My Employment Journey
by Susan Frank
I got home the Sunday night before last in a panic. I was behind in my
accounting homework; I still had not gotten started on writing this speech; I needed to do
my grocery shopping and my laundry for the week. And I couldn't start any of this, because
I was so stressed out that I was paralyzed. I thought, what right did I have to make a
speech telling people about being successful at work when my own life was falling apart?!
As I recognized the beginning of the familiar descent into my own
personal Hell, I made some decisions. I decided that I needed a little time off from the
stress, and sat down with a favorite tape in my boom box. I decided that maybe dinner
would help me cope a little better. Maybe I could couldn't write my whole speech that
night, but maybe I could write the first few paragraphs. And maybe, if there was time, I
could finish one or two accounting problems before I went to bed.
As I noticed myself going through this process, it came to me that
maybe I did have something to offer. Because it's this process of reframing and redefining
your goals--meeting yourself where you are at that moment and deciding what you can do
rather than focusing on what can't--that makes you able to go forward. That, for me, is
really what success is about. That is what success is about for everyone, not just people
with a mental illness, but maybe it is especially true for us.
At the time that I was referred to Yahara House, I was spending as much
time in the hospital as out. I was reminded by someone at the clubhouse not long ago that
his first recollection of me was of stepping over me as I lay crouched in the hall in
front of my staff worker's door, waiting for someone to notice how much pain I was in and
to please, please, fix it.
Moving on was a slow process. I began by finding things at Yahara House
that I could do. Some days just sitting in the same room with the people in my unit
was all I could handle. Some days, gradually more and more, I would help out by collating,
working in the kitchen or typing a newsletter article. Yahara House didn't expect me to do
any more than I could, but when I did have successes, they were happy to celebrate with
me. That made me feel good, a feeling that was new to me, but that I liked.
But I might never have gone any farther than that if it wasn't for
Beth. Beth was my staff worker, and I really liked her a lot. I took my first TEP, not
because I wanted to earn money or work outside the clubhouse, but for a much more basic
reason: Beth asked me to try. When she brought up the possibility, I could feel the
butterflies in my stomach wake up, and the old familiar doubts and fears kick in. She
asked me to try it for a week, with help form Marsha. She said she thought I could do it.
And she said that at the end of the week we would go out for dinner to celebrate, if I
stuck it out.
My goal at that point
was not to finish six months on a placement. That seemed like too much to hope for, too
long to wait. I was shooting for dinner with Beth on Friday.
Beth and I did have dinner that night, and it was great! Not only the
dinner, but that Beth was proud of me--and that I was proud of me too! I had done
something that I hadn't thought I could do, hadn't been able to do before that week,
because I had enough support to give me hope and the courage to try.
To my surprise (and a lot of other people's too) I finished that six
months as a typist at Isthmus newspaper. I tried some volunteer work and another TEP,
which didn't work out for me, but along the way I learned about what kinds situations were
hard for me to handle, and also what Iwas good at. I started to get more comfortable with
people in general.
Then I got a TEP at the Memorial Union Accounting Office. Gus was my
placement manager for that TE, and he struggled with me regularly over going to work every
day. One thing he told me over and over was, "Don't give yourself a choice. As long
as you're not physically sick, just GO!" I worked on that a lot those six months, and
ended up that spring feeling pretty good about my job performance and my relationship with
the people in my department.
That summer, I decided to look for a part-time job. I applied for many,
but didn't find one until months later, when I was offered a job that I had found in the
classified ads. I was a data entry operator at Associated Bank. The first month or so, I
was on my best behavior. I showed up for work every day, and learned to do my job so that
it was coming more easily to me.
Every night at 5:30 I would leave physically bone-tired, although I had
only worked four-and-a-half hours. I couldn't believe at first that working half days
would take so much energy, since I was good for hours of TV watching at home, no problem.
It seemed as if as the job itself got easier for me, I started having
more attendance problems. I called in sick a lot the first few months, and I think the
only thing that kept them from firing me was that I was good at my job--when I was there.
One day, after calling in sick with "the flu," my boss Jerry
called me at home. I was scared of Jerry but as we talked, I began to understand that he
was on my side. He told me very matter-of-factly that they liked my work, but they needed
my attendance to improve drastically, and could I think of a way to make that happen? The
next day I brought him a written contract for us both to sign in which I said that I would
be there every day for six months NO EXCUSES!
I kept that agreement but I won't kid you that it was easy. A couple of
times I tried to call in sick, but Jerry wouldn't budge on letting me off. He said that my
department needed me and I had better get my butt in to work or he was going to come and
get me. I think he would have, too.
One of the problems with showing up on my bad days was that the pain I
was trying to hide by staying home with the "flu" was now showing up at work,
and I was deathly afraid that my co-workers would shun me because of it. But I learned, to
amazement, that they
could put up with my tears and mood swings as long as I got my work done and they didn't
have to cover my job as well as their own.
As they got to know me I began to feel that the pain of exposing myself
was worth the risk, as people asked questions about how I was doing, and shared with me
their own stories about family members or friends that had struggled with mental
illnesses. George Bush was President that year and introduced the idea of a "kinder
gentler nation." Imagine that!
After six months of perfect attendance I had learned Gus' advice, and
no longer gave myself a choice about going to work. I just went. When our department
expanded, I asked for full-time hours--and got them. That Thanksgiving I had more to
celebrate than a turkey dinner. I had health insurance, paid vacations, and a whole lot of
This year I celebrated four years on the job, with two-and-a-half of
them full time. Jerry has moved on to another bank. I miss him, but I don't need him to be
there for me to get there and get my job done any more. Last year I decided to go back to
school at night and on weekends to finish my bachelor's degree. I am finding that in the
financial services industry there are new positions opening up, but most of them require a
business degree. So instead of just taking classes, my work has given me direction for my
This past year, the bank has acquired some new branches and my whole
department has been stressed out about mergers and having to do more work with fewer
people. It's been a realsurprise to me that I've been able to handle it as well as
anybody. I think the reason is that I've had a lot of practice learning to deal with
stress. Whether it's internally or externally caused is almost irrelevant. I can fight it
in the same ways.
One of the best things about working is that you have a chance to give
back. After years of being a patient and having people do things for me or to me, I am now
in control of what I give back and I want to make it something good. I let my co-workers
know when I think they are doing a good job, because I've noticed that in the work place
most people don't get feedback when they're doing a good job, only when they're screwing
up. And I know from experience that a little support goes a long way.
I keep in touch with Yahara House because I miss the people. Also,
while I am beginning to share more and more experiences with my co-workers, there are some
things for which they just have no frame of reference. My doctor and I tried a med change
this spring, and nobody at work understood about having to deal with a lot of physical and
emotional side effects. It was a relief to go into Yahara House to talk without having to
go through trying to make them understand what I was talking about. They just knew.
Sometimes I miss the safety and support of the clubhouse, seriously
miss it. I get angry that I can't seem to find the energy for both spending time at the
clubhouse and a full-time job. I'm mad about how hard it is sometimes. But I was
talking to a friend about it a couple of days ago, and he asked me, "Would you go
back to who you were when you first came to Yahara House?"