By any standard, Anupa Iyer has accomplished more than the average person her age. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) at the age of 19, spent three years as a technical recruiter placing high-level IT contractors at Fortune 100 companies and worked for nearly five years as an organizer for one of the largest labor unions in the country. She also recently completed an internship with Commissioner Chai Feldblum at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and received her degree from the Seattle University School of Law, where she concentrated on disability and international human rights law.
What isn’t apparent on paper is the fact that Anupa achieved all of these accomplishments despite her 12-year struggle with mental illness.
Anupa first experienced symptoms of her illness during an internship in Geneva, Switzerland. Initially, she dealt with her emotional turbulence through self-medication and intense shopping sprees. But as her illness continued to spiral out of control, Anupa attempted suicide. Throughout the next few years, she was voluntary and involuntary committed to various psychiatric institutions and prescribed anti-depressant medications, which left her unable to read, write or hold conversations. “I was defined as a patient, not as a person and not by my potential,” says Anupa.
Tired of living as “an over-medicated zombie,” Anupa realized her only option was to make a life for herself outside of the institution. Without disclosing her current situation, Anupa reached out to contacts at her previous employer about returning to work. They helped her find a job in Seattle. Then against medical advice, she left the institution. Anupa admits that reintegrating into society was difficult, because she had to learn how to balance her recovery with the demands of her career. Despite the stigma of mental illness in the workplace, Anupa was determined to show others that she was capable of success.
“It took me eight years after my first hospitalization to gain the confidence to share my story,” says Anupa. “Work and school helped me recreate my life. With each passing day, I shed my identity as a patient and rebuilt myself as a student, advocate and future attorney.”
Today, Anupa works as a legal intern for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., a position she obtained through the American Association of People with Disabilities Summer Internship Program. In this capacity, she researches mental illness cases, attends meetings and prepares summaries for her colleagues. Anupa says she manages her hidden disability by being aware of her needs. She also sees a therapist when she is feeling stressed and sometimes asks employers for a sick day if she is feeling “off.”
Anupa plans to continue working in the field of disability law and advocating for individuals with disabilities, especially those with mental illnesses. “Personally, I want to live in a world where one day people don’t have to be embarrassed about who they are.”
This October, she will start a one-year fellowship with the Mental Disability Advocacy Center in Budapest, Hungary.