Returning to the Workforce With Mental Illness

When I began writing this blog, I hadn’t had a job in quite some time. I returned to college not long after I started writing and documented my journey as a student with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and PTSD. About 7 months ago I started a new job as a peer support specialist. I had been in college for a few years, I had a 4.0 GPA, and I was a member of Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society. Historically I was drinking and ignoring mental health issues and had a very difficult time keeping a job. After years of therapy and returning to college, I finally had the confidence to return to the workforce. I was still nervous–what if I was unable to manage–what if symptoms of bipolar disorder or anxiety inhibited my productivity–what if I just couldn’t do it? While all of these intrusive thoughts were present, I had the skills to fight back. In therapy I had been given the tools to check for thinking errors (cognitive distortions) and combat the anxiety. Being a peer support specialist was what I wanted to do and it made sense. Peer support specialists are required to have “lived experience”, which is a history of mental illness and experience navigating systems as a mental health consumer or systems such as foster care and/or history of substance abuse. As peer supports, we are there to share this lived experience with clients. We are able to self-disclose in a way that clinicians cannot do. We model recovery, listen, use motivational interviewing to incite self-directed change, and just provide support in achieving goals. My history of mental illness, trauma, and substance use made me perfect for such a job. While I am comfortable being that person and helping others, I am still learning to deal with the work-related policies. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I love my coworkers. I have even made friends and speak with coworkers outside of work. I have never been good at keeping friends and I am not a particularly social person, but I am at a point in my recovery that I am able to be a good friend and enjoy the camaraderie.

For quite some time, I didn’t know if this day would come. I am still in school with a 4.0, but I am also working and enjoying it. There was a point in time when I thought my anxiety would prohibit me from integrating into society and I figured that I would apply for disability at some point because I just couldn’t imagine success. It is definitely difficult to adjust my sleep schedule, as I did not have any real requirements before starting work. I also struggle with anxiety often and have to remind myself to use my skills. I document everything, make sure I am at work on time everyday, and go out of my way to be there in any capacity needed. If something is asked of me, I do it. I communicate with the clinicians, coworkers, and my supervisor in order to promote collaboration and positive interactions in my work environment. There have been some tough times for sure; I’ve had clients that exhibit suicidality and it is on me to make a choice. I have to ask questions and decide how serious the situation is. After speaking with the client, I have to collaborate with the clinician and my supervisor to make sure we provide the appropriate accommodations for the client (could be in-patient care, or it could simply be a discussion and increased support). I have to do my best to leave work at work–I cannot bring this home with me. My daughter is four-years-old now and time is flying by. She is funny, active, loving, and generally amazing. I do get stressed and in those times I have to take care of myself. Sometimes self-care is playing a game with my family or going for a walk, and sometimes self-care is taking a hot bath. I have to make sure I do not let the trauma of others trigger me. I have only been a peer support specialist for 7 months and I am still learning, but I am so happy that I have been given the opportunity to prove to myself that I can do it. This is a unique situation in which I am given access to those who can benefit from learning about my history and I actually get paid to do something that I love to do. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that things are good and I am in a wonderful position to realize my passion. I have reached that age where stability is important to me and I prefer not to bounce around from once place to another! My ultimate goal is to find a place I call home; a company in which I can grow and learn–a place where I find comfort and leave my comfort zone at the same time–a place in which I can graduate from EOU, achieve my goals, and continue to work while doing so. I am excited to see what the future may hold.

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

― Charles Dickens, David Copperfield


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