friends. They in turn have also been kind, picking him up when they can, despite busy schedules, for an afternoon or evening out. The support he has received has been remarkable and I am so thankful.

  8. C says:

    Hi Janet!
    Congratulations on your book launch and thank you for your part in this movement towards changing all that is negative about this disease. There are three ideas in response that I had to both your post and other people’s answers:
    1) As potentially blunt as this may sound and disagreeing with your first commenter, frankly, it is none of the employer’s business to know if you have OCD or not. If it is not affecting your work (or even if it is), no one has a right (regardless of what the law says) to require you to disclose what is likely the most intimate battle a person might have. And what kind of human would expect that of another whom they don’t even have a relationship with? My employers absolutely do not know and will not know, unless it is further on in the future if I am writing a book like you or Jackie. I think, as far as high school/middle school kids, college-aged, that it is really important to tell only with extreme discretion, BUT making sure that the person doesn’t feel like they are having to harbor a secret because there is something so wrong with them that it must remain a secret.
    2) Part of me feels like it’s almost not worth it to tell people, because most do not have any idea what this disease can do and the power and suffering that manifest with it… but then you get the flip side of that with those who say, “I admire you more for this; you’re extremely brave, and *what can I do to help*?” And that is a pivotal, potentially life-altering response if it’s someone who actually can help in some way.
    3) I was reading the other day about anorexia, bulimia, and eating disorders not otherwise specified and how those are considered “mental illnesses”. These are rampant. What about Seasonal Affective Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Add/ADHD, clinical depression/depression when things are going well,etc.? I cannot tell you how many people I know, just in my age bracket, who struggle with one of these. It seems, more and more, everybody has SOMETHING.

    • Hi C, Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and you bring up some excellent points. I think the bottom line is the choice to tell belongs to the person with OCD. As you say, they shouldn’t feel it must remain a secret, but they shouldn’t feel obligated to tell either. How much easier it would be if we knew what people’s responses would be! But that’s not how it works unfortunately. And I agree with your last comment as well, about the almost epidemic proportions of various disorders. I’ve noticed that myself in talking with people………everyone seems to have something or know someone who does. Thanks so much for sharing!

  9. I will start this post by repeating Janet’s comment above: ” I think the bottom line is the choice to tell belongs to the person with OCD. As you say, they shouldn’t feel it must remain a secret, but they shouldn’t feel obligated to tell either. How much easier it would be if we knew what people’s responses would be! But that’s not how it works unfortunately. ”

    This is exactly how I deal with revealing that I have OCD. I do it on a “case by case basis.” I think about whether the other person “needs or deserves to know” – This usually depends on how close our personal relationship is. If I am close enough to a person that they probably see my symptoms at times, AND if I really want to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with them for the long term…AND If I think they have enough compassion to “get it”, I take the risk and tell them. I should note that the effort I put into “evaluating” whether someone can “handle the truth” is both exhausting and scarey as I’m risking ruining the relationship. 95% of the time I have been fortunate. I work with a team of highly intelligent and compassionate people, and most of my friends and family at least accept that mental health illness is just as real as physical illness. I also work for a very large company so there are plenty of people with various mental health challenges around and company policy is very supportive of people with disabilities/health issues. ALMOST everyone I have told has been extremely understanding and supportive. Even if they don’t REALLY understand OCD, they do understand the words: “it severely impacts my life and I have to manage it constantly.” Usually when I share my “news” I am “welcomed with open arms.” There have been two exceptions, and it is interesting to note that both are family members. Those two experiences are extremely painful to this day. One relationship was completely destroyed and no longer exists. The other is on shaky ground and is a “work in progress.” The first person does not believe in mental illness, so there was no room for compromise in that case. In the second case, the person believes they understand OCD and perhaps they do, but they are certainly clueless about MY particular symptoms. This resulted in a nasty misunderstanding and “shouting match” (via email). I’m trying to give this person a chance to at least find some “middle ground.” Sadly, given the “all or nothing” nature of this person’s personality, if he/she can’t at least “agree to disagree,” I will be forced to “walk away and never look back.” (Fortunately for me I’m not particularly close to “person #2,” so I can live with walking away if necessary.) Sadly, person #1 and I were VERY close. That experience has been like coping with the death of a loved one. It happened 15 years ago, but I will forever feel the loss. Sad.

    I also want to share an experience I learned from a person who I was in “OCD group therapy” with: This person managed a store, was responsible for locking up at night, and had the classic OCD obsessions/compulsions surrounding making sure all the doors were locked in the store at closing time. A couple of his (probably young and foolish) employees observed his compulsive checking of the doors and actually “messed with him” by unlocking doors that had already been locked at random while he was in the process of closing up. This was VERY cruel to say the least.

    The bottom line for me regarding: “To Tell or not To Tell” is to “proceed with significant caution,” and to recognize/accept in advance that from time to time the results will not be what you had hoped for.

    I hope sharing my experiences will be helpful in some way.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences Paul and I’m sure they will be helpful to other people. As you say, it is a risk to tell people, and you might get hurt, as you did, but it is a risk that is sometimes important and necessary to take. I hope things can work out with person #2. Thanks again for your insight!

  10. Karen says:

    Hi Janet! First of all, congratulations on your book! What an awesome achievement! Thanks so much for all you do to promote OCD awareness too! Wow, I couldn’t have read this post at a better time. I read this right when the post came out, and I found it very interesting. Even moreso, I had a situation ocme up at work in the last few days that mey require me to start the process of filling out the required paperwork in regard to the ADA. I really am feeling like I’m at a crossroads with this decision, and can’t see to find an easy way of dealing with this. I would so much appreciate it you would read my most recent blog post and let me know your opinion. Reading about how much you personally know about OCD, and also dealing with a son that had it, I really respect any opinions you have to offer. Thanks so much!

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