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.