Disability income a must for recovery
Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (3), pp. 14-15
In 2005, I was in the hospital for six weeks and off work for four months. I cannot imagine trying to get through that period of mood-related psychosis while also having to worry about possibly losing my job, income and apartment. In that year, I started full-time employment at Coast Mental Health Foundation, which has employer funded short-term disability insurance. This insurance coverage provided me with income for this four-month period off work.
Prior to 2005, however, I didn’t have that kind of “safety net” in my work situations.
A downward spiral—losing self, losing income, losing self . . .
In the spring of 1998, I was experiencing paranoia and delusions, as well as depression. I didn’t tell anyone, but I believed people could read my mind and there was a conspiracy to humiliate me. I didn’t recognize then that I was experiencing mental illness. What I did know was that I had a history of substance use and a serious drinking problem.
At the time, I was working for a large, public institution. I’d gone through a period of manic thinking, but was accomplishing very little and had become exhausted. So, I went on leave from work to ‘sober up,’ using some of my vacation and sick days. I went to my workplace’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for substance use problems. The EAP counsellor, and a general practitioner the counsellor referred me to, either didn’t know or didn’t tell me I had a mental illness.
I returned to work and stayed sober, but only for a month. My then undiagnosed psychosis was in full bloom. While it may have been partly paranoia, I believe it’s also true that my supervisor and co-workers were setting me up for failure, often by withholding key information. They were looking for excuses to fire me. And, after I went off work for the second time, I received no phone calls, no flowers and no get-well cards. I had no contact with anyone from my workplace—including human resources. Human resources should have followed up with me about returning to work.
My vacation and sick time ran out quickly. Fifteen weeks of employment insurance ran out. Then I cashed in an RSP (registered savings plan), which I had bought with an RSP loan.
It was now well into autumn. I couldn’t afford to pay full rent, so my roommate moved to a more affordable one-bedroom apartment and let me stay with him. I didn’t tell anyone where I had moved to.
Application forms for long-term disability did arrive from my employer and the insurance company—more than six months after I had left work. My employer had no short-term disability coverage, so only sent the forms out when I’d passed the return-to-work date specified in a letter from my doctor (October 30). There was additional delay because the forms were forwarded from my old address (only because my roommate had filed a change-of-address with Canada Post).
I hid the forms so my roommate couldn’t make me fill them out. Why bother? ‘They’ were out to get me. Meanwhile, I had no income and my RSP cash, which I kept in my knapsack, was dwindling rapidly. I needed to get another job so I could get my own place, but felt so depressed and hopeless I couldn’t deal with applying for work.
My roommate discovered the disability application forms—after I threatened to kill myself (early 1999). Upon returning from a Christmas vacation, he found a suicide note. I was nowhere to be found, so he searched through my belongings and found the application forms and my doctor’s letter amongst a mountain of backlogged bills.
I didn’t kill myself. I did fill out the forms. I went to my physician, who diagnosed me with catatonic depression (i.e., depression with immobility and/or much random, purposeless movement).
A couple of months later I received notice from the insurance company that they had denied me coverage. I believe the insurance company rejected my application because I hadn’t told the truth on the application’s activity chart. In my depression, I couldn’t admit to not being able to concentrate and function. So I said that I did housework, even though my roommate did it all. And that, yes, I “enjoyed reading” (their words, loaded with the implication that I was absorbing whole books). In actuality, my life consisted of wandering around at night, sleeping, drinking coffee, flicking through the TV channels and reading newspapers (though I couldn’t remember much of what I read). Even with TV, it was more about channel-changing than actually being able to watch a show.
Not getting long-term disability insurance deepened and prolonged my depression and fed my psychosis. It fit with my delusional beliefs and paranoia. I figured, in my self-loathing, that I wasn’t really sick—I was ‘bad.’
I did receive the papers for an appeal, but never filled them out. It was too much effort, and I felt like I didn’t deserve it.
The off-work interim
I was off work for two-and-a-half years. I collected several more diagnoses, including major depression, caffeinism (I drank a lot of coffee to try and motivate myself), obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and, finally, bipolar II with mood-congruent psychosis. In looking back, I would say that my addiction issues and mental illness have been life-long conditions.
Eventually I started receiving the provincial disability benefits. In May 2000 I began to volunteer at Coast Foundation and in August began contract work for Coast. Working on contract fit with intermittent periods of not being able to work. It took five years before I had a full-time, stable position, with adequate medical benefits. Still, living with mental illness was—and is—a daily challenge for me. Ongoing therapy, staying sober and peer support groups help keep me motivated.
A saving grace
Workplace insurance is very important for preventing homelessness. There was no short-term disability available through my workplace when I first got sick. I would have been homeless without my roommate’s help. But not everyone has a good friend like that to help them out.
To get insurance in 2005 (and again in 2008 for six months), my employer, friends, family and the hospital social worker filled out all the forms. I just signed them and cashed the cheques. I depended on these people. When I get sick, my delusions and depression make it impossible for me to navigate the complex application process. Again, I was lucky to have a good social support network to help me.
With the insurance in place, I didn’t have to worry about my home, my job and whether I’d have food to eat. I was able to just focus on getting better.
About the author
Ross is a Resource Development Associate for Coast Mental Health Foundation. In his work and volunteer activities, he strives to bring understanding about issues related to mental health, addiction and homelessness and the importance of psychosocial and peer supports. Ross does public presentations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org