Unlikely journey: How I got from woeful to wonderful work

I spent my day at work interviewing for entry level positions at my workplace. It was my first time on an interview panel at my workplace and it brought up a lot of memories and feelings. I joined the department through a similar process myself over ten years ago. This is the back story to my becoming a professional corporate suit-wearing Jeanette which will hopefully touch on some useful thoughts and strategies around employment and life more broadly….

In late 2000 I was living in supported accommodation for young people with serious mental illness. I have a  schizophrenia diagnosis in addition to my autism one. I was delighted to live there as it was a step up form a dingy boarding house for homeless women and before that prison. As a result of my naivety and inability to spot dangerous people, coupled with trauma, self hatred and anger at everything, I spent the time between 1994 and 2000 in a hell of prison, drugs and mental illness. My concept of the future was the coming Thursday. I was self-destructive, violent and only focussed on negative things. I was probably not somebody you would like to know or to be.

By the time I got to the  accomodation for people with mental illness I was in an odd sort of transitional phase. I wanted positive things but was unsure how to get them. I remember clearly sitting in the room where the little gold pay phone was after finishing a conversation with my mum. ‘I want to be ordinary!’ I thought. What I meant by ordinary was to have an education, a professional job, a mortgage and a suit. My focus had evidently shifted from negative to positive. I told nobody of my plan, thinking they would ridicule me or respond negatively. I was accepted into university and started my bachelor of fine arts in March 2001.

I was an engaged and successful student My first semester results featured mostly high distinctions and distinctions. I wondered if maybe I could get a job if I was doing so well at university. A friend who worked in restaurant got me a job trial as a dishwasher. I was so proud to be employed even for two evenings a week. I passed the trial and soon had regular hours. I started to notice something though – every time I went to work I would be anxious. The anxiety increased with each shift. I would repeat song lyrics in my mind endlessly at work.   I thought if I made a mistake the restaurant would go out of business. Soon the anxiety was with me everywhere I went, whatever I was doing. Nothing would relax me. I did not realise how damaging this constant high anxiety was but after just a few weeks I was seriously unwell wiht psychosis, went to hospital, had to quit the kitchen job and take a special consideration to ensure I could stay at university. My reflection now is that the most telling thing about that series of events was that not once did I think ‘I will never be able to work.’ Instead I thought ‘I can’t work now.’

I spent a couple of years desperate to work but still too anxious to try. When I felt ready to work I took on a volunteer job and worked up from there. I now give a lot of presentations on resilience and I would describe my approach to finding meaningful work as putting in controlled challenges to build my employment resilience.

I worked a few hours at a tiny business I had editing videos for colleagues at art school and I had a job a couple of days a week collecting coin donations for the AIDS Trust. Then something happened which changed everything in my life. I now refer to it as my point of no return. I met the late, and wonderful autistic author Donna Williams / Polly Samuel at a course in late 2004. I was in between completing my honours and commencing my masters degree and the course was through an autism employment service. The qualification would enable us to speak at schools. At that point I didn’t know much about the autism community. I didn’t know that  Donna was a highly respected author and role model in the autism community but we got along very well and she become my mentor. With her support I wrote my life story – urgently over a four week period. For me it was catharsis. It was accepted for publication and my life changed. The biggest difference was in my self confidence and sense of self worth. An author was an exceptionally valuable role to have, especially as I loved reading and books and authors had been my ‘friends’ through horror and often friendless years at school.

Three months after the book came out I decided to apply for my professional ‘ordinary’ job. I looked at some online career sites and found two jobs I thought I could do – one in the Victorian Public Service and the other in the Commonwealth Public Service. Pretty much everyone I knew – including my psychiatrist – told me I couldn’t do it for a variety of reasons. I had to supply some additional information due to my unpleasant personal history and the poor choices which came with it. This meant I had to wait a little longer to find out the outcome of my application. In the past that awful anxiety would have taken hold and broken me but I had built some resilience and self confidence,

When I found out my application had been successful I was delighted. At this point I was living in quite a depressing public housing estate with a stalker living upstairs from me and making my life awful. The whole place had a hopeless, ‘end of the line’ sort of feel. Even though I worked a little I was unable to afford a rental on my own. I needed a full time job. Because my exiting new job was in another state I could leave the stalker and the misery she caused behind.

When I started my job:

  • I did not know one person in the  city I moved to
  • Almost all the other graduates in my workplace had academic backgrounds in economics, law or international relations. I had a Masters of Fine Art
  • Almost all the other graduates were in their early twenties. I was 32,
  • I had never worked full-time and worried I wouldn’t have the physical stamina to do it
  • I had never used Excel. When I explained to my supervisor I couldn’t use it I thought he would send me back to Melbourne . He sent me to an Excel course instead. I am now known for my ‘big spreadsheets’
  • I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world to the such an amazing job. I still do.
  • I walked into the big swanky shopping centre in the middle of town and thought “Nobody’s going to be mean because I am poor’ closely followed by ‘Yay! I can buy nice things!!’
  • I didn’t fully realise what an amazing an unusual opportunity I had.

I now reflect on a few interesting points in this story

  • My determination and positive view that I could achieve played a big part in how I got to here. I didn’t have a lot of self doubt along my journey
  • Things could have gone one way or the other many times, It was not inevitable that my future should have turned out as positively as it did. There were thousands of decision points
  • I was aspirational. I still am. An aspiration is like staking a claim on the future. It is an anchor point.
  • I have never wanted or had a ‘dream job’. I worry when people talk about very specific goals because they are much harder to attain, with a higher chance of disappointment. And in life, focusing only these disappointments can lead you down some unpleasant paths
  • If you find a good mentor which is willing to share their time and energy, that is a wonderful thing. Mentors and roles models are a really important part of my life and I greatly appreciate their work and support.

Secretary's award.jpg

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