And the way back to work...
Reprinted from "Workplace" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 9 (3), p. 12
As someone with the diagnosis of a major mental illness, I’ve found that returning to work has been the most healing thing I’ve done since becoming ill. But then, I work in a place where I can say I have a mental illness without fear of stigma. At the Mood Disorders Association of BC (MDABC), I not only feel supported, but the experience of my illness is an asset to my work.
The nature of my illness doesn’t make my work more difficult for me, and I don’t need accommodations. However, it’s very comforting to work where coworkers know the symptoms of mental illnesses, and where there are activities promoting the wellness of people with mental illness.
In 2004 when I left government service after almost 10 years, I was a shell of myself. I was so ill I didn’t even bother trying to go on a leave using my benefits; I simply quit. While off work for four hard years of treatment for my illness, I had two things pulling at me: the symptoms of my illness, which kept me from working, and my need to be productive. These conflicting states created a real struggle for me, and the longer I was off work the larger my concerns about returning to work became.
I attended MDABC support groups and would just cry about my situation. With nothing to do all day, I felt so bored—and felt guilty about feeling bored. But I distinctly remember being too embarrassed about this to bring it up in group. I worried that saying I was bored and not working made me seem ‘lazy’ or ‘dependent’—I kind of thought it did. Forgiving myself for being ill and off work was all part of the process of returning to work.
For me the chief barrier was fear that my skills were gone and that I had little to offer. I felt more vulnerable, less capable and more sensitive. These feelings ate at me, and with no workplace setting to test myself in, my fears of failure ran rampant. It was hard to get my belief in my abilities back, and it didn’t happen overnight.
I’ve heard it said that someone off work for two years or more is unlikely to go back. But I was determined to get back to work. The road back was very similar to my return to mental health—full of self-doubt, and fits and starts, and retreats to safety when I felt overwhelmed.
Within about three years of leaving work, I decided to do something productive and offered to volunteer as a facilitator of a peer-led self-help support group for the MDABC. I figured it wouldn’t be so bad to lose my volunteer ‘job’ if things didn’t work out for me and I had to retreat.
Within just a few weeks of facilitating the support group, I started to see that my abilities weren’t lost. My skills were still sharp and valuable in a workplace; in fact, my skills in dealing with people and troubling situations were better than ever. And, I started to see that my new knowledge about mental illness could really enhance any job I might have. You can’t have a mental illness for long without learning about compassion and learning that there are more than one or two ways to solve a problem.
After facilitating support groups for a year or so, I applied for a part-time job as the editor and website manager of the organization, and now, five years later, I’m the operations manager.
Because of my own mental illness and recovery path, I am well able to offer my knowledge and lived experience of mental illness, and to make use of connections I’ve developed as a consumer. I have knowledge of Vancouver General Hospital’s dialectical behavioural therapy program, of agencies like Battered Women’s Support Services and of advocates at the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities. All my experiences add up and can be used to inform others.
My illness has become the catalyst for the passion in my life: helping people with mood disorders.
I also have an appreciation for working that I never had before I became ill. I love my job. I love that I am working. I love the people I serve, and I love and appreciate my own commitment to making this all happen.
About the author
Catherine is the mother of three adult children; she and two of her children have been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses. She is fortunate to have an understanding partner, a job she loves and two old cats. Catherine spends hours doing jigsaw puzzles and wants to travel more