Earlier this year I was invited to go to Parliament House with a small group of people, talking to a committee who were part of an Inquiry into Mental Health and Workforce Participation. I shared my personal struggles with trying to engage higher education and work once I’d become unwell. Afterwards, myself and another Peer Worker who’d attended, Lisa, sat down and wrote an article about the experience for the MIFSA newsletter. You can read it here. (various of the projects I’ve been involved in are mentioned in that newsletter, you can read about them or see some of my artwork on pages 1, 5 , 6, 11, and 12)
It was an exciting opportunity to be able to say what hadn’t worked, what the obstacles to education and employment for me have been, and to suggest things that would help me to overcome these obstacles. My story was picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald, who wrote this article. That was quite confronting and left me feeling a bit wobbly and exposed. I was pleased however that it seems the way I’d framed my experiences and the words I’d chosen had impact and meaning. We also wrote a follow up letter to better address some of the great questions we were asked. This is what I shared:
I’ve had a long difficult road trying to continue my education and gain employment. At times it has been so demoralising and discouraging I’ve been at a loss to work out how it was ever going to happen. The chronic stress of seeking work and not being able to gain it was extremely debilitating. I’ve also struggled to remain engaged with university and each time I’ve been forced to withdraw the blow to my confidence has been major and taken a lot to get over.
I became very unwell in the first year of university and all my plans fell apart. I was unable to stay at uni, dealing with severe undiagnosed physical illness and mental illness. Without a diagnosis or support for my condition I was required to look for work. I spent about a year actively job hunting and was turned down for everything. The change in my hopes, from having an excellent academic record and sights set on postgraduate work, to applying for jobs pushing trolleys and being knocked back was devastating. My self worth plummeted. My academic successes so far actually played against me in the job market, at the one job interview I secured I was told they had no intention of putting the time in to train someone who would only be off to university in a year or two anyway. I promised I wouldn’t, at that time uni seemed as unattainable as the moon, but it made no difference. Trying to downplay my academic focus in my resume left me with very little to show my work ethic and good character. I started a small home business that failed, and then a second that never got off the ground. My health spiralled and my world collapsed.
Later I reset my sights on uni and tried to get back to my original plan. The support for someone in my situation was completely inadequate and I struggled terribly. Major health problems or life crises constantly interrupted my efforts. On one occasion I had to pull out of my course because I was hospitalised with chronic appendicitis, complicated by medication allergy reactions. On another I found myself homeless a week before the exams. Each time I was forced to withdraw again the sense of failure and hopelessness was overwhelming. Finally I decided this approach was futile and setting me up to fail. I changed gears again.
The years passed and the gap in my resume became larger and larger, with nothing to show for the phenomenal amount of work I was doing just to survive. It hurt so badly to be left behind, to watch my peers complete their degrees and gain work. I felt totally derailed, I’d not just fallen off the tracks but over a cliff, and all my planning and work wasn’t enough to get me back on that track again. I watched other people’s lives from a distance, with pain, humiliation, and desperate envy.
I decided to seek volunteer work as a pathway back to improving my resume, building my confidence, and allowing me to feel useful and connected to my community again. To my surprise, I was consistently knocked back by organisations who didn’t see me as someone with anything to offer. The few who were happy to have me had rigid requirements I couldn’t meet with my health problems, such as minimum 6 hour shifts on my feet. I could donate money but not help out in any practical way.
A couple of things finally changed for me. I found MIFSA, who were happy to have me volunteer in various capacities. I decided that getting back into education needed to be tackled in very small steps, and started to work on my goal by taking up short courses with the WEA. Lastly, the idea of Peer Work was introduced so that people like myself, who are highly skilled but short on academic credentials could actually use our hard-won experience. My resume is a lot fatter, I’ve been making connections, building networks and finding out about events and training opportunities. I’m spending time now with people who think I have potential, and who also get how debilitating my invisible disabilities are. I’m finally starting to glimpse a future where someone like me, with both my strengths and limitations, has a place.
It shouldn’t have been this hard.