Reprinted from "Workplace: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (3), pp. 14-16
My memory is hazy, but that's part of my mental state. I've been in and out of hospital dozens of times with bipolar I, and I received three courses of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which caused permanent memory impairment.
Over a decade ago, I was doing clerical work. Because I was ill, however, my work performance was poor and I lost my job. Repeated bipolar episodes meant a chaotic work history—I would get a job, do well for a while, then become ill and quit or be fired, or change careers suddenly. My psychiatrist suggested it would be a good idea to apply for disability and stop trying to get jobs I might lose. I agreed that I needed the stability of a pension.
A Canada Pension Plan (CPP) Disability Benefit application took four months to process. During the wait, I couldn’t afford my Vancouver rent on only welfare, so I sublet my apartment and moved in with family temporarily. This was a hard choice, and the stress affected all of us poorly. After a suicide attempt, I was hospitalized for two months. Finally, when my CPP application was approved, I was discharged from the hospital and moved back into my apartment. But I still couldn't afford the rent, and I was too ill with frequent episodes of hypomania to manage money well. When I tried to move in with someone else, I suffered domestic violence. I became homeless.
Luckily, I wasn't sleeping rough on the streets. I ended up in a women's transition house, which led me to services I wouldn't have had access to otherwise. An outreach social worker helped me find a space in a rooming house and adjust to a new suburban community. In time, living in a quiet environment with lots of green space and making lifestyle adjustments, including regulating my sleep, I experienced less stress and my bipolar episodes eased up a bit. But I continued to wake up with migraines on some mornings, which prevented me from working a regular daily schedule. I still have migraines to this day.
Vitally, I was approved for the BC Housing Health Services Rent Supplement; I could then afford to move into a small studio apartment. The base provincial disability housing allowance of $375 per month isn't enough to rent an apartment, so the supplement helps a lot. I was glad to regain liberty, and I felt safer and happier in my new home, with a positive relationship with my landlord.
With improved mental health and increased knowledge of recovery resources online, I wanted to start giving back to society. I joined the board of directors of the Canadian Mental Health Association North & West Vancouver Branch, and later the Marineview Housing Society board. I had always been uplifted by beauty and culture, so I began to volunteer at a community art gallery. It felt good to help others and to feel useful—a boost to my self-esteem.
Still, recurring and cyclical bipolar episodes kept me from working a regular job, so I looked for alternatives. I'd always been a good writer, and through its blog ad I found a part-time online job writing for the mental health website PsychCentral. My boss at the site accommodates my recurrent mental health challenges, allowing job flexibility. I'm not paid a huge amount for the work I do, but that's fine since on disability my earnings are restricted. A bit of extra money each month allows me a more "normal" lifestyle. When I'm too sick to work at all, it's a relief to know I can return to work without difficulty. And working from home is more comfortable for me than working in an office, without all the stressful office politics and social anxiety that come with an office job.
After a few years, a chance came up with the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). The At Home/Chez Soi Project, a $110 million mental health and homelessness research project in five Canadian cities, sought people with lived experience to join advisory groups (among other opportunities). I applied and was accepted, and became a member of three advisory groups. We met by phone and in person, and also via email. I helped write reports, gave talks at conferences, and co-authored a scientific poster on peer work. The experience was enriching, and I felt that my work—volunteer but recognized with an honorarium—was valued.
After that project ended, the new MHCC Advisory Council advertised for experts, including those with lived experience. Part of the 2% of applicants who were successful, I was appointed to one of the three seats on the council reserved for people with lived experience. Now I provide input to the MHCC about its strategies and initiatives, through teleconferences and in-person meetings. I'm given nice catered meals, while I sit shoulder-to-shoulder with other experts from across Canada. I feel I belong, and my contributions are respected. This feeling means a lot to me, since in the past with episodes of depression I've felt so worthless and hopeless at times.
On my own, I use social media for online suicide prevention with my Twitter account @unsuicide, sharing resources and pointing people to crisis help, along with giving peer support. I created a website, Online Suicide Help (unsuicide.wikispaces.com), a global directory of services for people who don’t want to call a phone helpline and would rather connect to a crisis chat service, text-line, forum, or smartphone app. As a suicide attempt survivor who knows how hard it is to access services, I want to help people find the kinds of services and self-help they need, when they need it.
My suicide prevention work led to a tweetchat and webinar project with UBC’s CREST.BD bipolar disorders research group. Now, I'm a "Me Too: Conversations" advisory panel member helping with an anti-stigma speaker series by the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation.
I keep pretty busy, but I still experience health and life challenges. I had to stop all my work and volunteering completely for about six months while I underwent cancer treatment and recovery. I fought the illness successfully, but I still have some long-term physical and emotional side effects. This was another time I was especially grateful for the government safety net, since for a long period I couldn't work at all.
Often, I've felt I had to prove myself "worthy" of income assistance. I'm keenly aware there are those who think people on disability are fakers and lazy loafers who don't deserve the small amount of money provided to us. I've experienced discrimination, even from landlords when I searched for housing. Sometimes I think I've overcompensated to prove the doubters wrong, out of self-stigma.
The truth is that everyone on disability needs the money badly and isn't getting enough. We would all rather be working if we could. But even if we can't volunteer or work part-time, we shouldn't be begrudged assistance.
My mental health has improved, and I'm more stable and productive now. But as I live with bipolar I, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and migraines, episodes can and still do send me crashing down (or too far up, or into a mixed state) at any time, and migraines appear suddenly, rendering me unable to work without notice. I need to be financially safe. Disability income provides me with a safety net.
Disability income and a rent supplement cheque also mean I have stable, safe housing. I've been living in a studio apartment for more than six years—in a house with a kind, supportive family who know about my mental health issues. I'm grateful to be there. And I've never been late with rent.
I will continue to volunteer, work part-time for the advisory council and as a blogger, and find other ways to give back to society. Knowing my disability and rent supplement income is secure gives me serenity and helps keep me mentally stable so that I can contribute as much as I’m able to, thrive and appreciate life.
About the author
Sandra is a mental health writer, anti-stigma advisor, suicide prevention volunteer and member of the Mental Health Commission of Canada Advisory Council. She receives a Canada Pension Plan and provincial disability benefit, along with a rent supplement, while living well managing bipolar I, OCD, and migraines