#188: Dealing with a coworker with a severe mental illness.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I have a coworker diagnosed with bipolar. Let’s call her Cosette.

Cosette and I work in the same field, and share many colleagues. When I moved to my current job with Cosette, our colleagues told me about her diagnosis. Some did this in a really ableist sort of way (“Look out for Cosette, she’s crazy”), and some did this in a helpful specific way (“Cosette has certain problems with boundaries, here’s what worked well for me.”)

I also know about her diagnosis because our former boss disclosed to me. This was all kinds of HR and ethical wrong, I know, but context: I and another coworker witnessed Cosette having a pretty serious and disturbing psychotic break. Because we already knew something was up, Former Boss put us in charge of the cleanup of client fallout (Cosette had called our clients while hallucinating, and continued calling them from the psychiatric ward when she was briefly committed), and running interference with Cosette at the office (Cosette called the office constantly, and we wanted to keep her location and current state as private as possible from other coworkers who might answer the phone first).

Cosette is not always easy to deal with. She has serious boundary issues, like calling your home number for work issues at midnight, or standing WAY too close (like boobs against your back close), or grabbing things off your desk or out of your hands if she wants to look at them. She sometimes gets very “up”, talking extremely fast, with trains of thoughts that are difficult to follow, making group projects very problematic sometimes. She can also get very snotty during the “up” times – if you don’t understand what she’s saying, or ask for clarification, she will repeat herself in the kind of voice people use when they mean to insinuate that you are a dumb child. You know, this very slow, “What. I. Said. Was. Get. The. Widget. Do we all understand now, hmm???” She will also do this with clients, becoming very hostile and overbearing at them. During these snotty times, she also tends to try to rope some coworker into being her assistant, dropping many tasks on them, calling them at all hours, etc. Each request, in isolation (and with difficult to parse explanations), can be considered reasonable, but taken all at once, it’s like being hijacked.

The tasks Cosette dumps on people are sort of like she’s outsourcing some OCD issues — like, she needs you to count the yellow paper and tell her the number, because of reasons. If you say no, she will be very pushy about getting a reason why, which is very awkward when the reason that pops up in your head (“because that’s crazy”) is really not something to be saying or thinking, and more socially polite reasons (“I am busy right now”) invite aggressive responses from Cosette (“When won’t you be busy? I’ll put it down on your schedule”). She’s also a huge monopolizer of time; she’s pretty good at manufacturing crises – like, a presentation is all ready to go when Cosette notices a typo on one page, so we must now go back to scratch in the last five minutes before the presentation and remake the whole thing, necessitating calling all the secretaries and all the bosses and making a second presentation in case the other one can’t be fixed in time, etc. Trying to explain to Cosette that this doesn’t need to be done is often more time-consuming and draining than just going along with it.

Our Former Boss put up with this, which meant whenever Former Boss was at work, Cosette was in her office with the door shut all day, and none of the rest of us had access to Former Boss. Cosette would do this with other coworkers occasionally, sitting in their office and talking non-stop about all the crises that need to be fixed, and not appearing to take any subtle cues or hear the not-so-subtle, direct, “Shut up, I need to work” cues.

Cosette is also a hoarder. Her office is impassable. Along with the paperwork and supplies in there, it’s filled with rotting food and sometimes bugs. Three or four times a year, she will put her office into boxes, then put the boxes in an office closet. Our office no longer has accessible storage space, only Cosette-space. Former Boss didn’t like conflict, so never dealt with these problems. So there’s no documentation, no accommodations – just a lot of “it’s always been this way” and “you know how Cosette is” and “look what you did, you made her upset.”

Current Boss is being more proactive and confronting Cosette’s unacceptable work behaviors (like the hoarding), and requiring that Cosette document and clear her accommodation needs with HR. What this essentially means is that Cosette must work normal hours, which she hasn’t done in a long time (previously, she would work 80 hours a week for a month, then work from home or just not show up for a month). While she’s here, she needs to track her tasks — nobody is quite sure what Cosette actually does anymore. Current Boss has also set a deadline on office cleaning. When the deadline passed for cleaning Cosette’s closets, Current Boss took everything and put it in the trash. The deadline is rapidly approaching for Cosette’s office, which she hasn’t begun cleaning at all, and Cosette’s hostility, perfectionism, and manufactured crises are hitting this peak of anxiety right now. She even brought in her mom to try to explain to Current Boss that Cosette has always hoarded and we should just let her.

The office right now is sort of on eggshells while we wait to see how this will all play out. Okay, here’s my question. I want to make sure I am not being an ableist jerk. I can do that in the best of times, but right now, things are tense as hell, so if I’m going to slip into something shitty, it’ll probably happen now. I wanted to run two lists by you: Things I Have Done and Things I Think In My Secret Heart of Hearts. If you can tell me if any of these things are crappy and ableist, I would really appreciate it.

Things I Have Done

  1. When Cosette called me at home, I told her that there was never any reason to contact me outside of work hours. When she did it again, I spoke to Former Boss, told her it had to stop, and documented the conversation. When Cosette continued to call me, I did not answer, waited until the next workday, then confronted her directly and told her never to call me outside of work hours, and that I would never, ever, ever answer. She stopped calling once she realized I really wouldn’t answer, I guess.

  2. When Cosette gets snotty with me, I give her this speech: “I am not okay with the way you’re speaking to me. It feels insulting to me. I want you to stop.” She stops, but then does it again later, and every time it’s like a slap in the face. I document these things, too.

  3. I have not disclosed Cosette’s mental health status to anybody, nor her psychotic break, nor her stay in the hospital. Cosette knows I know about these things, but she has never brought them up with me independently, so I have not brought them up with her.

  4. I have refused to ever, ever, ever participate in cleaning Cosette’s office or closets. When Former Boss pressed me for a reason (she had directly ordered me to help), I told her I considered this a health and safety issue (bugs, rotting food) and would contact OSHA if she pushed it. When Cosette pressed me for a reason, I told her I was not willing to help anybody with their personal cleaning, and I frankly told her that I found her office space unsanitary and I did not want to touch it. I tried to say that without judgment — I kept a neutral face and voice, and didn’t act disgusted — but I didn’t want to dance around how bad her office was the way other staff does (“just a little cluttered”).

  5. I gave both Former Boss and Current Boss the number of the HR department of the business Cosette and I previously worked at, so our HR department could contact them and maybe discuss former accommodations and such.

  6. When Cosette has tried to make me her assistant, I previously pretended I was too dumb to figure out what she wanted me to do. Now that I have Current Boss, I clarify with Current Boss what is and is not my job, and perform only what is my job, reserving the dumb act for the things that aren’t my job. (I have tried saying, “That is not my job” but will get a non-stop litany of mind-bending excuses about why just this once it makes sense that I should do it).

  7. I have given Cosette direct, “I am busy, I can’t talk right now” statements when she’s monopolizing my time. If I do this three times and she ignores me, I walk away.

  8. I work on letting go of the little things. Such as: I just purchased pens for the whole office, and they are all gone, because they went in Cosette’s office and got lost. Okay. Buy more pens, let it go.

Things I Think In My Secret Heart of Hearts

  1. I think Cosette should be terminated. The hoarding is unacceptable. The hostile treatment of clients and coworkers is unacceptable. Consistently working overtime when you have not cleared it with your boss (and been told specifically to stop this) is unacceptable.

  2. Having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t also be an asshole, and goddamn, she’s such an asshole sometimes.

  3. This office has done Cosette no favors by allowing this behavior to go on unchecked – I cannot imagine her being able to get another job that accepts these behaviors.

  4. I should be nicer, kinder, more accepting and understanding.

  5. I should stop with the nice and the kind and the accepting and understanding. This office has been nice and kind and accepting and understanding and it’s created a very enabled Cosette, and a very resentful office. I should be firmer, and take a hard line every single time.

  6. Dealing with somebody who has a mental illness is draining and hard and sometimes I really hate it and am really angry. I signed up to do a job, not plan tactics for dealing with one individual, or be a PCA, or clean up bugs.

  7. I want to preserve her privacy, but I also want to vent, and I don’t know how to complain about Cosette without being sure I’m not complaining about her mental illness (that is, I want to complain about her being an asshole, not about her being sick, and I’m not sure what’s what).

Are there things I am thinking or doing that are shitty? Do you have any tips for working with somebody who has a mental illness in a way that is respectful of them, but also respectful of yourself?

Hey there, sorry it took me a really long while to get to this. Maybe the situation has resolved itself one way or another? Please update.

Here’s what I think:

  1. It really sucks to be Cosette, and life has dealt her a shitty hand.

  2. That she handles horribly.

  3. Just because my Grandma taught me that you have to love the Jesus in everyone (and that anyone, especially really difficult people, might be Jesus come back to test your compassion, which is a dick move when you think about it) doesn’t mean you have to like Cosette or like working with her. It’s possible to feel compassion and empathy, like “man, that must be really hard for her, I’ll buy new pens” while still setting firm boundaries about what’s acceptable at work. I give you permission to utterly dislike her.

  4. Because Cosette herself has never disclosed her illness to you, you are correct to never mention it to her and never tell other coworkers about it. It doesn’t officially exist until she herself tells you about it. I run into this with students a lot. If they require accommodations, they must present a letter to me at the beginning of the semester and then we make whatever suggested arrangements are necessary. Many, many times I’ve suspected/noticed signs of issues like ADHD, but I am prohibited (correctly) from diagnosing that stuff – the MOST I can say is “I notice you have trouble staying focused sometimes, maybe x office has some strategies to help you stay on track?” and hope they work it out. Until they do, I do what you do and focus on behaviors and boundaries. “Sorry, the work is due when it’s due.” “Can you please write down your questions as they occur to you and save them for when I ask for questions? Please don’t blurt them out and interrupt me or other students when we’re speaking.”  If Cosette ever tells you about her illness, your answer is “I’m sorry, that must be really difficult. How would you like me to handle (x kind of request) in the future? (Insert work subject here).” You are correct to remain focused on behaviors and how they affect you

  5. I like the cut of New Boss’s jib. By setting firm boundaries and asking Cosette to directly document what accommodations she needs, clean the office, and do her work, s/he is guaranteeing the best possible outcome for your company:  Either Cosette documents stuff, asks for what she needs, and starts working up to standard and behaving more acceptably (a good outcome for the company and good for Cosette) or she fails to do so but now New Boss has the paper trail necessary to terminate her. I think that New Boss is very aware of how you feel and how the situation affects you. If s/he is any good, s/he will never reveal the true intentions around this until some kind of decision gets made. Give it some time and let your manager manage.Don’t take it on yourself whether the office as a whole has been or should continue to enable Cosette. Don’t feel guilty, as if you being nicer would have any effect on her at all. Former Boss was plenty nice, yes? Did it help? No. Keep your head down, do your job, and learn to love your neutral robot-voice while you baldly state facts.

  6. I’m hoping that your company has an excellent health care/EAP plan, and that Cosette is able to access many, many awesome resources through them. Hoarding is devastating and she needs a lot of help to get better. I sincerely hope that she gets all of it and more.

It all comes down to boundaries, which I think you are doing an excellent job of setting and communicating. It is not Cosette’s fault that she has an illness, but that doesn’t mean you have to just roll with her behavior when it crosses the line. No, you will not help her clean. No, you will not answer work calls at home. No, you are not her assistant. No, you will not be interrupted whenever she feels like it. No, you will not let her perfectionism and anxiety undo all of your work. It’s exhausting to have to repeatedly communicate this stuff – Cosette is not one who takes hints or who can extrapolate well (“She told me three times to stop interrupting, that means I should not interrupt her“), and I imagine that both you and New Boss are vividly imagining what the office could accomplish if so many person-hours weren’t spent “handling” Cosette. Focus on your successes, where by setting a firm boundary and enforcing it you taught her not to call you at home anymore and she did eventually get it, and let your manager handle the rest.

And I can’t speak for Cosette’s particular conditions, I can only speak for mine (depression). When boundaries and expectations are clear, it’s much easier for me to perform well at work even when I am struggling and things feel impossible. In a depressive episode, the hardest thing for me is to create structure for myself, so it’s actually helpful to have structure (a rigid schedule, for example – you can’t be late when you’re the teacher!) in place. When boundaries (deadlines, schedules) are fuzzy, it’s much harder for me to rise to the occasion, and back in my 20s before I got fully diagnosed and treated I became one of the brilliant-but-unreliables.

This was aided by having a workaholic office environment with no clear start or end time. Some people came in at 7 am, others came in at 9:30. Sometimes you left at 6, many times you worked until 8 or 9, sometimes until midnight or 1 or even all night/all weekend if a proposal was due or you were collaborating with people in other countries. No one ever showed up on time to meetings. My uber-boss was a workaholic who never left the office, and he loved to walk down the hallway at 9 pm and see everyone still working; it made him feel energized and important. Since there was no time that couldn’t be work time (seriously, one time my unit figured out that we turned in complex government proposal every 36 hours for a year), and 25-year-old me who loves doing well and pleasing people didn’t know how to set boundaries, it became seriously unhealthy for me.

I went from being great at my job to losing time in the shower in the mornings (where my hair fell out in clumps from stress, and my doctor had started trying to see if I had a pituitary or adrenal gland tumor because my stress levels were so high, and you guys, finding out that I had tumors would have come as a relief because it would have explained what was happening to my life) –  and coming in at 11. Every now and then I would travel overseas, but it would be like “You are going to Bucharest. Tomorrow. For three days.”  Once in Bucharest, it would be like “You will stay for 2 weeks. No, wait, 2 months. Can you do 3 months and then go to Kiev for a week? By which I mean a month?”  So I’d live out of a suitcase for months, and when I came back my plants would be dead and my cat (watched by kind friends) would have peed on everything in my apartment out of stress and the cute boy I met right before I left would have totally forgotten about me. I also used to sometimes tell my assistant that I had client meetings outside the office and then I would go to the movies and watch three in a row, staring at the screen and praying that I could pass through it somehow, out of my life and into the dream world which when I look back was probably the healthiest, best thing I did during that time? Then I’d come back and do my work, wandering the 2 miles home at three in the morning in a haze, watching the rats come out to play and doing the same thing again the next day. I don’t think I was suicidal, but I was definitely in a severe “I don’t really care what happens to me because I am maybe a robot” headspace.

It took a great, great boss, someone I am eternally grateful to, someone who changed the whole course of my life, to sit me down shortly after my 25th birthday (which I spent in the office until midnight working on some stupid proposal and crying on the phone to my parents, who told me that no job was perfect and maybe I should try harder?). He said: “Look. You are just not yourself and I am worried about you. You are depressed. It’s a real thing – look it up, lots of people have it, lots of very smart people have it. Call this (EAP) number and set up some help. Ok, also, you are going to clean your desk, and you are going to come in by 9 every day and leave no later than 5 every day, and don’t worry about the work, it will get done, you just stick to that schedule for right now. Even if for a couple days you don’t do anything but stare at the walls, be here at 9 and leave at 5. Also you are going to have, like, 12 different careers in your life and this is just one of them, and you are very good at it but it is very bad for you, and if you are still here in a year I will fire you for your own good.

Boundaries, dude. They save lives. It didn’t help me to have my boss feel sorry for me and let me keep behaving in toxic, self-destructive ways, but it did help for him to create a structure where I could help myself. That is what your boss is trying to do for Cosette. It’s up to her what she does with the information.

P.S. At some point I’m probably going to disclose so much personal info here that I will become completely and totally unemployable and un-datable. In a feeble effort to avert that day, let me just say that I love my job now, and even though last year was one long depressive episode of suckitude I got a GREAT, stellar, A+++ performance review from colleagues, bosses, and students. Take that and suck on it, Mental Illness.

I hope things will/have gotten better where you work. Let us know?

37 thoughts on “#188: Dealing with a coworker with a severe mental illness.

  1. LW, I am so sorry that you are in this shitty situation, but I think you’re handling it really well and non-ableist-ly. It’s ableist to assume that everyone with mental illness are incompetent; it’s realistic to accept that some people with mental illness are incompetent, because it’s not like the world has a shortage of incompetent people. Just look at the GOP primary! *rimshot* But seriously, it sounds to me like Old Boss and HR really fell down on their jobs. There are a TON of options for “reasonable accommodation” of Cosette’s issues that are way more reasonable and productive than “ignore the shit out of them/let her do whatever she wants.” One could really argue that the current approach isn’t really accommodation at all–by not providing her with adequate support & boundaries, they’re really setting her up to fail.

    I am slightly surprised that the Captain didn’t suggest you get some therapy, but–maybe you want to get some therapy? Just a little, for handling the stress and practicing the boundary-setting? Maybe you don’t, and that’s cool, too. I’m kind of like these Vikings when it comes to therapy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anwy2MPT5RE.

  2. The Captain is right. There’s also nothing wrong with setting boundaries on someone, no matter their circumstances. It’s wonderful that you want to not be an ableist jerk to her, and your language really reflects that. You’re doing exactly what you should be to take care of yourself and do your job.

  3. I am mentally ill. She is in no way stable enough in her treatment to be working that job. I expect a little slack for my illness(bipolar and PTSD) but if I acted like that I would expect to be out of work until stable again.

  4. Oh, LW. You sound like me at my last job, with Deanna (the bipolar girl who wouldn’t take her meds because she didn’t like the side effects) even up to Former Boss who enabled her and New Boss who wanted to document it all and who set clear boundaries. It took two years with New Boss, but they finally documented enough to fire her.

    I had actually quit a year into the documentation, because I couldn’t take it any more, but I wanted to let you know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

    This is a hard situation, and I’ve been in it. I agree with the commenter who suggests therapy for finding ways to cope. I wish I’d done it. Maybe I wouldn’t have come home in tears every night.

    1. ETA: And I should say that I have a friend who is bipolar in her workplace, and her boss has been really lovely and she works really hard to try and make sure her mental illness doesn’t impact her coworkers. So not everyone with bipolar in the workplace is a terrible person.

  5. She Who Was Raised by Two Administrators (that’s me) Observes:

    Your Current Boss? Is totally doing what CA says- creating success-supporting structure, and giving Cosette enough rope to metaphorically hang herself with if she chooses not to adapt to the structure.

    They can’t say anything to you about plans to keep/terminate anyone until the plans are over. But, that’s what’s up, and Current Boss sounds like they really know what they are doing in this space.

  6. LW, you have my deepest sympathies. There is some good news, however: You don’t have to rescue Cosette, or like her, or even be anything more than civil to her. She’s a co-worker. That’s it.

    Your former boss screwed up, from a legal perspective- by enabling her, and coddling her, Former Boss has made it much harder to fire her. And, Cosette should be fired. That’s not a value judgment on her as a person, but it is a value judgment on her as an employee. But, New Boss is doing the right things to build a paper trail to terminate her.

    There is nothing that says that a person with mental illness has no responsibility for his/her own actions- that’s even more patronizing. Her issues are HERS, to deal with. (By deal with, I mean, get help, seek accommodation, etc.) Not yours. In a simpler example: I am allergic to cats. It’s on me to mitigate my exposure to cats, or take my meds if I go someplace with cats, or make my host aware of my allergies and ask for steps to limit exposure, or I get to sneeze my head off. But if no one knows of my cat allergies, and I don’t say anything, then it’s on me.

    You don’t have to like everyone you work with. Don’t be kinder, nicer, more accepting and more understanding. Don’t you dare. She needs to meet you and her other co-workers in the middle.

    I wish you nothing but luck in dealing with a difficult situation. Maybe some therapy isn’t a bad idea, if for no other reason than to have a place to vent that doesn’t run afoul of some of the privacy issues.

  7. LW, you are dealing with an intense situation! As the older sister of a woman with severe disabilities, as a woman who grew up volunteering in her mom’s special ed classrooms, and as a woman with a possibly-now-diagnosed health issue, your letter really struck some nerves. I’d like to respond to some of what you said from where I sit: sort of experienced, sort of total newbie/totally not a professional. (NB: I have strong emotions here and want to offer some comfort, and I also know that my emotion makes me liable not checking my privilege sufficiently.)

    Having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t also be an asshole, and goddamn, she’s such an asshole sometimes.

    Good for you for admitting this is how you feel! It is factually correct – being atypical doesn’t preclude acting badly. My sister can be horrible sometimes, and I can assure you that it’s not because of her epilepsy or blindness or developmental delays, although some days it definitely is for those reasons.

    This office has done Cosette no favors by allowing this behavior to go on unchecked – I cannot imagine her being able to get another job that accepts these behaviors.

    Yes – as monica noted, letting Cosette have free reign is not accomodation. It is capitulation. It is also really damned patronizing – implicit in the capitulation is the idea that Cosette is incapable of managing her job, and that it is forbidden to point this out for fear of accidentally being disrespectful. That turns Cosette into her disability, dehumanizing her, which is much worse, to me, than being honest with her and risking insulting her.

    I should be nicer, kinder, more accepting and understanding.

    Okay, this one hit me where I live, because I feel this way a lot. About my darling sister, whom I love. You know what? You are trying to treat Cosette as you would any other coworker – a person who has quirks that you’re willing to address (we’ve all got those!) – which is nice, kind, accepting, and understanding. Which I think you recognize, because you said…

    I should stop with the nice and the kind and the accepting and understanding. This office has been nice and kind and accepting and understanding and it’s created a very enabled Cosette, and a very resentful office. I should be firmer, and take a hard line every single time.

    You’re documenting things and setting boundaries and taking steps that strike me as reasonable for anyone who disrupts the office, even if that person is just an asshole and is otherwise typical.

    I hesitate to say this, but: my sister is adept at manipulation, and if someone is willing to do what she tells them to do because they feel sorry for her or because they assume that her physical disabilities mean she’s stupid, she will work that for all it’s worth. I am NOT saying that this is the case with Cosette, but…it’s not impossible that she is taking some advantage of people. Your actions are helpful here: boundaries!

    Dealing with somebody who has a mental illness is draining and hard and sometimes I really hate it and am really angry. I signed up to do a job, not plan tactics for dealing with one individual, or be a PCA, or clean up bugs.

    Caretaking is hard. You have ended up in a place where you are doing some caretaking. (I won’t speculate on whether that’s reasonable or not.) And assholes are tiring! My boss and I have gone through a rough patch, because my productivity took a nosedive as my health collapsed under me, but I wanted so much to keep working that I did. He and I finally had a few really good talks, and now I am taking a medical leave – not only is this good for me, as I have time to go to a million doctors and to sleep and such, but it is also good for him and my coworkers. I was turning into an unintentional asshole, failing to meet deadlines and communicating poorly and such, because I was much less well than I was willing to admit.

    I want to preserve her privacy, but I also want to vent, and I don’t know how to complain about Cosette without being sure I’m not complaining about her mental illness (that is, I want to complain about her being an asshole, not about her being sick, and I’m not sure what’s what).

    Therapy is good for this. It’s confidential. It supports your needs. You may find a therapist who can give you daily coping strategies. My therapist has experience with disability, and I can talk with her about the frustrations of my sister, and she helps me separate “relationship with sister as person/sister” from “how sister’s medical stuff affects both of us.”

    My best to you, LW, and to Cosette! It sounds like neither of you has gotten the support you deserve and it’s made both of your lives unnecessarily complicated. I hope the situation has improved, or that it does soon! Sorry my response is long, but I hope it helps.

  8. Update!

    Since I wrote this, Current Boss has been holding the line about 70%. I think she was caught by surprise when trying to lay down the law with Cosette. She’s a boss, so she is used to giving somebody an order and they follow it, the end, or they don’t follow it and get disciplined. So I think she thought she would tell Cosette, “Clean your office!” and it would happen, and wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of excuses and mind-bending reasoning and just general word salad that she would have to cut through. So she’s been trying her hardest, but not doing the greatest. Like, she identified that Cosette really has significant trouble figuring out what she should and shouldn’t be doing — all things are equally crises to her — so she decided to do some very direct managing of Cosette for a while. Good idea in theory, didn’t work out so well, as I discovered when Cosette or Current Boss would let things slip to me like, “So I was on the phone with Cosette last night,” or “So Cosette called me when I was in the shower.”

    The deadline for the office cleaning came and went and was not enforced. We have one other staff member who occasionally reaches their limit with Cosette and throws away everything of hers that’s outside of her office, and reorganizes things in a way that keeps her from hoarding again (as in, you can’t use that closet, it’s full of something else now). Right before the office cleaning deadline, the other staff member hit her limit and threw out Cosette’s other stuff that had built up again, and Cosette got super mad and filed a few complaints, and Current Boss dealt with those and not Cosette’s office. Current Boss has now set another deadline, and it’s coming up soon.

    Current Boss has taken me into her confidence about Cosette in a way I understand but on a personal level but is not cool on a professional level. Because I have sat down with Current Boss and talked about very specific boundaries and very specific problems with Cosette (I think everybody else in the office has reached a point where all they’ll say is “she’s crazy and she’s always been that way, why stir up trouble?”), Current Boss will talk to me about Cosette when she wants to vent or wants advice. I get that Current Boss is feeling overwhelmed and has obviously never dealt with this shit before, and I sure understand the feeling of needing an ally, but it’s not appropriate for her to be telling me some of the stuff she tells me. So I usually say, “You know, I don’t need to know those things. They are probably confidential,” and try to extricate myself from the talk.

    But, from that, I know that Current Boss is starting the accommodation process as a way to start the disciplinary process. Cosette’s illness wasn’t even documented with HR before, so she wants that documented, she wants the office’s attempts to accommodate documented, and then she will start documenting that Cosette cannot meet her work guidelines. She’s willing to reverse her decision if Cosette can get it together, but she’s working from a belief that the worst-case scenario (terminating Cosette) has to be faced-down. So it’s nice to know she’s on the same page there. I’ve recently spoken to Former Boss, who pissed me off so much I wanted to punch her, because she told me she always viewed me as sort of cold and unsympathetic and unwilling to help others because I didn’t want to help my coworkers with mental illnesses — so Current Boss is like a golden child in comparison right now.

    I go back and forth from being okay to being just so super pissed off I can’t stand it. During one of the super pissed off times, I went to a CODA meeting. I realized that what was running through my head was this uber-need to take care of everything. Cosette was just projecting a sucking need, my coworkers were all upset, and I was being pulled in impossible directions with the feeling that I should fix this. After a couple of meetings, it came to me that I was getting all kinds of triggered. I’ve come from an abusive background, and one where nobody else believed me that the abuse was happening. I realized that, after Former Boss’s reign, and due to some other bad workplaces (worse than this one, even), I’d gotten into this belief that when bad things happen at work, my boss won’t help me, my boss won’t believe me, and I’ll just have to deal with it. So Cosette starts making life difficult, and I automatically slip into this belief system that if I “tell”, nobody will believe me, because sometimes she presents really well, and anyway, she wouldn’t have freaked out if I would have just helped her count the yellow paper, and if I would just try harder, yadda yadda.

    So I was like, wait, my Current Boss believes me! I do not have to act like this is it, this is My Life Forever, Now Despair. So I went to my Current Boss and had a real serious discussion about things Cosette has been doing that are unacceptable to me, and that I planned to confront her in these particular ways, and that I wanted Current Boss to back me up if there was any fallout. And she said of course, and I was like, really? That easy? My god, maybe the whole world *isn’t* against me here.

    So, things are better in some ways, the same in others, for me at any rate. I don’t know how things are going to go for Cosette. I hope she can get it together, but it’s not looking good for her. When I am not at work, I feel bad for her. When I am at work, I am neutral robot voice at her. And the rest of the time, I am making some career plans for my future that will (if all goes well) potentially culminate in me not being here in a year. It’s a process I can reverse at any time, but I decided it was important to remind myself that I have options, that I’m not stuck here forever, so I don’t keep triggering that old abuse vortex of thought.

    1. This sounds pretty tough. I’m glad you are documenting and making sure to take good care of yourself through the whole thing.

    2. LW, you sound so together and smart, in you attitudes and your approach to a thankless situation. It sounds like you feel the need for some emotional backup, so I’m glad if the Captain and crew can provide some, but from what I’ve read of what you’ve done, you sound smart, and sensitive, and like you’re doing everything right.

      The only thing I would add is that it’d be great if you cut yourself some slack for negative feelings, and that you maybe consider looking for another job, if you can.

      Incidentally, I have bp, and I still think you’re on the right track. Cosette’s issues are not all from her disease (at least, not from just that one)– but it’s kind of you that you considered that while making your assessment of her.

      Good luck, and take care of yourself.

  9. LW, the fact that you’re questioning your privilege in this situation (being well in body and mind) to me says that you are being conscientious and aware. It’s a really good place to start. You sound incredible at creating and maintaining boundaries, and since Boss #2 supports you, that’s great.

    Everyone’s worked with assholes. Regardless of their mental health, boundaries are important with assholes. You can’t fix anyone else’s issues, mental health or otherwise, but you can protect yourself.

    I do like the idea of some stress-relief focused therapy for yourself. It is really a good thing.

  10. I thought anyone could be fired at any time for pretty much anything in the USA. It sounds like your workplace has some great ethical guidelines if not the best way of applying them.

    I don’t have much to say, never having had an office job or any experience like this, but I wanted to add my appreciation for not only your attitude but the Captain’s excellent advice.

    1. Although that’s broadly true in some situations (as Sweet Machine mentioned below) it does vary widely.

      Even in the “we can fire you for almost any reason!” states there are usually “protected classes.” My understanding is that disabilities usually fall under that kind of protection, though my understanding is SUPER limited.

      1. Every state has anti-discrimination laws; it would be a violation of the rights provided by federal law to allow employers to fire, say, Jewish people at will. It doesn’t matter how lax employee protections are in general, or what the terms of your employment are; it’s a different issue entirely.

        So yes, they definitely do. Under the ADA, people with disabilities are protected from employment discrimination; many states have created their own laws to reflect federal law.

        People with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodation; that can include not having to work on certain tasks (lifting heavy boxes, for example). In practice, employers sometimes do break the law. But they aren’t allowed to just fire someone with a disability, and most workplaces have policies in place to make sure that they’re following the law.

        1. Although mental disabilities/learning disorders are very definitely the redheaded stepchild in this system. There is no training and very little understanding about how to create accommodations, or what constitutes malingering, or the kinds of confidentiality mishmosh LW is describing… and so on. It’s an ugly situation and I don’t envy either LW or Cosette at all.

  11. My uber-boss was a workaholic who never left the office, and he loved to walk down the hallway at 9 pm and see everyone still working; it made him feel energized and important.

    Oy. My former boss at Current Employer routinely stayed in the office until 7-8pm every day, including Fridays, and tended to make sarcastic remarks when we left before 5pm (this is at a college; students generally stop looking for office hours by 4pm because practices have started). I felt like I had to sneak out of the office, which pissed me off that someone of my age had to resort to that.

    LW – the poisonous aspect of workplace problems can be immense even when they’re not on this scale – on this scale I can’t even imagine what kind of stress you’re under. My first year here, I had a coworker who was driving me over the edge. She not only had the office next door to me, she lived next door. She was in my house or my office all the time, and she had screaming fights with our boss regularly. When I got a new uberboss and went and told him about this, and he believed me, I nearly started to sob in his office, because it was such a relief not to be told “you’re exaggerating” or “overreacting.” That was a big help for me mentally for the rest of that year.

    1. I just finished my first week an an internship after going back to school for a graduate degree. My most recent “professional” job was horrible. My boss was a sexist bully. This first week has been such a huge relief that I now realise just how much terror I was holding about encountering the same situation again. Yay for good working environments and bosses who aren’t totally awful.

  12. Captain, thanks for that description of how depression affected your work, especially this part “In a depressive episode, the hardest thing for me is to create structure for myself, so it’s actually helpful to have structure (a rigid schedule, for example – you can’t be late when you’re the teacher!) in place. When boundaries (deadlines, schedules) are fuzzy, it’s much harder for me to rise to the occasion.” It helped clarify some things for me, personally. It had never occurred to me that those things — depression and a need for structure — could be correlated.

    Letter Writer, I hope New Boss does move towards managing Cosette’s work problems more effectively (or terminating her). It also might be worth thinking, though, that — unpleasant though the thought undoubtedly is in today’s economy — sometimes one bad apple really is enough to spoil the bushel. If Cosette’s continual bad behavior plus, crucially, management’s refusal to deal with that behavior eventually makes this work environment unworkable for you, you may need to seek another job. Of course, that’s the most extreme worst case scenario, but management that will not manage is a serious problem, and it can spoil an otherwise wonderful job. I hope that isn’t the case for you, though!

    1. I wonder how many people have already quit that place JUST because of Cosette.

      Honestly, I wonder if her behavior qualifies as creating a hostile work environment, because it sure sounds like one. Hell, she makes things hostile at home. I really don’t think she is able to work either, unless she had a job where she worked at home, never had to deal with people and wasn’t given everyone’s home phone number.

      Screaming at the clients alone, even regardless of the hoarding (interesting that she does it AT WORK, I come from a long line of hoarders and we don’t have that much stuff at our jobs), is enough to need to get rid of her. Much less abusing the employees!

      1. A hostile environment doesn’t mean “an unpleasant place to work.” A hostile environment refers to a specific kind of discrimination: things that aren’t much in themselves, or directed at any person, but amount to an environment that is hostile and therefore discriminatory towards a particular group. Pornographic decor, racist jokes, Islamophobic comments, proselytizing in the lunchroom.

        Having a coworker who is just awful doesn’t count, and neither do unreasonable expectations, poor management, or chaotic schedules. It’s perfectly legal to be a shitty place to work. (If you could sue for that, we’d all be millionaires.) It would only qualify if LW or her coworkers were being mistreated because they themselves had minority status.

        In my experience, people like this definitely drive people away: I worked with two nine-hundred-pound elephants at my last job, and they together resulted in a dozen transfers and half a dozen resignations. The strain is unbearable, and they can very quickly become toxic to your performance and your record. LW is lucky that Cosette isn’t in a position of power over her. She’d be sunk.

        1. I gather the people previously in my job position left because of Cosette. I came in prepared and warned about her, so I set down all my boundaries firmly and immediately, and I think that helped for a long, long time. Everybody else had to go through this, “Is this normal? Is this appropriate? I guess it must be appropriate,” back-and-forth, until they were getting called by Cosette every weekend and cleaning her office for her, and setting up boundaries was a much harder, higher-stakes game. I also knew not to take her personally, so when her mood suddenly darkened and she’d start getting hostile and shitty, I knew that wasn’t about me and I didn’t have to change anything about my work. So I’ve been able to brush her off more.

          Also because I was warned about her, I really held my boundaries against Former Boss. Cosette would usually try to make people in my position her unofficial assistant, and I went to Former Boss and told her that I take orders from my boss, not Cosette, and if my boss wanted me to assist Cosette on a permanent basis, we could have a negotiation with HR and my union about my job description. So, that shut that down right quick. I’m really grateful I was warned before I came into this job, or I don’t think I would have been able to last. I don’t think I’ll be able to last regardless, but I’m able to get started working on that now, instead of when I’m so demoralized I can’t see straight.

      2. This was a question about how to solve problems I was having, so I only brought up the problem parts of Cosette, which are many and overwhelming, but that’s not all she is. She is funny and she is nice and she really, really cares about people and social justice and all sorts of other things. And when she is okay, she does her job great. And then, she turns on a dime and she is the Cosette who makes me want to write to the internet. So that’s what makes it harder, I think. If she was just a horrible person all the time, getting fired would come a lot easier. But she is a decent person who gets really fucked-up sometimes, and while the way she chooses to manage her illness is her responsibility, the fact that she’s sick at all isn’t her fault. And it sucks to see somebody who is otherwise a nice person turn into somebody you can’t stand to be around, because they are dealing so badly with something so hard that you know you wouldn’t be able to deal well with yourself.

        Sometimes I feel like I can see when it’s the disease talking instead of Cosette, because you can talk to her and it honestly looks like the words just aren’t making it into her brain, that there is no basic comprehension, and when she talks back, the words that come out aren’t making a lot of sense. I don’t know how her mind is processing in those moments, but afterwards, when she can be talked to and talk back, she acts as if those moments never happened, or as if we were all just too dumb to talk to her reasonably or understand her brilliance. I try not to take that personally. I don’t know if I could deal any better with the world sometimes just stopping making sense entirely. That would be terrifying.

        And when she does things like grab random shit in the office to add to her hoard, almost always her emotional state is this heightened projection of constant, high-pitched fear. She seems on the verge of terrified almost all the time, and she’s developed these ways of battling back that terror that are highly problematic and alienate everybody around her, which leads to more terror, which leads to more hoarding and snapping and pretending it’s everybody else who’s fucking up.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is, while none of my sympathy for her takes away from the fact that this shit needs to STOP, the sympathy is still there. She is not a bad person. She’s very sick, and she wants what I want out of life — work I love, good colleagues and friends, and not to feel sick or scared all the time — and she has a terrible, uphill battle to get there, and she has to make decisions I never will to get there (like, do I go to the psyche ward? Do I take medications with horrible side effects? Do I never get to have a job again?). So I can understand her shittiness, and I try not to take it personally.

        I guess this isn’t a comment directed at you, Jennifer. If I was at work right now my mood would be very much AHHHH FUCK HER, but when I’m in my nice clean home and I am calm and relaxed and happy, I think about Cosette and I’m sad. Because she is very smart, and very passionate, and very interesting and nice and kind and dedicated and hardworking… and she is sick and not getting better, which takes all those things about her and makes them not good enough for everybody else. And that sucks for her.

        1. This is very generous, and you are approaching this from a good place. I’m very surprised that everyone at your work has been so… accommodating? At every job I’ve worked at, she would just get the boot for creating so much drama/distraction and a stressful, hazardous environment. Especially when it reaches the level of not showing up at work or calling clients out of hours – even when I was in the deepest grips of my well-documented depression, that shit would not have stood with my employers. They were very clear with the fact that the mentally ill are NOT monkeys in a zoo, and those who are not capable of performing work duties and respecting workplace protocol are not capable of handling this job.

          The fact that everyone has stuck it out and tried to help is something to be rather proud of. I think your sympathy and empathy is truly commendable.

          1. It’s not really that people are accommodating from the goodness of their hearts. Former Boss really enabled anything Cosette wanted to do, because she hated confrontation. And if other employees went to Former Boss saying, “This shit is unacceptable,” they got a shaming about not being compassionate enough, or got told that what they were seeing wasn’t really happening, or (this was the best) Former Boss would agree and ask you what you planned to do about it (because she didn’t know what to do, so she was hoping you would step up and fix it).

            So the accommodation in the workplace is mostly from a resentful apathy and dead morale. Nobody thinks anything will change, nobody wants to try anymore, and it’s just easier if everybody lets Cosette do what she wants than risk putting energy into it again. Especially considering Cosette is so… black-hole needy sometimes, putting energy into trying to help her or talk to her or confront her usually has the unintended result of her zeroing in on you as her new special friend. The first time I confronted her with, “Stop talking to me this way,” she thanked me and said, “I know you’ll be the one who will help me keep my feet to the fire.” And, true to her assumption, she started coming to me whenever ANYTHING happened in the workplace to ask me what she should say or do about it, and she started blaming me for her decisions (i.e. “Well, I checked in with LW and she said it was okay, so I figured…”). I went to my boss to tell her what the triangulation was about (I didn’t have to tell my coworkers, Cosette had done this to them before), and I started playing dumb whenever Cosette talked to me anymore.

            So, Current Boss has come into a workplace that has just grown around Cosette. If one of us started acting like Cosette tomorrow, I’m sure firing wouldn’t be far behind, but since Cosette has been like this “forever,” she’s fighting an uphill battle against “that’s just Cosette, don’t make waves.”

  13. Cosette needs to work somewhere else.

    Reason #1: right now, her job is part of her anxiety and dysfunction. It’s making her less happy, less calm, and less OK. What’s worse is that she’s conditioned the folks around her to sustain this unhappy, imbalanced, stressful state by enabling her. (none of this is intentional on anyone’s part; people just try their best to function using the tools they have. Cosette really needs some new tools) So the longer she’s at this job with the same people around her, the worse she’s going to get.

    Reason #2: all of her co-workers are experiencing anxiety and dysfunction in interacting with Cosette. She is deeply, deeply manipulative of others; she has to be as part of her survival skills. (again, needs new tools) But right now, she’s not just hurting herself, she’s hurting those around her.

    Reason #3: this is a place of business. There are clients, there are customers, there are deliverables and duties. And even if Cosette was producing 150% of what she was expected to, she’s doing so by dragging down the productivity of others, increasing staff turnover (both in her contemporaries and her immediate management) and disrupting workplace function. (filling closets, creating health risks, etc. etc. etc.)

    Go back and re-read reason #1, because it’s actually the most important. This job may not have made her sick, but it’s keeping her sick if not letting her become sicker. Even if she gets treatment and therapy and pharmaceuticals, unless everyone else in the office also gets some training on setting and keeping good boundaries, she is still at risk of falling into old patterns which everyone else is already condition to fall into.

    The best case scenario is that New Boss uses some carrot-and-stick techniques to get Cosette to see a doctor, get a diagnosis and prescription and therapy, and then Cosette and/or New Boss find a new job in another department/with a related company/in a similar field for Cosette to move to.

    The next best case scenario is that New Boss fires Cosette without cause, offering her a modest severance package and allowing her to be eligible for unemployment benefits. If she has a month of severance including medical coverage, plus COBRA, she can still get treatment (and meds, if appropriate) to address some issues. (Ironically, this is what happened with me during a very prolonged and nasty bout of depression, and yes, it actually was the ‘next-best-case’)

    The worst case scenario is if Cosette keeps working without getting help. In that case, LW, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others; that means start looking for other places to work. Maybe Cosette can’t transfer out of the department/ go work for a supplier/ get a referral to work at a competitor, but you can. And you should. And you should tell your boss (and possibly your boss’s boss) what you’re doing and why. “This is a problem, and it’s not being addressed, and I’m not willing to work in this environment indefinitely. If this is still an issue in three months, I’ll be contacting folks and looking for other places to work.” Employers are rational people; they would much rather keep four low-maintenance employees than hang on to one high-stress person, but unless the issue is presented in that kind of an explicit exchange, they may not realize that’s the situation.

    Good luck LW. You’ve done well for yourself, and you’re trying hard to do right by both your employer and Cosette.

  14. Many people have chimed in to say what a wonderful job you’re doing of dealing with Cosette. So I think your ego can handle a little criticism. You are, in fact, being ableist, and no, asking “am i I being ableist?” doesn’t fix it. This isn’t to say you’re a horrible person–that’s not what such things mean, but, what you’re saying is actually a bit fucked up. It’s understandable! You’re stressed! But that doesn’t actually change the fucked up ness, which is what you’re asking about? Not being ableist isn’t about validation from people on the internet that you aren’t, in fact, a horrible person. because I know you aren’t. we all can see that.

    But do you know how…not cool this story is? Like, you have “people need to take care of themselves and Cosette clearly isn’t doing that” and then you mention Former Boss, who seems to have not done a single thing right in this example, whose job is to MAKE IT RIGHT, and we’re supposed to fire Cosette? And this isn’t you so much but some of these comments make me sick, because it seems like everyone thinks you’re such a hero. Former Boss enabled this bullshit environment which, as you’ve even noted, hasn’t done anyone any favors. I’m not saying she isn’t responsible, okay, but obviously you all know about her illness and boundaries are good but the way you’re going about it isn’t actually taking into consideration her needs. Which isn’t your job! But it sure as fuck was Boss’s job. That’s the whole point of disclosing an illness. Not to be like “lol now you can’t fire me.” Your follow-up says Former Boss never filed with HR for accommodations, and yet they disclosed her illness to you? You clearly know that’s illegal but has it dawned on you how FUCKED UP that is? All these problems could have been forestalled (or the imminent unemployability noticed) if Former Boss had just done their JOB. And while I’m at it, you can’t tell me there aren’t Obviously Shouldn’t Be Employed people in office environments. Again, I’m only saying this to balance things out a bit, so please understand that I understand that none of this is actually your responsibility, but the very fact this letter then discloses her mental illness AGAIN and makes it all about her being sick instead of say, bullshit office culture, is actually a bit ablest. The lack of specific boundaries (funny how that’s all anyone mentions) and–yes, I will say it–HELP that actually takes in mind what her specific needs are frustrates the fuck out of me, as a bystander who has bipolar.

    Again–not saying this is your responsibility. If anyone’s the villain I think it’s Former and Current Boss. But why wasn’t this filed with HR before? Why is the solution to “no overtime then no work” to make her work a 40 hour week, on the dot? I realize overtime costs money and can’t be a thing but seriously, the whole…point of bipolar is fluctuating states of being? I really feel that should be more considered. As well as the cleaning the office. You call it hoarding. I’m going to assume it is, because you call it that and surely you wouldn’t use an actual psychological thing just to mean “a huge mess,” the answer is not to just throw it all the fuck away if she doesn’t clean it all at a certain point. It’ll just come back! It doesn’t fix anything! It just makes it look palatable, but it doesn’t fix the problem. And Fixing The Problem is what your Boss should be doing. Not Fire Cosette.

    Clearly, she’s a jerk. But if you’re going to focus on her illness could you please keep in mind even medication doesn’t fix everything? Having actual accommodations/boundaries would really, really help. And please keep in mind she’s not the only unreasonable asshole to ever inexplicably keep a job. It isn’t about oh ADA–if she wasn’t filed with HR before ADA didn’t even have anything to do with it! And I can assure you, that legislation is helpful in that it provides a framework for people to protect themselves, not that it necessarily protects people–plenty of businesses illegally fire disabled people. They then take it to court if they have the resources. Her being unfireable because ~disabled~ is not a thing.

    I do feel for you. This is trying. You’re trying your best in a generally shitty scenario. Again, I’m mostly saying this in the hopes of balance. But making it all about Cosette and not your shitty bosses does belie a bit of ableism, because, seriously, they failed her and they failed you. That update in which Current Boss is taking you into confidence? Yea, you’re right, that isn’t cool at all.

    And this is worth mentioning: depression is less understood than bipolar. Depression, people just think you’re lazy. Bipolar? They think you’re inherently untrustworthy. Especially if you show any of the less-desirable manic symptoms than just working all the time. Questioning your sanity ties right in with questioning your ability to think like an actual human being. I saw you mention word salad. I have schizoaffective–it’s like a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar. and I can tell you, that hurt. Because, for one, I highly doubt she was doing word salad because it has a more specific meaning than just “incomprehensible assholeism” and secondly, because it is an actual thing most common to schizophrenics, who sure as shit are treated like they aren’t real people with thoughts and feelings, because they aren’t Sane. I’m sure you weren’t calling on that connotation on purpose but that’s what ableism against the severely mentally ill IS. Also your use of “crazy-sepecific” words in general. Do you really think she has OCD? And is also a hoarder? And also shows schizophrenic symptoms?

    I’m fully aware we can’t just coddle the mentally ill but she hasn’t been coddled, she’s been mistreated in a way that exacerbates her symptoms and of COURSE that’s going to make her act worse, and it LOOKS like coddling but is more in line with enabling but is most in-line with a bunch of people presented with someone who has a severe mental illness and not wanting to deal with it, then wondering what the fuck happened when brushing that fact under the rug didn’t help anyone. I feel bad for her. For that reason. Not because she’s bipolar. And I feel bad for you, because having to deal with this when it would be okay if your superior had just done their job. here’s your put up with bullshit cookie, if you want. there shouldn’t need to be one for anti-ableism.

    1. Seriously, thank you, thank you for this reframing.

      It’s the LW’s responsibilities to set boundaries (with coworkers and bosses) so she can get her work done and is not taking all the stress of this situation on herself.

      It’s management’s job to manage Cosette.

      Maybe the way to cut the Gordian knot is for the LW to speed up new job searching, and to reframe this not as “I have to get away from Cosette” but “I have to get away from the employers who do such a terrible job managing people.”

    2. Just wanted to put in a few clarifications. These aren’t necessarily just in response to you, because I didn’t want to write the Captain the LONGEST LETTER EVER describing a million little things happening in my office, but these are important clarifications. Before I got here, I did a lot of googling about mental illnesses and dealing with them in the workplace, and all I found was stuff geared towards employers about accommodations, or people on forums armchair-slinging diagnoses at coworkers they hate and generally being kind of horrible. What I wanted to find was someplace where people were talking about, “Boundaries! Education! Strategies!”, and I really didn’t. So, I’m thinking this might be something that can come up for future people reading up on this, so I think it’s important to answer some of these questions you brought up.

      I was concerned about being ableist because my office is fucking soaked in it. Not to say that me and culture and everywhere is soaked in it, but because of management letting this become a nightmare clusterfuck, a really vicious sort of abelism is the norm here, and I want to make sure I don’t fall into it. When people want to complain about Cosette, they complain about her being “crazy” or “off her meds.” I try to keep my complaining contained to, “Here is a specific thing Cosette did and it bothered me for specific reasons,” because even though I know she has a mental illness and even though it’s possible her mental illness contributed to whatever is annoying me, I don’t want to condone in my office the tendency to describe everything she does as “crazy.” Though people don’t know her particular diagnosis, they know there’s *something* up, so she gets the biggest amount of ableist slurs directed her way (though, this being general culture, the people in my office will still refer to other people annoying them as “crazy,” they just do it to Cosette a whole lot more).

      Even though I try not to participate in that stuff, I know it can creep in. I know because of how often the word “crazy” starts ramming up into my mouth when I want to talk about Cosette, and I have to stop and calm down and think really hard to say something different and less shitty. Mainly, I have just ended up keeping my mouth shut a lot, but that means I have a lot of unspoken assumptions and thoughts floating around, and that’s why I wrote in. Thinking about boundaries and compassion feels a lot better than thinking about “crazy” and “off her meds,” but I didn’t know if it was actually any better or just made me feel like a super better person. Though people in our office are polite to Cosette’s face, I don’t for a minute believe she doesn’t know what they think of her behind her back. And since she’s lived with this her whole life, I assume she’s pretty sensitive to it. So even if I do my best to act ethically, if I’m thinking something fucked-up and ableist, I assume that’s going to come off me in one way or another, and she’ll pick up on it, and she doesn’t need that and I don’t need to give it. So I wanted to say those things out loud, among people who, unlike my coworkers, aren’t currently all pissed off and shitty at somebody’s mental illness, to see if what came out was a horrible mess that needed to be fixed.

      Firing Cosette is one of those things that I wasn’t sure if it was a shitty, horrible thought. I knew that it was an understandable thought, because it is fucking hard to work with her. And I was trying to separate out, “Okay, here are behaviors that are not okay from anybody ever, so they shouldn’t be in this workplace,” from “I’m sick of Cosette and don’t want to work with her anymore,” but I wasn’t sure if I had. When I say, “I think she should be fired,” I don’t mean that tomorrow, Current Boss should just up and fire her, and I didn’t make that clear at all, because anger and frustration and UGH. I mean I think she needs to start going through the disciplinary process. Current Boss needs to talk to her about, “Behavior A needs to change, Behavior B needs to change,” (which she has), Cosette needs to talk to HR about accommodations (Current Boss has told her to do this, but she hasn’t yet), and then any problems with her performance need to be documented and discussed. What I mean is, I don’t think her behavior is acceptable in a workplace, I think the behavior needs to stop, and I guess my unspoken assumption is that she won’t stop it. And that’s a not okay thing to assume, because she hasn’t been given a chance to be managed properly.

      And yeah, there are a lot of other problems in my workplace. We have problem people other than Cosette, and we have otherwise good workers who have developed terrible habits under terrible management. But, the thing is, I can’t fix my managers. I can’t make my coworkers act right. I can only police my own boundaries, and make sure I’m behaving in as not-fucked-up a way as I can manage. So I was asking how to make sure I’m doing that.

      And yeah, I do know how fucked-up it was that my Former Boss disclosed this stuff to me. When she did, I told her, “I don’t need to know that, I just need to know what you need me to do,” but she just kept going on and on, just stuck in this complain-o-cloud, and at some point I started to think that if I didn’t let her finish complaining to me, she was going to go complain to somebody else and disclose more. I knew how fucked-up it was, but it was a bell that couldn’t be unrung — I went from, “My god, what the fuck did you just do?” to “okay, clean-up mode — my manager is shit, and I need to make sure this doesn’t get worse.” I sat down with the other coworker she’d told and talked with her about how it was 100% wildly wrong for Former Boss to have told us this, and I really thought we needed to keep a lid on it and not tell anybody else what we’d learned, and she was on the same page. I’m pretty sure she never spilled the beans, because I still have coworkers who try to weasel info about Cosette out of me.

      With the solutions Current Boss has come up with, like the 40 hours a week thing… There’s a few reasons. Some, I think, are reactionary and problematic. Like, I told Cosette to work this much time, but she worked that much time. I am the boss and so she must listen to me, so this is now the problem. Instead of, you know, trying to figure out why she was working some time other than what you told her. But, part of the other issue is Cosette’s particular job responsibilities actually do require very standardized hours, and there’s not much accommodation that can be made there. So that’s why there’s a pretty big focus on keeping her hours straight. Though, again, that’s something that needed to be enforced from the get-go by Former Boss.

      The hoarding… I’m not qualified to say what is and isn’t hoarding, but yeah, I don’t mean just a big mess, I mean an office whose door cannot be opened anymore, where there is rotting food and a bug infestation. And I do know the solution to the hoarding is not to just throw everything away. That’s something that happens occasionally with the other coworker because she reaches a breaking point, and because we do sometimes reach the point where all work in the office is stalled because things we need (like laptops) have disappeared in Cosette’s office or car or house. But it’s another one of those things that I can’t control. I can’t make my boss figure out a way to deal with the hoarding, I can’t make Cosette figure out how to deal with the hoarding, I can just control whether or not I will be involved in it. I have mentioned to my boss that we may need something more than “just clean it up!” or “just throw it out!”, but I just get something like, “Oh, I know that, I watch Hoarders.” And on some level, I mean, I’m not sure what she can do. Unless Cosette wants to get whatever help she needs to keep the hoarding at bay, all my boss can really do is tell her to stop doing it in the office, talk to HR about accommodations, or try to minimize it so it doesn’t affect the work, which sometimes means just taking a chunk of it and putting it in the trash so we can use the conference table again.

      The meds thing… I didn’t bring that up, though a few comments did. I absolutely know that meds don’t fix everything. When Cosette went into the hospital, she was on meds. They had stopped working for her. When she got out of the hospital, she was on new meds, and though I don’t know if this was because of the meds, she was like a zombie for a while. I’ve known other people on meds for mental illnesses that just do terrible things to them, and they have to choose between the symptoms of their mental illness or the symptoms of their meds, and that’s a shitty horrible choice that I know I don’t get a say in. I don’t care if Cosette is on meds or not, and however she manages her illness isn’t my business — I just care about making sure I can do my work and deal with her in a fair way.

      I also didn’t say anything about her being unfireable because of disabilities, so I’m going to assume that’s you talking to other commenters?

      As for word salad, that was a bone-up on my part. I didn’t know that was a phrase that was actually used to describe some symptoms of mental illnesses. I was trying to use it to describe this thing Cosette does that’s hard to describe, because it’s hard to get a handle on it when she’s doing it. She’s an extremely intelligent person, and an extremely verbal one. Sometimes, when she’s hit with something she disagrees with, she begins to talk in circles around the issue in a way that’s really difficult to follow. It’s really hard to penetrate the deluge of words to get back to one main point, and it’s very hard to describe because it’s… really hard to describe. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense — she’s not speaking gibberish — it’s just like she’s speaking in logic puzzles that take a huge amount of mental processing to figure out what it had to do with what you were just talking about. It’s just so big and jumping from point to point and concept to concept and logic to logic until you no longer know what was being discussed, if a resolution was ever made, and you’re just so tired from trying to figure out what’s happening. That’s what I was trying to describe with the phrase “word salad.” I don’t know if that’s something she does on purpose to try and obfuscate things, or if she’s just talking out the way she thinks in her mind, and it’s difficult for the rest of us to interact with. Honestly, most of the time I give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s not purposefully being a jerk, because a lot of the time she is a nice person, if difficult to deal with. I don’t know if there’s a good phrase out there to describe that kind of talking. Sorry about using word salad without actually looking up its meaning.

      “I do feel for you. This is trying. You’re trying your best in a generally shitty scenario. Again, I’m mostly saying this in the hopes of balance. But making it all about Cosette and not your shitty bosses does belie a bit of ableism, because, seriously, they failed her and they failed you. That update in which Current Boss is taking you into confidence? Yea, you’re right, that isn’t cool at all.”

      The reason I focused on this is because I can’t do anything about my bosses. I can’t ask, “How do I deal with my bosses not doing their work?” because the answer is, “You can’t.” So I was asking, “How do I deal with the fallout of my bosses not doing their work?” And in this case, that’s dealing with Cosette and some specific behaviors that I do not know if I’m dealing with well. If the issue was, “How do I deal with my boss not disciplining some jerk in my office?” I wouldn’t need to write in, because I have learned to deal with jerks from much jerk-dealing in my life. I haven’t done a lot of dealing with people with mental illnesses, and I’m not sure how to do that.

      Using the words OCD, hoarder, or word salad to describe some of her behaviors… I guess I was using shorthand to describe things rather than go into specific details. I don’t want to reveal real-world details about her, so I’ve changed a lot of her behaviors into other kinds of similar behaviors. She does have a need to sort and arrange and count things over and over and over, things that do not really need any sorting or arranging or counting, but rather than reveal what specifically she is counting or arranging or sorting, I made up the yellow paper thing and described it as OCD-like to try and describe the overall pattern of behavior, that this is more extreme than just “please put the paper away in the place it goes.” The hoarder thing — I do for sure think she’s a hoarder, and from what I know of her work in other offices (like I said, we share a lot of colleagues), her office getting filled to the ceiling with trash and rotting food has been a consistent problem. I’ve also seen her car and her home, and they are equally impassable. But rather than put out a lot of details about what the hoarding actually looks like, how she does it, what’s in the hoard, etc., I used the shorthand of saying “hoarder.” The word salad thing, I already talked about. Overall, though, I could do better to put in the extra work to describe behaviors as specifically as possible without resorting to armchair diagnoses as a shorthand way to describe things.

      1. Thanks for saying this, LW. It means a lot to me as a person who can sometimes probably be as hard to work with as Cosette, but is trying. The meds…you’re right. Sometimes you are choosing between side-effects of medication and side-effects of depression; sometimes it’s not clear which is worse.
        I am extremely lucky to work in an office where I don’t have to constantly watch my back about being fired. My boss has taken the time to establish a bond with me, and she communicates when I’ve been less-than-acceptable in a way that allows me the space to change the behaviour without getting the “OMG FAILURE” loop turned on in my head.
        It seems like you’ve put a lot of thought into Cosette’s behaviour, and not just judged her. I hope your situation gets better, either in this job or the next, better one, and that Cosette finds the help she needs. We’re all on a journey, and it’s not always easy, but patience and communication help make it less bumpy.

  15. Wow, CA, it sounds like you and I may have worked in the same industry, if not the same company. I stayed thre far too long, and it’s taken me years to unravel the damage that sort of environment did to me.

    That being said, life is too short to work in the dysfunctional work environment the LW describes..

  16. I’d hazard a guess that Cosette is just as frustrated with the situation as LW is, if not more. From her perspective she’s working in an office where people don’t answer their phones, and they adhere rigidly to task descriptions instead of pitching in and doing things efficiently to get the job done, and they can’t seem to understand a simple request for widgets, and they randomly invade her space and throw away her things.

    There’s a subtle framing in most of the discussion that you’ve got this nice workplace that’s been shot to hell by Cosette The Disruptive Influence, and if she would just get out of our way or stop being so Cosette-ey (or have her Cosette-ey-ness neutralized) we could get on with our work. So even when you’re trying to be nice and accommodating and non-ableist, the problem is still located in Cosette. And then the question becomes how to manage Cosette (whether that be an enabling type of management like Former Boss, a jerky ableist crackdown on her habits like your coworkers seem to want, or some sort of help-her-reform accommodation like Current Boss seems to be working toward). It might be helpful to look at it as a matter of a poorly designed work environment that pits different people’s ways of doing things against each other. The goal then is to re-design the environment in a way that all employees can work with. This is a job that Current Boss has to lead (probably with help from HR), but it also requires buy-in from all employees, Cosette included. And approaching it this way could have knock-on benefits for other employees (others of whom surely have less spectacular frictions with the existing way of doing things) in a way that simply handling or neutralizing Cosette’s Cosette-ey-ness would not.

    That’s not really practical short-term advice, but reframing your thoughts in that way might help you strike that balance of sympathy for Cosette and respect for your own needs that slips away when you get drawn into thinking in terms of how tough Cosette makes your life.

    (Wow, I’m into parentheses today.)

    1. “From her perspective she’s working in an office where people don’t answer their phones, and they adhere rigidly to task descriptions instead of pitching in and doing things efficiently to get the job done, and they can’t seem to understand a simple request for widgets, and they randomly invade her space and throw away her things.”

      I have nothing helpful to add, I just wanted to say I really like this comment.

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