Diary of A Young Pro: Amanda Gelender
2) How old are you?
I am 27.
3) What is your job title?
I am the Director of Strategy and Innovation at Vaya Consulting, which helps companies develop, bolster, and execute their diversity efforts, primarily along lines of race, but also class, gender, disability, and sexual orientation/gender expression. We offer a wide range of services for our clients including organizational management training to help build culture for diverse populations to thrive.
4) How has the transition been from backpack to briefcase (college to adulthood)?
It has been a very difficult transition for me. I graduated from college with two degrees with honors and received a Fulbright Award to study social protest theatre in Bangladesh. I was also accepted to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Instead of pursuing either of those opportunities, my life took a sharp downward turn into an acute mental health episode. For the next several years, my functioning capacity dwindled down to almost nothing. I was severely over-medicated and struggling to stay afloat. My depression, anxiety, and mood swings took over my life and I didn’t know if I would ever hold a job or function in the world again. I am diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and OCD, but I identify as “psychovariant” because that label recognizes my atypical brain functioning as a source of both distress and a gift to be nurtured. This is an umbrella term that can be claimed by anyone whose brain operates divergently (ex: depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, anxiety, bipolar, DID). Identifying as psychovariant is an attempt to recast what is commonly referred to as “mental illness” through a framework that destigmatizes and celebrates neurological diversity. It wasn’t until last year that I was able to get off of disability and become employed. While my life is much more stable than it has been in recent memory and I work for a company that I love, I still struggle daily.
5) When you were in school, did you imagine your life the way that it is?
I always knew I wanted to do social justice work, but I did not expect it to manifest in the way it does now. I thought I would be deeper into my career and moving along a much more traditional occupational trajectory. Mental health abruptly shifted my path. I essentially “missed” late 2010-2013: World events, friends, pop culture, technology. Coming back into the workforce was a rude awakening because I was re-learning tasks like writing emails, carrying conversations, and using public transportation. I also did not anticipate that I would become so passionate about alternative mental health. Born out of necessity, I sought alternative treatments for supporting and managing my psychovariance. The Icarus Project, a radical mental health collective, has been instrumental in helping me reframe my identity; I am not a diseased person who needs to be cured, I have neurological diversity which is both my strongest asset and my biggest challenge. While I am not the person my college self wanted to be – and that comes with some shame – I am happy to be on a much more unconventional path with new curiosities and measures of success. It’s exciting and challenging to lead a life that will not move linearly but rather with bursts, detours, and cycles.
6) What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced during these transitional years?
The biggest challenge I have faced has been coming off of my medication. I was on drug cocktail of about 10 meds just a few years ago and the drug effects were often more debilitating than the symptoms they were prescribed to treat. Deliberately and carefully tapering off of my medications is how I am alive and functioning today. For some people, psych meds help tremendously and I fully support people making their own informed choices about drugs. For others like me, drugs are forced on us or inappropriately overused and administered, causing serious physical and emotional damage. I also recognize that my experience accessing medical and social services during this time could have been much worse; as a white, cis, educated person I did not experience the discrimination and denial of agency that disproportionately affects communities of color and visibly queer folks. I sought out alternative treatment options including community acupuncture and I attended Icarus Project meetings and talk therapy to push through withdrawal and maintain wellness. Now I self-monitor my psychological health. While I will continue to feel the lingering effects of the medications for years to come, I now feel healthier and more in control of my well-being than I have in years.
7) What is the best advice you have received from a mentor about adulthood and/or careers?
The best career advice I have received was from my dad. He spent his working life selling cars – even though he hated it – to support our family. He advised my siblings and me to pursue careers that made us truly happy. It’s a privilege to be able to do so, but if you can find a way to make a living doing something that you love, there is no better way to drive your career.
9) What is next for you and the next 12 months? Do you have any goals you would like to accomplish? How are you going to accomplish them?
There are so many goals I want to accomplish in the next year. I want to be more open with people about my mental health and start a blog to write about psychovariance. I want to continue to learn how to build capacity in a self-sustaining way: Maintain my mental health and foster my “mad gifts” while contributing externally to social justice movements. I want to find outlets for creative expression that don’t drain me, but fill me up. And I want to help grow Vaya Consulting into a company that revolutionizes workplace culture and breaks down employment barriers for marginalized populations. I am also confident that in the next twelve months, I will struggle. My goal is to manage those times with as much patience, awareness, and self-care that I can muster. I have many goals I want to accomplish, but the truth is, for the first time in years I am at a place where I know with relative certainty that I can get up tomorrow and make it through the day again. I don’t take my ability to do so for granted anymore. I don’t want to put the level of pressure on myself to achieve in the way I used to, it is unhealthy. My career will grow at the pace of my health. Anything else is self-destructive. So I would consider it a resounding success if in the next year I could maintain my status quo. Anything else I achieve is bonus.
10) What makes you special?
My neurodiversity makes me special. Sometimes my brain moves so fast, it crackles with ideas and insight. Other times I feel so inextricably despondent. I also experience these extremes simultaneously. I deeply internalize both my immediate environment and the pain in the world which means I have heightened empathy. I experience a wide range of the emotions that comprise the human experience; I can play all the notes on my proverbial piano. I am beginning to shed my shame about my mental difference and replace it with pride. I am part of a community of people, most of whom hide their psychovariance due to stigma and prejudice. Our society is not set-up to support the level of neurodiversity that exists. It manifests in the form of brilliance, depression, creativity, mania, innovation, anxiety, and intellect. I hope that by coming into the light, I am doing my part show that we are here, we live amongst you, we contribute, and we challenge systems by thinking and living differently.