Johannesburg, South Africa
|Photo by meo from Pexels|
When I was twelve, I was hit on the head by a cricket ball. A few days later, I had my first seizure. Over the years, I have had many attacks, which have resulted in three chipped teeth, a cracked skull, a dislocated shoulder, and my tongue bitten several times. A lack of sleep precipitated most of these episodes. Today, I take better care of myself and thanks to a stable dose of medication, it has been over five years since my last seizure—the longest I have been episode-free.
A few years into my career, after gaining decent work experience, I found myself in a rut, unable to tie down any significant job interview that would advance me as a communications professional. Then my friend, who was making strides in the legal industry, showed me the key to opening the door. My CV was being noticed, but if I wanted to move up further, I would need to disclose my health condition to my employer.
The notion of doing this left me conflicted. Yes, I had a chronic condition. Yes, my health would always need to be monitored. But would that affect my job? When I finally made the decision to disclose my condition to potential employers, I began to rake up interviews. Many more doors opened, and I eventually walked in fearlessly to take my seat at a corporate management table.
Management was an exciting venture at first. I enjoyed working with people, and I got the best out of those who reported to me. However, like with any new enterprise, it is only when the honeymoon period dissipates that one can truly decipher whether this was meant to be or not. My neurologist once told me that I would struggle to process large bits of information quickly because of my condition. That would be enough to shake anyone’s confidence, especially someone who was climbing the corporate ladder. Before management, I had somehow learned to display my strengths in a way that outshone my weaknesses. More importantly, I discovered that it is vital to be part of a working culture that encourages and nurtures talent, rather than making people feel small.
But even with the right working culture and a talented team, I felt fallible. Epilepsy is classified as a mental disability and it can affect one’s thought processes. It also did not help that my medication sometimes resulted in “brain fogging” that clouded my thinking ability. Often, I would feel disorientated or find it difficult to focus. The more I tried to ignore my shortcomings, the more I was aware of decisions I failed to make quickly and accurately. I spend most of my week at work. But if I am scared to go into the office, thinking I am not good enough because of a condition over which I have no control, what is that doing to my general well-being? I was gradually falling apart.
Then COVID-19 made its way to our shores, and management became a different animal. People had to be braver, swifter, and somehow more ruthless. We had to find business solutions, even when there did not appear to be any. And we had to prove our worth at a time when jobs and positions were being rapidly cut. I was beginning to make mistakes. I could not perform under pressure. I was psychologically faltering because of my disability. I believed I was destined to fail. Eventually, my manager and I had to chat about my future at the company.
My manager is truly remarkable. She had the strength to see through the disability and the cracks. She moved me into a role that did not require managing people. I became a specialist. I never looked back. Sometimes the system works, but it needs both parties to work in tandem; for an employee to know they are not inferior and a manager to know that a gem can only shine if it is rubbed the right way. How many disabled diamonds never get the chance to unearth themselves?
We have evolved as a society in terms of inclusivity. Issues such as race, religion, and gender are becoming less critical as we break down stigmas attached to them. Disabilities fall into the same category. Yet, there are still challenges that people who are “different” endure daily. There is a fear of disclosing disabilities in the workplace. What guarantee is there that one will not be treated differently? If one had to work on a big project with long hours, the unconscious bias would dictate that the individual with the disability would be more of a liability. And that is the heart of why invisible disabilities like diabetes, chronic pain, sleep disorders, and epilepsy are often concealed. In many settings, they are still seen as weaknesses that could impair one’s ability to deliver world-class work. As humans, we are geared towards wanting to look strong so that we can thrive in a competitive environment. That is why I originally shielded myself from fully disclosing my disability. Yes, my company knew of my physical vulnerabilities. But they did not know of the emotional and mental pain. Neither did I, until I was placed in the pressure cooker.
With epilepsy, every day could be your last, so you dress up whether there is an occasion or not. You smile and greet people. You are cordial, even when you need not be. You post pictures. You enjoy minor excesses like another scoop on your ice cream cone. People might think you are too emotional or too pleasant. But you do not care. If you pass away tomorrow, you want to go knowing you did everything right. More significantly, your medication is what keeps you alive. However, it is also what keeps you from being a ruthless leader. But then, you do not have to be ruthless. Or a manager. Or even work in a big company. You can be anything you want to be.
JAVISHKAR REDDY has spent most of his career within the business communications realm, as a Communications Consultant. His corporate journey has seen a diverse range of roles at global companies, including various manager positions. With regards to his fiction writing career, his story “Sit Down; You’re Brown” was awarded runner-up in the SA Writers College 2019 Annual Short Story Competition. He was the Grand Prize Winner in the international Eyelands Magazine Short Story contest for 2019, for “Marvin Baxter’s Background Music.” Recently, he won best story in the international WriteFluenza Short Story competition, for “The Chair.” His debut novel, 12 Yards Out, which was being handled by a UK publishing house, has recently been released. Javi lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.