Working it out
What’s it like getting back into work after years away? Seaneen Molloy knows
After four years of treatment, three years on benefits and two interviews, I finally found myself one job.
I thought I’d never have a job again. My employment history is fractured at best. In attempting to work when I was ill, I made that situation and my health worse. Claiming benefits took a long time, but when I was finally successful, it gave me the space I desperately needed to get well. It gave me time, above all else. Time to sort out my housing, time to attend appointments, time to process what was happening to me and learn to live with it.
After three years receiving benefits, I realised I was no longer ill enough to justify claiming them. At the same time, I lost my entitlement to the support that came along with benefits and therefore lost all help toward getting a job. For the first time in four years, I was absolutely on my own. At that point, though, I felt that was where I was ready to be. Well, sometimes. At other times I almost crumbled with the fear that I wasn’t ready for work, that I wasn’t prepared for life without stabilisers.
On the comback trail
My path to a job began with a college course last year. My social worker managed to secure me funding for the course. The course – a certificate in nursing – was a deliberate choice so I could have a career in the future and more important at the time, it gave me a routine, a reason for doing things.
I was not glossy-haired and recovered. I was – and still am – taking medication and was still seeing my social worker and doctor. Bolstered by the fact that I could make my classes and could do my schoolwork I thought ‘If I can do that, then maybe I can work’.
There were problems, of course. The first and biggest issue was how to explain the gaping hole in my CV. As far as prospective employers were concerned, I had fallen off the face of the earth in 2006. I had two options; to lie or to rack my brains for things I had done since 2006 that would represent the fact I had not spent three years twiddling my
thumbs. (I largely had, but that’s besides the point).
So, I drew on my voluntary experience with mental health charities. I would never have thought of including them on my CV had I not asked for advice from friends and said charities. I had done things, and those things counted. I had learned and gained skills, and I could use them. In college I had taken a computer class, so I wasn’t too out of the loop as far as technology was concerned. I filled in the gaps with online tutorials.
Lots of Jobseekers
The second issue was that there were many jobseekers and not many jobs. I spent months looking for part-time work, hoping to ease the pressure on myself. Rejection followed rejection. I couldn’t live on a part-time salary anyway, so I took a deep breath and signed up with a temp agency. With money worries reaching critical mass, I told them I’d pretty much do anything. I got an interview almost immediately.
Issue number three: What do you wear to a job interview? My previous life as someone with a job had receded almost totally in my memory. I could not remember what to wear, or how to conduct myself. I was lucky – extremely lucky – that I got the job. It was a full time job, and, taking it on alongside a part-time course, I knew that it could all go horribly wrong.
On my first day at work, my boyfriend walked me to the train station and took my photo. It felt like the first day of school, all scrubbed up and new. On the train it felt so strange to be surrounded by other working people. I felt at once fraudulent and proud in my new (cheap) clothes with somewhere to go and something to do.
In the first weeks I struggled severely with the mornings. My medication utterly wiped me out. I awoke drugged and dazed and retired to bed early. In those weeks, I learned that some people thought me surly and rude due to my morning manner. I was simply too exhausted to be friendly. I also felt overwhelmed by socializing. I had become used to my own routines and my own company. I had spent years being a rather isolated person, partly due to my mental health difficulties. My social skills were beyond rusty – they were almost non-existent. Being back in the social fray was shocking and initially incredibly difficult.
What if people find out?
Despite spending years writing about my mental health – and being an activist for mental health issues – I worried constantly about being ‘found out’. I was hyper-vigilant of any quirks, any little thing that might give me away. It isn’t fair that I felt that way, and I did resent myself for it. I had been stable for quite a long time, but this is not the same as being symptom free. Medication in itself caused me a few niggles. My concentration was shot. My mind often blanked entirely. Rather embarrassing in a work situation; my boss would speak to me and I’d stare at him like a guppy fish.
This brings me to Issue Number Four. Do I disclose my mental health difficulties? I had been honest in my interview by saying that I’d been involved with mental health charities. It signaled, in some way, that it was an important issue to me.
I generally support disclosing. Disclosing my illness would have protected me, in theory, from being discriminated against. But I didn’t disclose: I wanted to try and manage the way that my working life interacted with my condition privately, and disclosure invariably invites others into your self management.
Sort your medication
Those of us people with mental health difficulties can and do have working lives but we can still have challenges that people without mental health difficulties do not face. To be well and to stay well can take enormous amounts of energy. I had toyed with the idea of stopping my medication so I could better function, but I decided instead to speak to my doctor and broach the risky strategy of changing to something that sedated me less. Although I was not sure I needed medication, this was not the time to test that theory.
I switched to something less sedating and I continued taking my sedating medication at a lower dose.
In the meantime, I sheepishly broached the issue of working hours to my boss. I asked if I could come in a half hour later when the morning rush had calmed. Thirty minutes made all the difference – less time travelling, and an extra half hour – gave me breathing space in the morning. I was lucky again in that they agreed.
Practice makes perfect
As time went on, things got better. The self doubt I had felt began to wane. I knew that anybody would be nervous in a new job. It was not just me, and it was okay that I felt that way. And so I began to relax.
I did my job well, with practice. With practice, socialising and speaking to people became easier, too. Having become accustomed to the routine at work, I formulated my own around it. I stuck to it rigidly. I made sure I got enough sleep no matter what happened. For me, sleep and routine are the lynchpins to staying sane. And it worked.
Slowly, I began to regain my confidence. Confidence that I was capable. Confidence that I could do it. And I did it – I worked my last day on a Friday in September. Now I’m off to university to study nursing.
I’ve mentioned luck a few times in this article. I am not superstitious but luck has played a large role in my getting onto a course and getting into work. You shouldn’t need luck. If you are ready, if you want to volunteer or want to work, then fight for the help to which you’re entitled. It’s a gamble but it may be worth it.
If you are currently taking medication and you find that your circumstances have changed or are due to change in the near future, it is always worth discussing and reviewing your options with your doctor or other health care professional. Rethink Mental Illness published an excellent guide to medication, Only the Best, available as a free download from their website here.
Many mental health difficulties can be legally considered as disabilities. The Equality Act 2010 provides a number of protections for workers with disabilities. The Direct Gov website is a good place for learning more.