Time to Heal and a Place to Thrive
One DS special agent offers his own case as a model for successful rehabilitation from mental illness.
BY RONALD HOLLOWAY
There were times when I couldn’t face another day, and all I wanted to do was sleep. There were days when I was so euphoric that I behaved in ways I now consider very embarrassing. There were also dark days, when I thought the only way to provide for my family would be for them to collect my life insurance. And there was the day when, after my second hospitalization, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I like to think those days are behind me as I successfully manage a mental illness that severely limits the lives of millions of people in the United States. I was fortunate to have support from within my bureau, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, to ensure my successful rehabilitation.
I do not know how many in the State Department have an experience with mental illness like mine, but the department should consider my rehab process as a model to be replicated.
Support Is Critical
I faced a crucible, but I didn’t face it alone. Despite the nature of my illness, many supporters, including my peers and the Diplomatic Security Services director, believed that I could get better.
I was placed on limited duty, but I still came in every day and was treated with respect by my colleagues. During one particularly difficult time, my wife called on a Basic Special Agent Course classmate and close friend of mine to help get me admitted to the hospital. He responded without hesitation. His wife would go on to offer my family sanctuary at their home while I was hospitalized.
To heal from a mental illness and not slip back, you need a support network and a good routine.
To heal from a mental illness and avoid slipping back you need a support network and a comfortable routine. I was fortunate enough to have that network—more so at work than anywhere else. When I returned to work from my hospitalization, co-workers kept the faith with me.
Whenever possible, my best friend and fellow agent called me from Afghanistan and Panama. Former classmates made it a point to drop by my cubicle to chat when they were in the building. I had fruit and chocolate every day with the office management specialist, which added structure to my life.
I consistently used the gym at DS headquarters to achieve new goals and get into the best physical shape I could. As the weight I had put on during my manic episodes disappeared, I gained more self-confidence and self-control. As my body improved, so did my mind: Mens sana in corpore sano—A sound mind in a sound body.
A Respectful Process
The several times I met with the DS psychologists, I was treated with respect, even at my weakest points. (DS agents not only go through background investigations but may also be required to comply with fitness-for-duty evaluations [FFDE] to help determine their continuing mental, emotional and neuro-cognitive fitness for duties requiring the use of special protective equipment.)
When the findings of my FFDE came back, and I was one of the very few agents found unfit for duty, I was given time to look for another position within the department. I was assigned a case officer in the Bureau of Human Resources’ Disability and Reasonable Accommodations Division, which handles cases for individuals looking for a new position or facing retirement because of a disability. The case officer helped me schedule a meeting to rewrite my resume and told me I needed to network and apply for jobs through USAJobs.
One of the first steps I took was to reach out to the DS Peer Support Group. The PSG, under the Office of the Director of the Diplomatic Security Service, helps DS personnel who have been through or are experiencing a crisis. The PSG has more than 400 volunteers from the bureau who have been professionally trained to provide support to those in need. They were an invaluable resource for me.
Through networking, word eventually got to someone that there was an agent who was about to be forced out on disability retirement or assigned a menial job at less pay. That person still saw value in me and felt that, given the right atmosphere and purpose, I could continue to contribute to the DS mission. He offered me the choice of two jobs. I chose to become a foreign affairs officer.
If everyone at State were treated the way I was treated—provided with a support network that offered hope, the right environment and new opportunities—the fear of admitting that one is unwell would decrease.
These were just some of the people, resources and acts that helped along the way. While I would like to thump my chest and say I beat my illness on my own, that wouldn’t be accurate. I was certainly committed to improving every day, but I couldn’t have done it alone. I still manage my illness, but I do so in an environment where my supervisor accommodates my needs and never questions my sick leave (even when it’s at the last minute). My official work is engaging and offers opportunities for growth in areas I might not have been exposed to had I remained on duty as an agent.
I also have side projects that allow me to give back to the organization and stay involved with its development. I started a leadership and professional development affinity group on Corridor, State’s in-house professional networking platform, called Tenet 6—a reference to the sixth DS Leadership Tenet: Build Great Teams. We have more than 100 members who share an interest in improving DS through knowledge sharing and collaboration.
I’ve also been fortunate to be included in the Resilience Working Group, which helps those interested in designing resiliency courses and learning a common working language. Just as the members of the group are diverse, so are their audiences. I’m designing a course based on my own experiences and personal study of resilience literature and am translating the concepts into a message that will resonate with my particular audience—DS special agents.
A Model for Care
I’ll never know for sure if the patron saint of DS agents was looking after me, or whether my situation was a series of lucky events. But I believe that if everyone at State were treated the way I was treated—provided with a support network that offered hope, the right environment and new opportunities—the fear of admitting that one is unwell or the fear of taking on challenging (and oftentimes dangerous) assignments would decrease. I believe that if we send people into harm’s way we have a moral obligation to make sure they get the best help available before, during and after they need it.
If the whole department invested in those employees who are in crisis and created an environment where the ill could recover, we would be a more resilient organization with a cadre of future leaders who, having overcome major life challenges, would have a greater sense of purpose, loyalty to the organization and wisdom to contribute to a stronger State Department.