Work for Recovery
by Heather Laney
My name is Heather. I am 32 years old and I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and, oh yes, I have a mental illness. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young adult. My history with mental illness spans numerous hospitalizations, day treatment programs and halfway houses. There was time in my life when I saw no way out of this miry clay of mental illness. I was hopeless and jobless on SSI and SSD benefits living in subsidized housing or group homes with a feeling of being in a perpetual rut. I could not see any silver lining in this dark cloud that overshadowed my life.
I think my first step toward recovery was learning how to speak for myself and say what would work best for me. That is how I got out of the cycle of going to day programs. I began to get assertive and refused to go any longer. I knew there had to be more to life than showing up. I also figured if I could show up for a day program every day, then why not work? Thus, my road to recovery came through trying to work.
I started out working through a transitional employment program at a social club. My first job was a disaster. I worked in a craft store on the register. I was so nervous I would shake when customers would ask me to check out their purchases. Needless to say, I quit that job. I felt hopeless again after that “failure.” Then I started going back to the social club and slowly built up my confidence again.
After moving out of the halfway house and into my own apartment, I got the courage again to try something positive. I went back to school. I rode the bus every day to school to take a cooking program. I was teased and treated poorly by some of the younger students in the class, yet I stayed with it. I finished a semester with good grades and learned about a profession I knew little about. I learned enough to know that was not what I wanted to do. All this time I was getting stronger and more hopeful. I was ready to look for work again. This time I tried a day care center. Not for me. Then I tried a gourmet food store. Not for me. Then I tried working with the developmentally disabled. Getting closer. I liked it but it was not quite right. I had narrowed it down as to where my gifts lay. Human Services. I could just tell I liked helping people.
When I moved to Buffalo, I found out about peer jobs. I thought this was something I would like. I volunteered for the Peer Support Phone Line and built up my resume. I then interviewed for a job as a peer. I did not get it so I went to school for social sciences at Erie Community College, City Campus. Then, to my surprise, after one semester I was called back for a second interview for the peer job. This time I got it. I went head first into it and went back to work full time. It was a perfect fit. I loved what I was doing and felt useful and purposeful for the first time since the onset of my disability. The factors that made this job enjoyable were that I was helping people based on my own experience of what had helped me recover, and it was a supportive environment. I could be disclosed about my difficulties yet was required to act in a productive, ethical manner. I have been at the same job for nearly three years.
“Never, never, never give up!” Winston Churchill.
I have this as a magnet on my refrigerator. It gives me encouragement every day. I also have it typed up on my office door. Even when I was down and out with no hope in sight, I never gave up. There was a little voice inside me saying “You are not your disability.” What was meant to bring you down can be turned for the good. I believe it was my strong faith in God that helped me do this. I also had support from people I had sought out to help me along the way, mentors I looked up to and other people with faith in me and my abilities.
Work was a big part of my recovery. It gave me purpose and taught me perseverance. On days I felt bad I still had to get to work. On days I felt symptomatic I was still expected to do my job. Work has many benefits. It gives me the ability to pursue my dreams. I closed on a house August 20, 2004. Without work I would not have come as far mentally and spiritually as I have.
My name is Heather. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and a peer. My mental illness does not define me. It is part of me, but a very small part. I have to take care of it as I take care of other parts of me, but when I get up in the morning I do not ask myself how my mental illness will affect me today. I ask how can I affect the world, help out and give of myself. Work helps me to do this.