Baltic Street Advocacy, Housing and Employment, Inc. celebrated its 20th anniversary on October 25th, 2016 in Brooklyn. Since 1996, Baltic Street AEH has grown from a group of five peers serving 400 people a year to 100 peers serving 5,000 peers a year. Baltic Street AEH is now one of the largest peer-run organizations in the country and has programs in all five boroughs of New York City. Peer-to-peer service delivery is the backbone of the organization. Recovery for all is the guiding vision. City Voices: A Peer Journal for Mental Health is proud to be sponsored by Baltic Street AEH.
Harsh Experiences in the Workplace By Anne Percy The Challenge of Returning to Work After a Setback
I am bipolar. This seems to threaten some people. In reality I am one of the gentlest, kindest-hearted people you could ever meet, someone who has never harmed anyone. I have had a variety of diagnoses in the past, including OCD, severe depression and schizoaffective disorder, until I was diagnosed as bipolar I.
I have tried a litany of psychiatric medications to manage my symptoms, some with terrible side-effects and others which worsened my symptoms. Stable on my current meds the majority of the time, I realize they are not a cure, nor am I symptom-free. I attend weekly group therapy, which helps, but individual therapy would help more. Unfortunately, right now, it is beyond my financial means.
I am currently unemployed, due to the effects of bipolar. A vocational rehabilitation counselor has been assisting in my search for a suitable job since April 2013, when I lost a job as a health insurance claims processor, which I held for seven months. My firing was due to a lack of concentration and attention to detail, resulting in too many financial errors when paying claims. I believe more accommodation could have been made on my behalf, since I had just completed six months of training when I was let go.
Prior to that job, I had been unemployed for nearly two years following my resignation from a previous position I held for nearly 11 years. The reason? A hostile work environment created by malicious coworkers. They were aware that I had mental health issues, and, in an effort to get me fired, were trying to cause a mental breakdown. Even though I had done nothing, they became convinced that I was a danger to them because of my mental illness. Eventually, the environment became so toxic, with my employer unwilling to intervene, that I had no choice but to resign and remove myself.
What was said to me would have been considered slander and harassment, but because of my mental illness, it was tolerated and apparently acceptable. Ironically, my employer at the time was a health insurance company that boasted the best health interests of its clients and claimed to promote diversity in the workplace. Apparently, that didn’t apply to those of us who suffer from mental illness. It took months before I could put the experience behind me. It still makes me question what kind of environment I will find at a new workplace. I did what was best for me mentally and emotionally, but at the expense of my finances and employment. In terms of finding work with the financial and other benefits of the job I left, I have never recovered.
When I apply for jobs now, I have been advised not to reveal I have mental illness, which makes explaining what occurred at my last two jobs difficult. I would prefer to honestly admit to having a disease, so as to explain when symptoms inevitably appear and not be such a surprise to my employer and coworkers. It would also be easier to ask for accommodation, if and when I need it, if my condition is known.
It makes me sad to think that if it were a physical disease, there would be no problem admitting to it. Also, I am worried about going through the same things with coworkers at another job should I find one.
In desperation, having had no income or health insurance since April 2013, I applied for Social Security Disability. My attorney filed for a hearing in June 2014, but we have heard nothing since then. Applying for disability was a last resort. I would gladly work, but no one will hire me. Even while waiting for a hearing, I still apply for jobs, hoping that someone will be interested in me and my attributes.
I was not eligible for a subsidy to help pay for health insurance due to having no income, and the state that I reside in did not expand Medicaid, so I am uninsured and pay for medical costs out of pocket. This limits my options for care. Fortunately, the medications I currently take are not as expensive as some I have used previously, which helps.
I am not sure what the future holds. I cannot go on indefinitely without income. I am not looking for a financial windfall, only a means to reach financial stability. Also, there is no guarantee that I will remain mentally stable. I already know that I am unsuited for jobs that I have held in the past. What I am unsure of is exactly what I would be suited for, which even vocational rehabilitation has been challenged to help me discover. I am not opposed to further education, but I would need financial assistance to pay for it, and since I already have one college degree, this seems unlikely. Realistically, several doors are closed to me when it comes to employment.
I hope reading about my experience helps others suffering the same things to realize that they are not alone in this.
The Steps I Took to Get Back to WorkBy Glenn SlabyPutting Myself Out There Led to Personal Growth
As a husband and father with a BS in accounting and an MBA in management, losing the capacity to support your loved ones and the ability to use skills developed over years of work was devastating. It’s as if a piece of one’s soul has been taken away.
Mental illness manifested itself beyond the control of doctors, prescription medications and my willpower. Working as an accountant, before and after my diagnosis, the aggressiveness and specific attitude needed to succeed was not part of my makeup, even though there were accomplishments. Subsequently, unemployment exacerbated my symptoms and brought on hospitalizations. I lost the ability to be a constructive individual. Many fields of employment were available, but I was too focused on the business world, which can be cruel and lack any sense of loyalty.
During my fifth hospital stay, back in 2004, one doctor re-examined my condition. I had been misdiagnosed, on the wrong medications and combinations for the last twelve years. I was lucky. It could’ve been a lot worse. There were many missteps, including thoughts and actions of self-harm, and testing faith, which changed fate. My stable foundation—family, friends, home life, church—withstood the agonizing struggles.
Many things are not taught in the classroom, but through therapy, aptitude tests, IPRT (Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation Treatment), DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), etc., I learned the significance of really knowing myself. The skills learned should’ve been taught to most of my managers. Meet others who work in your fields of interest. Never forget the expertise of good therapy.
My priorities, through goal- and skill-identification, led to a better understanding of possible jobs. Goals with the right limits, different for each individual, led to important aspects of a better life, including greater job satisfaction, bringing independence, growth and self-confidence. Many factors will make an employment experience the right one at the right time in one’s life, but no job will have all the right pieces. Compromise. Feeling good at the end of the day or week as if you really accomplished something means you may have a second home. A nice paycheck from a miserable job can be damaging.
There are worlds where creative, imaginative skills can apply. Hobbies may lead to new adventures. I found placement in those new spheres. My primary goals led to jobs where getting out of bed and to work was not a hardship or detrimental to my mental, physical or spiritual health.
What Management Can Do
There are many employee responsibilities, but employers must understand their obligations. W. Edwards Deming, who helped transform/restore the destroyed Japanese industries after World War II, offered 14 key principles to management for improving the effectiveness of an organization. Failure harms the company, the individual and their family. Paraphrasing those principles related to employees:
Drive out fear;
Institute leadership: supervisors must aim toward quality, help people do a better job;
Create constancy of purpose toward improvement;
Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality—it should be built into the production process;
Remove barriers between departments and people—employees must work as a team;
Eliminate slogans, quotas, and targets because they create adversarial relationships. Most errors are due to the production process lying beyond employees’ influence;
Remove barriers robbing employees of pride of workmanship; and
Institute job training programs of continuous education and self-improvement.
Starting off Small
With the correct diagnosis, I began taking small steps toward normalcy. The fog encompassing my mind and spirit was slowly dissipating even though other hidden mental health issues would surface. I have a great interest in books and all those wonderful words, so I decided to walk into the local library and ask for a volunteer position seeking a small haven, a relief from constant painful thoughts. Surprisingly, it did not seem like a humbling, embarrassing step, but a new beginning with new co-workers being welcoming, patient and friendly.
One day, two managers approached me and spoke some words I haven’t heard in years: would I like to become a paid, part-time employee. Words couldn’t describe the joy of being valued, wanted and useful. I stayed a number of years, coinciding with my current job, again part-time, working with fellow consumers at the hospital where I receive mental health services.
Moving forward as a consumer and returning to work was more enhancing to my well-being than any medications or therapies, which are still needed. Getting there, however, is a long and arduous process. Faith helped greatly. Now, I focus on my health and see where the future takes me. Writing, perhaps? Nothing lasts forever and, with difficulty, I try to be satisfied with the present. Changes can mean nothing, or everything, lead to greater opportunities, enjoyment, or a new job. Have spiritual faith and patience.
How Acceptance and Open-Mindedness Led to My Recovery By Cecil Williams
Staying Clean One Day at a Time
The mental health system has done an amazing amount of work in improving the lives of former drug addicts and even practicing alcoholics. Although professionals spend countless hours to assess and assist substance users through their daily living activities, I have found that groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) offer users priceless opportunities to meet and talk about lifestyles from active using to recovery. The message presents as “now is the time to stop using and get our lives back together, where everyday living is returned to being manageable,” and “,” is something I can work with.
I had the affinity for any type of alcoholic beverage, and began drinking heavily, which started out for me as a social activity. Not realizing that alcohol was a deadly drug, nor that I had a genetic predisposition to using, I was unaware of the physical and emotional strain of drinking alcohol, which exacerbated my reckless behavior provoked by low self-esteem issues. It has been thirty years since AA got me to the point of recognizing I could utilize Bill W's book and the meetings to request help and stick with the simple effective program. The twelve steps helped me discover how tomorrow could be better. I would find myself not reaching for that bottle or can or glass of alcohol. I celebrate today because of those rooms where countless other addicts shared their stories and experiences to make amends. The AA/NA creed of confidentiality gave me the strength to struggle to be sober and clean and reflect what lay beyond the substance.
Nowadays when attending AA meetings, I perceive along with others the need to stay out of hospitals. As alcoholics, perseverance demands of us to stay sober and among the living. I now witness that some individuals have an enjoyable time drinking at parties or bars without the repercussions of being labeled alcoholic. The alcoholic has a double whammy confronting them. We can pinpoint the problems and try to resolve them by discontinuing the use of alcohol. Meetings have shown persons with clean time or even newcomers the necessity to sober up and admit that assistance is necessary.
Shortly after professionals targeted in and told me to get it together and go to Dual Recovery Meetings, which I was allowed to lead at times, I became interested in the journey of other members of the group who had gone another route with drugs such as heroin, marijuana, crack and ecstasy. That seemed alien to me at first. Primarily, I decided that I desired to be informed about street drugs and the pattern of moving on to accepting hardcore substances (NA considers alcohol to be a drug as well). My friends went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and their true colors shone through. I became willing to talk about and accept that the use of any substance is bad for us. My comprehension increased and I recognized the seriousness of how lives that had been destroyed have to be pieced back together again before relationships, dancing and real enjoyment of life could be achieved.
As the mental health professionals perceive the need to deal with drug and alcohol use and assist victims who have had a history of such substances, we see the possibilities of a future with less reliance on substances and a diminishing of substance abuse. Physical health can be adversely affected by prolonged use, and medicines are required to attempt to restore the physical and emotional state to a healthy level.
Learning to Embrace My Unique Learning Abilities By Dillon Browne
Dealing With The Inflexible Nature of Public School
“He’s a bright boy, but he’s not living up to his potential.”
That phrase, or some variation of it, came to define my life. I was never a traditional student. In one way, I was more interested in the concept of learning than most young children, but in another I seemed incapable of completing daily tasks in class.
In second grade my teacher would drag me by the wrist back to my seat. I can’t quite recall what I was doing out of my seat in the first place, and I was no doubt wandering the classroom while I was supposed to be completing worksheets. What I remember clearly is the teacher’s angry impatient facial expression as she dragged me back to my desk and the feeling of her fingers clasping my wrist uncomfortably tight.
On one occasion this particular teacher caught me drawing with a crayon on the inside of my desk. I am sure I was aware this wasn’t allowed, however, during the dreadfully boring classes, there was little else I could do. Her justice was swift and involved shaming me in front of the class, as if I was too simple to understand where to use my crayon. Another instance had me “accidentally” rub my dirty paint brush against a wall in the bathroom where I was meant to clean it. Again, I was called out in front of a strongly disapproving class of my peers.
At some point, knowing my teacher viewed me as a troublemaker, and my classmates as an imbecile, really started to stress me out. I dreaded class, and decided to tell my parents what was happening, emphasizing the fact that the teacher often dragged me back to my chair. As a child I thought it was fair of her, because I was not following the rules. However, I knew my parents wouldn’t approve.
The truth was, I really wasn’t trying to cause trouble. Rather, I was so bored, so unstimulated by the material and my classmates that any possible stimulation was appealing. To be clear, I was not looking for the negative attention of the teacher, my mind simply wandered to fill the void and I often found myself doing things quite mindlessly. Running the paintbrush, still dirty with watercolor, across the blue tile was not meant as an act of defacement. Even my younger self knew how easily the watercolor would wash away. Rather, I wanted to witness for a moment what the paint would look like on the wall.
A variety of events transpired, eventually leading me to sit in front of a neurologist who diagnosed me with ADHD and elements of Autism. I was sent back to school with a letter for the teacher, and medication to keep me in my seat. The medication helped until high school, where I became aware of its detrimental effects on my personality.
Unmedicated, high school was difficult at times. I would enter classes with the full desire to pay attention, but I would find myself essentially dissociating within 15 minutes into class. When I say dissociate, I mean that at a certain point, I would simply become unaware of the passage of time until the class ended. Mindfulness techniques eventually made it possible to remain aware, however I truly could not maintain a decent level of attention over the course of a school day.
The rigid structure of high school caused me to chronically underperform, and I quickly became known as a student who was squandering greater potential. It was known I had an IEP (individualized education plan), a prerequisite to special considerations in a public school setting, and some teachers even knew my diagnosis, but most viewed it as an excuse. When I spoke to them, one on one, they heard an intelligent student who was capable of the work they were asking. On this count, they were correct. I was always able to complete the work. In a different context, I might have thrived learning the same material, however when forced to function in the specific modalities high school required, I inevitably struggled.
One example that comes to mind is in a particular history class where students were expected to keep a very specific binder. I simply don’t learn like most people, and even in high school carried a laptop with a single text document for each class' notes. I’m not an organized person, it’s not part of my nature, and my handwriting is simply terrible. To compensate for this, I learned to type at an early age, and keep notes together in digital form, making them hard to lose. This teacher felt his method was best, and I struggled to pass as I was never able to organize his handouts and notes in the manner he desired. All the while, I never scored lower than 90% on any test, paper or other class assignment.
College, and now Grad school have been revelations. In both instances the ability to mold my own schedule and the focus on results over process have allowed me to thrive. I spent most of my life blaming myself for my failure to live up to my potential. Looking back, I realize that the highly inflexible nature of primary education has not caught up to the demands placed upon it by students with cognitive differences. Teachers and administrators need to accept that often what they see can better be characterized as learning difference, not learning disability. If those with ADHD (and other so-called learning “disabilities”) were truly less able to learn, it would be astounding how many of us reach the graduate level, in reality many of us are quite gifted in one way or another, struggling only in a system that fails to allow us to capitalize on our unique skills and individual learning styles.