Parenting and Social Work

A route to recovery

Kathryn Lestage, BSW

Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(2), pp. 17-18

stock photoMy story begins in 1985. I am 21 years old. Since high school, I have spent two precious years of good mental health attending community college and traveling our country from coast to coast. I am eager to attend UBC to obtain the prerequisites for their school of social work. This endeavour comes to a crashing, screeching, hallucinating halt. Christmas exams are replaced with psychiatric consults and hospitalization. I experience a 'nervous breakdown' (psychotic break). I am told I may develop schizophrenia and will not work or finish school. I am also told that a nervous breakdown may never again be visited upon me; sometimes these symptoms never come back.

I left the hospital in 1985 on tranquilizers, gaining 45 lbs. in four months, feeling paralyzed by failure, body size and stigma. I started my return to 'normal living' with volunteer work in a group home for teens six months later. I returned to school in the fall, and completed another semester at the community college. The symp- toms of depression returned after Christmas 1986, and I had to withdraw from school.

In 1987, I gave birth to a boy on my 24th birthday. Pregnancy was a reprieve from my mental illness. During pregnancy and lactation, I enjoyed the most stable of moods. However, when my son was 18 months old, I suffered another depression. I went into a day program at St. Paul's Hospital for six months. My mother and father cared for my son (500 miles separated us), and my son seemed to stay frozen at the developmental age he was at when I went into therapy. For the next decade, I followed a predictable pattern.

During the month of December, I would need hospitalization; I would return home for about six months of recuperation, paralyzed on the couch. I would volunteer at an agency for about three months and return to the workforce within ten months of hospitalization. I would be able to work for about a year, while picking up two more social work course credits, when the symptoms of depression would return and the cycle repeated itself.

As I mentioned, this pattern became predictable, repeating every second year for the next ten years. Imagine having your work and school goals repeatedly interrupted while you wrestle with a chronic, reoccurring health condition. Add to that the social isolation that comes with being hospitalized in that ward, coupled with the social stigma of being a single parent. By the end of this decade in my life, I was beginning to feel hopeless - convinced I was no longer marketable in the workforce.

One thing I was still capable of and successful at, was taking a course or two every year towards my social work degree. These courses helped me to overcome the hurdles of the stigma around me and the stigma in my own head. People and individuals are of value not for what they do but for simply being: we all have intrinsic value; we all have strengths; we all have challenges. Social workers value and work with these strengths in a way that fosters independence, not dependence. This is our shared value for empowerment. We as social workers help clients deconstruct society's inequalities and challenge the status quo; and we try to give a voice to the disenfranchised.

As I learned the values and beliefs of my profession, I was able to advocate for myself. Emerging from yet another depressive episode, I insisted that my hospital records be gathered together and that a psychiatrist make a diagnosis. I was desperate to parent in an effective manner, and in my definition, this did not include the disruptions of having a re-curring mental illness. A diagnosis enabled them to prescribe one magical drug for me. They suggested my depressions were linked to manic depression and if I would take lithium daily for the rest of my life, and use a seasonal affective disorder lamp during the winter months, I would stop having these terrible depressions.

I have lived for 12 years now without being hospitalized. I enjoyed a satisfying career as a correctional officer; I finished my degree in May 2003 and switched tracks to the mental health field. I currently work for the BC Schizophrenia Society, working with individuals in the areas of advocacy and support. I deliver a psychosocial educational course to people living with a severe and persistent mental illness (i.e., schizophrenia, manic depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder). I share my story of living with a mental illness in workshops. If from these presentations, one person realizes there is hope and help, then I have done my job, and public disclosure has been worthwhile. If one professional nurse, social worker or doctor can empathize with the struggles of their individual clients, then I have helped countless people living with a mental illness. When family members say their home lives have improved, that they are renewed in their efforts to get help for their family member with a mental illness, then I feel a renewal in my own efforts to deconstruct and demystify mental illness.

During a social work conference, I took a workshop with Lena Dominelli and within our group work, I was able to entertain the idea that we as social workers oppress our clients. I experienced another layer of growth. I have become conscious that some of the individuals I work with may not be capable due to their symptoms and/or life experiences to reach sta- bility as I have defined it. There is not a magic pill for every diagnosis. My story is linked more to luck than to determination. I have been privileged to grow up in a family that encouraged secondary schooling, a family that was able to support me through my illnesses. Being middle-class and white certainly were factors in my employability. The values of our profession guide us past our own conceptions to a place where the individuals define for themselves the meaning of success. Many factors enabled me to find my way past mental illness and to find a life for myself and my child. The values of our profession have been integrated into my practice, but more importantly, they sustain me and champion me forward in the management of a mental illness.

About the author

Kathryn lives in Prince George and works for the BC Schizophrenia Society


This article is adapted from Perspectives, the newsletter of the BC Association of Social Workers, 26(1)