It's early on a weekday morning at my apartment in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. As usual, I have to struggle out of bed, take my meds, and get on with the task of getting ready to go to work. This scene may seem commonplace, but it's amazing that after more than a quarter of a century of living with schizophrenic illness, it can take place for me at all.
Soon I am outside and making the 15 minute walk up to the New View Society clubhouse, where I can have a cup of coffee with my fellow employees. Then I begin my five-hour shift in the basement workshop of the adjacent cottage
There is a crew of six of us now, all with psychiatric illnesses, with a second shift coming on duty as we leave at 2:30 p.m. Our simple and repetitive tasks vary, but today we're assembling and packing wallplates for a national cablevision company. Usually we put together patch-cord cables of various lengths for the same company; in fact, after seven years of effort, we are now the main supplier of these cables in all of British Columbia.
It's good, honest labour and each worker earns enough above minimum wage to be self-supporting, with or without the added benefit of a disability pension. The comaraderie of working with fellow consumers and the comfort of a nutritious lunch for $1.50 in the clubhouse make the average shift seem to go by quickly and productively.
At the present time, it looks as though I have finally learned how to work at a regular paying job although, admittedly, this is a special situation. However, it remains true that after many failures, false starts, and disasters, I have overcome the worst handicaps of my illness and achieved a new level of independence.
For me, one of the hardest things to learn has been to live within the limitations of my illness. For many years I thought I was being realistic when, in fact, I was either being delusional about my intellectual powers, as symbolized by a university degree, or too deflated when confronted with repeated failures at even the simplest of tasks or job positions.
The fact is that I needed to hit rock bottom enough times before finally beginning the slow and painful process of learning the life skills and self-organization necessary to join the world of paid work. Fortunately, the support services of the New View Society were in place for me when I reached the point at which I was able to use them.
The common assumption that anyone with any guts at all can work and that only lazy and worthless people don't go right out and get work is simply wrong: it ignores the fact that a lot of mental and material factors can affect one's fitness for a job.
In my own case, I had to leave the protective cocoon of my parents' home. I had to move first to a boarding house and then to a semi-independent living arrangement before I could hope to learn skills such as cooking, cleaning, budgeting, keeping up the yard, and managing my free time.
Social skills and attitudes are also critical for survival, and perhaps they are more difficult to learn than practical skills, for a schizophrenic person. Group or individual therapy may prepare one for social learning, but only the constant practice of real-life situations like group living or clubhouse activities can bring lasting improvement.
Another point is that as I have gained ground in other areas of my life, my self-confidence and-esteem have also improved, making it easier to overcome paranoid fears and barriers. In fact, I have even managed to make some close friends. On special occasions, or even during some daily activities, I find that I am able to enjoy myself. Such rewarding use of free time is also critical in making the daily grind of the work routine possible.
It was while making such gradual lifestyle improvements that I achieved my first employment success in New View's supported employment program. As a cleaner for a local door manufacturing company, my duties included cleaning up sawdust and pieces of wood, which sometimes involved using a forklift to empty bins at the end of my two-hour shift.
The job sounds insignificant, but I was able to stick with it due to an understanding employer who had an arrangement with the New View Society. The daily repetition of routine tasks also taught me about using my time efficiently and completing a job properly on a regular basis.
My expectations, however, still outdistanced my level of functioning, and it took more miserable academic and employment failures before I could get down to really continuing the slow process of learning how to work.
My next big break came when a New View staff member asked me if I wanted the employment position I now hold in the clubhouse at five hours per day and five days per week. I accepted. Once again the work was very basic and repetitive, but this time I had no short-term higher expectations and managed to fight it out on a day-to-day basis.
Every day since that time has been tough for various reasons but also rewarding because of the successes achieved by the entire crew. As senior employee and foreman, I have also had to handle some extra responsibility, and this has made me feel even more capable about getting work done successfully.
After four full years at a structured work routine in the cable workshop, I can begin to assess some of what I have learned. For one thing, I discovered that having an illness has never meant that I am basically weak and ineffective as a person. Instead, the persistence, endurance, and ability necessary to survive in a competitive work situation were present all along and just needed a suitable chance to come forward. Another thing that I have learned is that the lack of interest and pleasure in life associated with Schizophrenia are largely a result of feeling rejected and inferior in social and life situations.
Once a taste of real success and belonging enters the equation, self esteem begins to be restored and life becomes an adventure once again, rather than a prison sentence.
Perhaps I will always need medication to keep my symptoms to a minimum, and perhaps l will always suffer some periods of thought disorder with troubling emotional extremes. Perhaps I will continue to have extra trouble getting going in the morning and periods of fatigue, anxiety, and confusion during the day, but I have now learned enough to accept them and not let them get the best of me. In short, I believe that I have now learned to survive in the workplace.
© 1995 Magpie Publishing Inc.
Reprinted with permission.
Internet Mental Health (www.mentalhealth.com) copyright © 1995-2011 by Phillip W. Long, M.D.