How Addiction Discrimination Cost Me a Government Job

By Allison Holland 04/13/16

I worked for the state of Florida for two days before being fired for something I did before I was a legal adult.

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I Was A Government Employee for Two Days
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I am a former state government employee. I worked for the state of Florida for just under a grand total of 16 working hours (two days), before being promptly fired. I wasn’t laid off due to budget cuts, someone overseas didn’t steal my job because they offered to work for 10 cents on the dollar, I wasn’t even escorted out of the building because I wore a tube top to the office on the second day. My length of time spent as a government employee was not cut short due to insubordination or even lack of capability, but for a crime that was committed when I was hardly old enough to be considered a legal adult by any of the 50 states in the union.

From my late teenage years until my early twenties, I struggled with substance dependency and drug addiction. I robbed my family, employer, and friends of restful sleep, time, and money to fuel my habit. (The employer ended up being the one that bit me in the rear-end, so to speak, because that is the only one that still rears its ugly head on federal background checks—I now know.) However, in a sense, I ended up being somewhat of an anomaly. I overcame these afflictions through lots of hard work and broke free from the stronghold of addiction with my life and physical health. While my life story—the underdog winning a war against mental illness with the odds stacked against me—is moderately admirable to some, in the corporate world, it is seen as a threat to the integrity of an agency. My story is not one that is rare when it comes to reformed alcoholics, addicts, and convicted criminals trying to reintegrate into society by obtaining stable employment—but it is personal, and there’s nothing quite like firsthand experience to add a nasty kick to the figurative Kool-Aid that society has been drinking, one that colors all adults who have overcome tribulations with the same ungodly color of incorrigibility.

Spend 30 seconds on Google to retrieve the following statistic: The United States presently has roughly 2.2 million people incarcerated in some fashion. That does not account for the number of individuals presently in mental health facilities, or even addiction treatment rehabilitations. While one might argue that comparing involuntary incarceration and being a patient in an addiction treatment facility is like comparing apples to oranges, for anyone who has completed a “stint” in a state-funded addiction treatment facility—where food and beverages are highly regulated and restricted to certain times, you share a room with a cot with four other individuals, and phone calls are limited to 15 minutes at a time—having freedom stripped away in any sense can be likened to incarceration whether involuntary or not, especially when the ultimate goal of either case is behavior correction and reform. In a nation where we jail more individuals than communist nations that strip their citizens of basic human rights, one might gather that extreme prisoner-to-free-men ratio would produce high percentages of individuals released from correctional facilities who are simply that: corrected. Corrected in their way of thinking, acting and behaving to the point where living and functioning in everyday America is no longer a threat to themselves or others around them. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. 

Correctional institutions, prisons, and mental health rehabilitations all have startlingly low “success” rates. (Or, percentages of individuals who should earn frequent visitor perks for their repeated stays.) Treatment of behaviors and mental disorders that are linked to illegal behaviors is complex and widely debated. Most of the time, there is a strong correlation between the environment that the released individual returns to after his or her institutional stay, and whether or not they continue acting in the same fashion that led to the institutionalization to begin with. Whether it is a convicted criminal returning to a life of crime because he knows no other way of life, or the drug addict who puts the needle back in her arm because she refuses to disassociate with people who are doing the same, the pattern remains the same. If you change nothing, then nothing will change.

Focus for a moment, rather than on the obvious need for justice system reform, on the people who make it. Because much like the small chance that exists of winning the lottery, or passing the bar without ever having been through law school, there is always a chance that one can succeed despite any and all odds: The man who committed a crime and walked out of jail a changed man based upon his experiences and never again broke the law (in any measurable sense). Or the drug addict who had a moment of clarity and seized the opportunity to cast illicit substances down the river. Those people exist—and not in the sense that Bigfoot exists because we have no concrete proof that he doesn’t. They exist because I am one of them. I am walking, talking, and living proof that people can change their behaviors and their way of life...or at least the former. Redefining and exemplifying what integrity, honesty, and sobriety means and looks like in my everyday life mean very little if the reaction to this adopted philosophy amongst those who have employment vacancies consistently remains to be: but look at what you were. And if I choose to believe that I am defined by behaviors I used to display, rather than by what I know to be true about myself, why even bother to continue to be “corrected” or successfully “treated” if that hard work is a moot point when it comes to my peers and fellow citizens, who are still afraid that one day the upstanding citizen fountain flowing within me will abruptly run dry.

I empathize with those who are skeptical. Skepticism is a personal attribute that I cherish. It is what keeps me from falling victim to pyramid schemes, and replying to the dethroned and broke King of Saudi Arabia via e-mail who promises me riches for only a small investment of $19.95. Being skeptical of someone for their past actions is natural. However, when assumptions about a person’s likely unlawful behaviors are otherwise discounted by consistent demonstrations of behaviors that adhere to societal norms for an extended period of time, the obvious conclusion might be that the aforementioned individual no longer behaves in his or her former fashion. Taking all evidence into account—the low success rates of rehabilitation programs, the odds of relapse into old or addictive behaviors, and the frequency at which one who previously has committed infractions consistently revisits correctional institutions—I don’t blame anyone for being skeptical. But I do call into question the competency of anyone who is presented with a case of a person who has consistently demonstrated being “corrected” in all forms, and still draws the conclusion that past behavior patterns are likely, and therefore judgement and skepticism of them should still be cast down.

This is not a cry for help, nor is it a story that intends to evoke pity from those who have not had their lives touched by someone who suffered from an addiction, mental illness, or had a loved one spend time in an institution. It is to provoke a thought, hopefully in those who are in positions to cast judgement on those of us who were able to overcome things that would have no doubt shook you to your core. For those people out there who have been deemed a success by professionals who make a living off of correcting us, only to be turned away by employers because we were not correct enough—know that you are good enough and worthy enough to seek happiness and stability in society. Living a life that is full and happy—having the white picket fence, the spouse, the minivan, and all other dreams that reformed individuals may have—should be attainable, not an insurmountable fight to keep one’s head above water financially because of a workforce that lumps together all individuals who may have struggled at one point in their lives as ticking time bombs who aren’t worthy of the same chances that other, perhaps less capable, candidates possess.

Please don’t be confused, I was fired from my job. Not delicately laid off or tenderly encouraged to seek employment elsewhere. I had the rug pulled out from underneath me because someone else took issue with the fact that I wasn’t born correct, I had to be corrected. When I was asked what my thoughts were on why people who have overcome as much as I, and many others like me who have fought for their place outside of an institution, even bother trying to live on the straight and narrow when the corporate world continues to view us as permanently defective despite all the evidence that may point to the contrary, I proudly replied: Because I was treated, and I have been corrected.

Because I’m used to fighting—for my life, for my place in society, and for my voice to be heard—it isn’t a surprise to me that this stigma about recovered persons still exists. Employers, men and women in positions of authority, and all of us as reasonable human beings owe it to each other to not allow a person’s past afflictions judge their future behaviors. I will continue to fight side by side next to others who have made great strides in overcoming what others say they could not, for a stable life facilitated by a stable career, and to be recognized as someone who is worthy of success. Because, at the end of the day, I can look to those who have been through far worse and maintained their integrity, and draw strength from them.

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