Web-only article from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(3)
For 35 years, I ‘danced’ with the work world. I have no idea how I functioned—but I did.
I’ve been squirrel-brained for much of my life. From the time I was 10, I knew something was wrong with me. I started ‘hiding’ and being very quiet. Yet, at school, I was disruptive; I was so filled with depression and anger. (My father was an alcoholic and, after bouts of drinking, could be quite abusive. And, after my parents got home from partying, they always fought, which kept me awake until daybreak.)
I wasn’t interested in school and only stayed until I could legally quit. I never got past the seventh grade, which I tried to pass three times. They put me into a special needs class and I went to summer school, but I still couldn’t pass. Commerce (typing and office machines) was the only class I didn’t fail.
At age 16, I immediately started looking for work.
My working life
My first job was as an office worker at Western Stamp Works in Vancouver. I took rubber stamp and ink pad orders, over the phone or in person at the front desk. It wasn’t easy. Not having my high school math made it hard. I was young, and immature-minded at that, and didn’t fit in well socially. I had a few friends, but they liked to go out, looking to meet boys; I didn’t want to do that. Many of my co-workers got impatient with me. But I worked there for five years.
In 1968 I married Tom,* an American Navy man. I was 21 and he was just 17. I wasn’t in love; I only did it to get out of my parents’ house. But I ended up staying at home for the first year while Tom was stationed in Thailand. Then I met him in San Francisco, California, where we got a bachelor suite with a Murphy bed. And Tom was deployed to Thailand again for another year.
I applied for a position at Standard Oil in San Francisco. They said I had to get my typing speed up, so I practised for a week, then got a job as a certificate typist. From there I moved up to typing on a flexowriter (an early electric typewriter). I enjoyed working at Standard Oil. It was new and exciting, and I was good at my job (typing stock certificates)—fast and accurate.
After about four years at Standard Oil, I became very upset at Tom. He wasn’t working. I spent $3,000 of my own savings getting him into a pyramid scheme, which came to nothing. And he bought himself a brand new Toyota with the money I had saved from my allotment cheques (living expenses paid to military wives); I didn’t drive. He wanted to be a big shot, and he was a womanizer.
This is when my mental illness really started to show. One day I didn’t go in to work. I just didn’t care. They called me, but I had nothing to say. My marriage was ending, and Tom was leaving me with nothing. I was extremely angry and could only scream and spit and punch at him. And I started into a deep depression.
The next four or five months are hazy. I was on my own. I did start seeing a psychiatrist, though I don’t remember how I got her, and I started going to group therapy.
I then miraculously got a flexowriter job with Morton Salt in nearby Burlingame. I know they checked my references, but I think my supervisor (at Standard Oil) knew about my condition and gave me a good reference because I was a good worker.
While I was at Morton Salt, I had an emotional breakdown, though not at work. One day, in a group therapy session, I had an out-of-body experience. I went to a warm, comfortable place, with bright swirling light; I liked it there. But I could see this tiny little girl sitting in the room below me, and I knew I couldn’t leave her behind; I had to look after her. The people around me were quite alarmed, though. I ended up in hospital, where they put me on lithium. It was take the lithium or be strapped down.
The hospital I was in was right across the street from Morton Salt, but no one I worked with knew I was there. I later made a suicide attempt—it seemed like a way out of a pending marriage to an alcoholic—and ended up back in this hospital for 72-hour observation.
I was on lithium for years, though I’m not sure it helped. It was ‘the thing’ at the time. In those days, no one knew what was wrong with me. You just saw a psychiatrist, who put you in a therapy/support group and gave you lithium. There was no help in work places. And nobody talked about it. .
Morton Salt moved to where their plant was in Newark, which was too far for me to travel. So, after five years there, I took a job with Chandler Insurance. I didn’t even last a year. I had been working to get my GED (General Education Development, a high school graduation equivalency diploma) and it almost killed me, the stress of it all. I wanted to prove I was worth something; to know I wasn’t stupid. My English teacher said I had a lot of creativity, and I felt so grateful; I really listened in her class. But with working full-time, walking in the dead of night back and forth to class, and doing hours of homework, I grew exhausted. But I got my GED, in 1980. I am still so proud of this.
I had a few more full-time jobs: GTE Lenkurt for three years, until they folded up; and Key Services Corporation for five years, checking credit ratings. I still struggled with anger and depression, but somehow managed my work situations. I could read people and knew how to treat them in order to get by. My mother was a hard worker and people always liked her. Maybe I took after my mom.
Around 1988, however, full-time jobs started becoming short-term full-time. Clerical positions at Pitney Bowes and at an insurance company became increasingly difficult for me to handle, so I quit. I landed a job at Nordstrom as the counter manager for MAC cosmetics. I was great at sales, but not at the monthly inventory. So I quit there too.
A chameleon, hiding, coping . . .
I finally realized I couldn’t work full-time, so I became a temp, working out of three temporary agencies. This way I could hide myself; if I didn’t stick around too long, people wouldn’t ‘find out about me.’
I got part-time work in upscale department stores demonstrating kitchenware. I also worked two bridal shops on a temporary basis and always did well in sales.
I also knew how to get myself fired: eat at my desk when asked not to; come in late repeatedly. At that time, in California, being fired was what it took to claim unemployment assistance. Guess who was always in the unemployment line?
I kept up this cycle of unemployment and temp work for a long time. Looking back, I can see the bipolar at work. I’d be high energy, so my productivity was tops. And I’d let the ‘chameleon’ come out and work for me—somehow I had the smarts to be whatever I needed to be to make my way. But when I was coming down out of the mania, and the dragging self started, that’s when I’d get myself fired.
I was getting sicker and sicker. I was running out of bridges to cross.
Repatriation, respite and recovery
I couldn’t make it in the US. I’m a Canadian citizen, so I came back to Canada, where I’d be taken care of. I’d been away for 30 years. That was 12 years ago.
I paid rent at my sister’s place in Delta, rested for a month or so and got on finding a job. That didn’t go well. I quit jobs at Konica and a résumé company in short order; a whole bunch of things were crashing down on me. I’d sit on the streets, a broken woman, not knowing where I was going.
I decided I had to find out what was wrong with me. I don’t know what sequence things happened in, but I found a psychiatrist in Ladner, who diagnosed me with depressive, bipolar and anxiety disorders. The psychiatrist gave me a prescription for medication and sent me to a family doctor, who helped me get on Disability II. This meant that I got a government cheque monthly, so could get an apartment. I was starting to get my life in order.
I’ve had a couple of stints in respite care, but no more hospital stays. I got into a support group and I see a psychiatrist every week or so. The psychiatrist has me on the proper medication. I have a case manager, and a support worker comes in every other week, along with a cleaning crew. About five years ago I became a Christian, which gives me great comfort. And I have my cat Angel, a beautiful blue-eyed Himalayan, to love and care for.
In recovery, treasuring work
I’m working again, part-time, as a volunteer. For the past six years, I’ve done one shift a week at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Delta, helping in the office and with special events—a “Girl Friday.” For Delta Hospice Society, I work in the second-hand store. We’re helping to raise money to build a hospice facility. I love my jobs. I work with people who treasure me, and I adore the people I work with. Life is good.
About the author
Maureen is a very proud Cree and French-Canadian woman who lives in Delta, BC. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety 12 years ago, after a lifetime of struggling with mental health issues. She currently volunteers with Canadian Mental Health Association, Delta and Delta Hospice Society