How I Got a Job When I Was Mentally Ill and Broke

In 1979 I was working for my sister transcribing when she told me that she was running out of work and could no longer keep me working; she had to do the work herself.  Fear came over me because I didn't have any self-esteem; I believed no one would hire me.  It was November, close to Thanksgiving and I needed December’s rent money, money for bills, and food and Christmas gifts for the kids.  I started hearing voices, feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of looking for work.  Fear knotted in my stomach.  My heart pounded in my chest.  I paced in small circles.

I was in a group therapy at Anchorage Community Mental Health Center that was with my psychiatrist, therapist and other clients.  I brought this up at group one night, telling everyone I was afraid that no one would hire me because I didn’t have good skills.  The members encouraged me and suggested that I type up a resume and bring it the next week to group so they could see it.  I worked hard on it.  I went to the library, researching how to write a resume.  I had it ready for the group the next week and passed it out to everyone.  As they read it, individuals said that I had experience and I could do secretarial work.   They encouraged me to look for a job through the newspaper and employment agencies.

I searched newspapers, but it was the holiday season, no one was hiring so I decided to go to an employment agency.  I had to pass a typing test with 60 words per minute and no more than 5 errors.  I flunked the test.  The staffing rep told me to go downstairs, have a cup of coffee and come back to retest.  I was trembling.   I returned after my cup of coffee; took the test; and flunked it again. 

She told me to go downstairs, take a walk up and down the block and say to myself, "I am now passing the typing test at 60 words per minute with no errors!" and to come back and retest when I was ready.  After an hour, I went back upstairs, retook the test and I flunked.  I was devastated.  The voices were telling me, "You're so dumb.  You can't pass this test.  Just go home and kill yourself." 

I began crying and the staffing rep took me into a room so that we could talk privately.  I told her that I had been diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia.  I shared that I was told that my life was over and that I would never be able to work.  I told her that a previous therapist told me I had to accept that I was mentally ill; I needed to sign up for welfare, aid to families with dependent children, housing assistance and food stamps. 

I told the rep that working would help me recover.  I explained that I had more fear of the welfare system than going to work and I wanted to prove the experts wrong.  She said, "We can help you.  Here's our next step.  I'm giving you spelling, word comprehension, English and math tests."  She added, “I know you can pass them."  She was right; I passed all of them.  She was so excited, "I knew you could do this! Go home, come back tomorrow and retest your typing again.”  She suggested I continue the affirmation.

That night my friend Nancy called.  "I've been praying for you and impressed on my heart is something I must tell you.  You are to start taking God at his word in Exodus 23:10 and pray without ceasing the following: "God is sending an angel before you to lead you to the place God has prepared for you.  You are to change one word.  You are to remove "place" and insert "job."  Your prayer is:  "God is sending an angel before me to lead me to the job God has prepared for me."  I wrote it down. I began reading it at night, in the morning, before I went to the employment agency, and I continued the typing test affirmation too.

The next morning I flunked the test again.  The staffing rep said, "Follow me.  I want to show you something."  She laid out my English, spelling, word comprehension and math tests.  "Look at your scores.  Nothing less than 98%.” She said, “you have what it takes to be a secretary."  Then she laid out my typing tests.  My name and dates were on the top.  She pointed out saying, "Look at this first one.  Your typing speed is very slow and you had many errors.  Look at the second one.  There is improvement even though you flunked it.  Look at the third one. See how much more you improved since the first test."  I saw a pattern emerge as she showed them to me.  It gave me hope that I could pass the test! 

"I want you to come back every day to retake the test until you pass" she urged.  It took me almost two weeks to pass it.  When I did, I passed with 60 words per minute and 3 errors!  She declared, "Great!  Now I can send you out on interviews!"  

She began referring me to companies to interview.  I didn’t get offers, but she told me not to give up that my job is out there waiting for me!  It was like she knew about the Angel that God sent to lead me to my job!  One day that week, my sister called to tell me that  my attorney who handled my divorce said there was money left and he was sending a check by messenger to her office for me. It was enough for the rent, some food and Christmas gifts for the children! 

It was close to Christmas now and I still didn't have a job.  The staffing rep called and asked if I would take a 6-day temporary job during Christmas and New Year's weeks.  "Absolutely!" I said.  I had another problem though.  I was taking Thorazine which made me sleep a lot, making it hard to wake up in the morning.  I was afraid I would not make it to the temporary job on time.  That night, I knelt down and prayed, "Thank you for the temporary job!  Help me get to work the next 6 days on time.  If I can make 6 days, then I can work. I trust you."  When I went to group the next night, I told them about my fear of not being able to get up on time to go to work.  They came up with a strategy.  During those 6 days everyone would take turns calling me so that I would wake up to go to work.  One person volunteered to call me at 6:00 am; another volunteered to call me at 6:15 am, another at 6:30 am, another at 6:45 am and another at 7:00 am.  They suggested that by that time, I would be awake and I could make it to work on time.

Well, I made it on time every day thanks to my friends in group.  On my last day on the job, they asked me to come back for the month of January to help the Office Manager.  Before the end of January 1980, I was offered a full-time job and I knew this was "the job that God had prepared for me!"  I held the job for 5 years.  I continued to have episodes of "mental illness," but they gave me support.  I was right, the job helped me recover.  With the support of family and friends and a lot of hard work, I did recover from this thing called "mental illness."

They Said I Would Never Get Better

By Andrea Schmook, Reprinted from:
The Experience of Recovery
Edited by LeRoy Spaniol and Martin Koehler
 
 
They said I would never get better. I would always be mentally ill. They said I would be in and out of mental hospitals the rest of my life. I could never be the person I was before my mental illness. I made up my mind in the mental hospital that I would prove them wrong. I would get better and help others know they could too.
 
The year was 1977, just two years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a patient institutionalized for 15 years who brought a suit for release and won. As a result, 250,000 mental patients were deinstitutionalized after years of hospitalization. At the time, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska. I had lived there since 1957, when I was twelve years old. Beginning in May 1974, my husband and I had gone through six major crises in an eight month period that led up to my getting mentally ill. Because of the enormous, chronic stress I was under, I broke not only mentally, but physically, socially and spiritually as well. Beginning in July 1976, I started hearing voices and had to quit work. I had no insight as to what was happening. Although I was on Thorazine, I was not getting any better. I continued to hear voices, experience hallucinations, and became delusional. I couldn’t function any longer as a wife and and mother. I was out of control and my life was falling apart. By January 1977, I went into the Alaska Psychiatric Hospital after becoming delusional and thinking I was the Virgin Mary.
 
The Alaska State Police were called to escort me to the mental hospital. Within twenty minutes of signing myself in, I was forced drugged against my will. This had a very negative effect on me. It set me up to resist treatment and medications after getting out of the hospital. It was just one more traumatic event added to the others that had led up to my institutionalization.
 
I wanted to get better right from the beginning. However, I didn’t find any support from professionals. I was very frustrated. I asked if there were any groups of people who had been mentally ill and had gotten better. I wanted to meet with them. I was told there weren’t any such groups because people with mental illness did not get better. I asked if I could have just one person’s name that had been in my situation. I was told that confidentiality laws prevented the professionals from giving me any names. I felt as if I had both feet nailed to the floor. I felt alone. I felt hopeless. However, this didn’t stop me. It made me more determined than ever to keep my resolve to get better. I was very frustrated. They told me I was denying my illness. I wasn’t denying it. I accepted my illness.
 
My whole life had collapsed around me and it seemed like there wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it. But living with mental illness the rest of my life was not something I wanted to do. I wanted to sleep all the time, making it difficult to function on a daily basis. The simplest tasks were no longer easy to perform. My frustration gave way to tears, self-pity, and resentment. I wanted answers and the mental health system didn’t have any.
 
I was told my mental illness was caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain. I was told I had a brain disease. I asked how they knew this. Did they take any tests to determine this? I didn’t remember my blood being tested for any such thing. I was never given any answer. I was put on Thorazine. Thorazine made me sleep too much and slowly my will was being destroyed. I felt flat and empty inside. Besides, I had the Thorazine shuffle when I walked; I drooled and my tongue stuck out from time to time. It was very embarrassing. I didn’t know these were side effects to the medication. No one had told me this. I thought I was much more mentally ill than I was. I was over-medicated from 1976 to the end of 1980. I seemed to be a zombie on Thorazine.
 
After I got out of the mental hospital, I asked my psychiatrist what happened to me. His only comment was, "What the hell do you care?" He was very flippant about it. He said he would not tell me because it was not in my best interest to know. It took me three months to build up the courage to go back to the mental hospital and ask the social worker what had happened. He explained that I had an acute paranoid schizophrenic episode. He was very kind to me when we talked. He tried to answer my questions and help me understand. I found it very difficult to understand at this point. Mostly, I felt hurt and humiliated and I just wanted it all to go away.
 
December 1978, my husband decided to divorce me and left me with two young children. I wanted to work. My conscience told me I had to work. I had to face reality if I wanted to get well again. My therapist tried to convince me to go on welfare; to get food stamps; to get housing assistance; to get aid for families with dependent children. I told her that, in good conscience, I couldn’t do that. I wanted to get better. She told me, "You can’t make it without welfare. You will fail and you will lose your children." We argued about this on several visits, until finally I told her I couldn’t see her any longer because she was trying to force me to go against my conscience. I knew what I had to do to get better. What I wanted was to find a doctor and therapist who would support my desire to be healthy again.
 
I changed doctors and therapists. I wanted to find someone that believed I could get better and who would help me know what I had to do to get better. I finally found a doctor that said, "I don’t know" when I asked him if I could get better. For the first time, someone didn’t tell me "no" or that "people with mental illness did not get better." He gave me hope. For the first time, I had a glimmer of hope! He told me follow up and records were not maintained on people who stopped seeing their doctors. He said there was no way of knowing whether people stopped seeing their doctors because they got better or because they were still sick and just stopped seeing them.
 
I was mentally ill for eight years. Through those eight years, I developed a burning desire to get well. My sister had given me a book called "Think and Grow Rich." She told me if I followed the principles in the book that I would get better. No one had told me that before and it stirred something very curious in me. I read that book and I could not put it down. The theme of the book was "whatever the mind can conceive and believe it could achieve." It really made me think. I could identify with the stories of people in the book. I not only began to think about the principles, but I began to act on them. Things began to happen for me. I continued to be mentally ill; I continued to break down; but there were long stretches in between the breaks and they didn’t last as long as the ones before. I was beginning to get healthier as my thinking became healthier. Using the principles, I began to believe in myself. I accepted myself just the way I was. I wrote things down on paper about myself; things that I needed to change and things I couldn’t change. I started thinking about the things I wanted to do with my life when I got better. The more I learned to think, the more I learned how to get better. I learned how to forgive the hurts of the past and to let them go. I learned to plan for the future, but to live just one day at a time. I learned that if I just changed one small thing about myself today, that I would be building a healthier tomorrow for myself and my children. There were many things I had to change about myself so that I could be free of mental illness. It was not an easy thing to do. It was a lot of hard work. There were many, many disappointments and setbacks. The most important thing was not to give up and to challenge my thinking to believe that because I am, then I can, and I will achieve mental health. I stopped blaming and I took responsibility.
 
I really needed the support of a lot of people, too, in order to make it. I surrounded myself with people who believed I could do it, even though they didn’t know of anyone who had. They were possibility thinkers; just because something had not been done did not mean that it couldn’t be done. Every time I would say, "But, I can’t do that because I’m mentally ill," my sister would say, "Can’t never could. And if you say you can’t do something, then you could never do something. You have to at least try it." I went out and I found jobs and I worked. My employers and fellow employees knew I was mentally ill, but they supported me in my desire to work and they encouraged me to keep on trying. When I broke down, they were there for me. I felt humiliated and embarrassed after a breakdown, but they never reminded me of the embarrassing things I did. They only told me how happy they were that I survived and that I was getting stronger and better every day.
 
It took me eight years to learn all the things I needed to learn in order to regain my mental health. It wasn’t just changing my eating habits, or taking vitamins that did it. It was a combination of many things that I had to learn to change me so that I could be healthy. It was being able to live in the community, to be able to work, to be accepted by myself and others, it was taking responsibility for myself, it was learning how my mental illness was hurting the people that loved me, it was a willingness to change myself to become all that I wanted to be. It was accepting the illness, but working toward health. I have now been free of mental illness, drug  therapy, and psychotherapy for eight years. I want to share this with others: patients, families, professionals, communities, corporations, and religious organizations. Mental health can be a reality for even the most seriously ill people. People need the hope that others have done it and how they did it.
 
As I stated when I was in the mental hospital, I made up my mind that I would get better and I would help others know they could too. Currently, I live in the Chicago area. I am developing a speaking business to promote mental health and to educate and train professionals, patients, families, communities, corporations, and religious organizations. My workshops give hope and encouragement to all. (NOTE:  At the time this was printed, I lived in Chicago.)