Keris Myrick is the successful chief executive of a non-profit organization in Southern California, where she oversees a staff of three dozen people. She also suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which is similar to schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. But instead of adding stress to her life, her doctors say her job actually helps keep her sane.
Myrick’s story was the subject of a surprising, inspiring story this weekend in the New York Times. Her decision to pursue meaningful, even difficult, work has helped prompt doctors to reconsider their assumptions about how mental illness should be managed. Myrick is part of an ongoing study of high-functioning people with schizophrenia, including two doctors, a lawyer, and Myrick. “It’s just embarrassing,” Dr. Stephen R. Marder, one of the authors of the study, told the paper. “For years, we as psychiatrists have been telling people with a diagnosis what to expect; we’ve been telling them who they are, how to change their lives — and it was bad information” for many of them.
Myrick suffers from fairly extreme mental illness: At various times, her illness has manifested itself in voices in her head, paranoia, suicidal impulses, and hallucinations. After one hospitalization a few years ago, her doctor wanted her to take on an undemanding job. She refused. She has an advanced degree in management, and she wanted to work hard. Eventually she landed at Project Return Peer Support Network, a nonprofit which provides trained advisors who offer support and resources to people with mental illnesses.
Her office has made unique accommodations to Myrick’s own illness. She brings an “intuitive” therapeutic dog to the office regularly, and if she hits a rough patch she steps away for a few days. But that’s unusual. A “heavy work schedule” is actually part of her treatment strategy.
She also relies on her employees — many of whom also deal with mental illness — for “reality checks” when necessary. “I’ll just say, ‘Excuse me, but is anyone hearing what I’m hearing?’ ” she explained to the Times. “And if the answer is no — O.K., it’s no. Here it’s possible to do that and not worry about it.”
This article is inspiring on so many levels. First, kudos to her employer to accommodating her. But on a broader level, it’s empowering to read about the ways in which intense work can build us up and contribute to our mental health. We spend so much time talking how work is a stress, a drain, and a drag. Here’s the flip side of that story: work as savior and sanity. That’s something to think about when Monday gets you down.