From A Home to A Career

Rock-solid bottom line: I could never keep a job without mental health supportive housing. I can’t even imagine maintaining a viable employment search from a friend’s couch, a city shelter, or a preferred bench at Penn Station.

It almost came down to shelters or train stations ten years ago. Tough-to-treat Clinical Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Panic Attacks were worsening under the pressure of no job and nowhere to live, the latter due to lack of funds. I’d been trying to starve myself without realizing it, in terrified response.

My longtime psychiatrist had privileges at a state hospital, and was able to make key phone calls to get me in. After a lifetime of mental illness, the sound of the unit door locking behind me was pure relief.

From the first week, and throughout my five and a half months there, the unit ran Discharge Planning groups. Everyone had to attend. I hated them. I had no idea how to plan for discharge. I didn’t even know that supportive housing existed. I’d never heard of SSDI. Food stamps were for people without education or a long work record in freelance journalism, I thought. I had platters of humble pie to eat and a whole lot to learn.

I ate that pie daily, and learned. By the time discharge was imminent, the valiant social work staff had me going out on housing agency interviews as often as possible. I was hard to place, given the disordered eating, but they did it. I moved from the hospital to supervised supportive housing, scared but grateful beyond measure.

I realized that freelance journalism would have to wait a very long time, until I found a part-time job and fought for SSDI. I could imagine climbing those mountains now, however. I had a small room with a bed and closet, plus a kitchenette and bathroom shared with one roommate. The flimsy walls were painted a beautiful shade of pale blue.

Next came two remarkable housing agency career counselors, plus monthly sessions with my psychiatrist, weekly talk therapy appointments, and three years holding a housing agency-supported stipend job in their library. Gone were the days of determining my own schedule and duties as a freelance writer. Now was the time to learn how to do what the boss says, at the times s/he says. Now was the time to change my whimsical artsy resume to one meeting real-world requirements.

That small blue room became my terra firma, my chance to build a next life. I was able to sleep in precious quiet that few shelter dwellers find. I had a small but private closet holding the job interview clothing given by friends and Dressed for Success. Where can job interview clothes be kept neat and ready in a shelter, or at Penn Station?

I’d heard many shivery stories of supportive housing residents with roommates who stole clothing, made noise all night, and much worse. My first roommate and I endured for three weeks and through three threats of physical harm from her. With the second, considerate roommate, I knew how fortunate I was. This was the time to learn how to look for conventional employment, how to find a chance at getting a chance.

The moment to start a more serious search for competitive employment eventually arrived—at the start of the recession. In spite of the economy, two retail jobs garnered me invaluable experience. By then I’d graduated to an apartment of my own, which held me together during the aftermath of two layoffs.

In the summer of 2011, one of my longtime career counselors asked me what I knew about Howie the Harp’s Peer Specialist Training Program. The little I’d surmised from an acquaintance had left me ambivalent.

The information session at Howie the Harp blew that ambivalence into kingdom come. Peer counseling was the new career I’d been looking for.

The training did its job via material and behavioral mandates. We had to treat the 27 hours of classroom work per week as competitive employment. The rewards of those six months became very apparent long before they were over. The classroom material was the obvious gift; less apparent were significant inner changes.

As is common at Howie the Harp, about half the students left before the time for internship came. I could not have done such hard training work, or kept up the demanding pace, without supportive housing. Where would I have put the small mountains of hand-outs and test papers in a shelter? How could I have rested both body and mind, how could I have worked on symptom management, necessary with chronic anxiety disorders and depression? On countless nights, I regrouped through the privilege of watching television in private, picking something funny that would bring the wellness medicine of laughing out loud. Exercise and prayer dispensed their power to heal several times per evening. A home made all of it possible.

After a game-changing three-month internship at Harlem Hospital, my Howie the Harp career counselor submitted my resume to the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, at its Central Office. Their Office of Behavioral Health was hiring peer specialists to co-facilitate groups in psychiatric units, plus outpatient clinics, at many of their hospitals, on a part-time basis. Those brought on to the team would be handing out a booklet called “Guide to Keeping Healthy After the Hospital,” plus fostering client discussions of its many wellness topics. The co-facilitators’ own stories of illness, hospitals and wellness journeys would play a potent part in the encouraging of group members. The fact that the HHC peers were consumers themselves would often give needed hope.

I liked the interviewing supervisor instantly. The interview itself felt right. I wanted this opportunity to continue with inpatients very much indeed.

As of March 12th, 2014, I’ve been working for HHC Central Office for one year. One year of a job I love, a job that gives me as much as I strive to give our clients. Probably more. The personal evolution rooted in this job is a deeply appreciated, ongoing gift.

These days, I also get to go home to a new apartment, in a location that assists me in building a good record of work attendance and being on time.

On March 25th, I told some group members that I’d been staying healthy and out of the hospital for exactly ten years that day. There were no better people to grin with, no individuals I would rather have shared this with.

After work I went home to supportive housing. I hung up my suit. I put my work materials away. I ate some dinner. I slept in safety and privacy. The alarm was set for work the next day. A home, a career, a miracle.

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