Scary but liberating
Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(3), pp. 12-13
I’ve been working toward wellness for the past 14 years. My recovery journey began after I was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia at age 19. I had been a top student throughout high school, but in grade 12 started hanging out with the arty, party crowd. This led to substance use and my mental illness. I was hearing voices and seeing things that weren’t there, so couldn’t work.
Once diagnosed, I was put on medication. I also needed a lot of help to deal with the stress in my life. A support team was put together for me, consisting of a psychiatrist, a case worker, community agencies—and my mom, who has been a huge factor in my recovery.
Reclaiming my self: an education explosion
Five years ago I began taking courses. In the early days of my illness I couldn’t have imagined doing this. But I had learned many coping skills and was on the right meds, so felt I could manage taking on a challenge or two.
Earlier on the recovery path, trauma issues had emerged and I started doing counselling and therapy. One of the helping professionals planted the seed of an idea that I could do anything I applied myself to. That seed grew into a world of possibility. I became interested in reclaiming the high-achieving student I had been.
The Bridges for Women Society in Victoria offers an employment training program to help women overcome the effects of abuse. In 2003 I attended this program four days a week for a year. They gave me new skills and confidence, and helped me get ready to go back to school. I learned to set boundaries and goals. I worked on communication and job search skills, as well as career exploration. I created a collage representing my dream for the future: I wanted to be a counsellor.
Once I started learning, I didn’t stop. I needed more entry-level job skills and to become computer literate, so in 2004/05 I did an intensive full-time business administration program at CDI College, completing it with 95% honours. I was finally getting my life back on track.
Getting an education has been very important to me in dealing with my illness. I found that the more information I had, the better I would do.
The REES Network (Resources, Education, Employment and Support), a program of Victoria Cool Aid Society, trained me to provide peer support to other people in recovery. At the same time, I was accepted into the Leadership Victoria action/study program for emerging community leaders. I followed up at REES in the Mentorship program, and then went on to complete a 10-month lay counselling program at Citizens’ Counselling Centre. I’m now working on a Leadership Development certificate program at Camosun College. All this helped prepare me for my big transition into the work world.
The giant step to independence
Up until August 2008, I had been on a PWD (Persons with Disabilities) pension, which the provincial government gives to people who have severe mental illness. For two years, I’d had a part-time job with the BC Schizophrenia Society in Victoria as an administrative coordinator. I earned the extra $500 a month the government allows PWD pension recipients to make.
I’m still doing the administrative coordinator job, but now I’m a full-time, paid employee. My part-time position was actually a job-sharing situation. When my job-share partner decided to leave, I was faced with the decision about making this leap.
It was a very scary step to take to come off disability. Being on disability pension is safe and comfortable. The jump from being supported financially to being financially independent was an unknown for me. From high school, I knew what it was to be a student; but I’d never really had a job. I had fears: Will my illness get in the way? Will I get too stressed? Will I lose my job?
But I did it. I did it slowly and with care, making sure I stayed well along the way. It took a lot of goal-setting in small steps and getting as much support from doctors and family as I could.
I was lucky to have a great boss who cared about my well-being. I was honest about my situation and showed that I was eager to face my fears and move forward with my life. And, I had settled into the work well over the two years I had been there part-time, so I was already at home with the work.
There are times when I’m not feeling well and am tired. At these times, I make sure that I talk with my support people to work things out. And I make sure I’m using my self-care tools. I eat well, get adequate sleep, walk to work every morning, practise Reiki (a technique for enhancing life force energy) on myself and meditation, and express myself creatively through music and writing poetry.
Now that I’m working full-time, I feel happier and more at peace than I ever have. I’m paying taxes and contributing to my community. I have more independence. I get to help others who are in need. My life has more purpose. And I’m one step closer to my collage goal of being a full-fledged counsellor.
A few words of advice
I wear several hats in my job, including support worker. When I talk to others about the benefits of working, I tell them about the freedom to make choices and live a better quality life. When I’m giving support to someone who is thinking of returning to a work setting, I let them know they should take their time and move along at their own pace. I also recommend asking for help along the way. This can make all the difference. There are so many people who are willing to be there for you.
I am very grateful for where I am in my recovery and the hope that was given to me by others. It wasn’t all easy, but it was worth the wait. Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you must stop living—in fact, it means just the opposite. You now have something to work with, a challenge to overcome, with great learning possibilities. And, you are so valuable to those coming up behind you, because you have your experience and lessons learned to share. It is so important for people with mental illness, or any kind of disability, to achieve their goals. This will help erase stigma from society.
There is no failure in recovery; there’s only a chance to better yourself. Working toward wellness can be anything you want it to be; you are the one who is in charge of your dreams. You can do whatever you want in life, including finding work that really gives your life meaning.
I wish all of you luck and hope.
About the author
Eva* is a full-time Administrative Coordinator in the mental health and addictions field. She has lived in Victoria, BC, all her life and has a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder