An essay by Brian McLaughlin, Advocate
Many years ago I was receiving Social Security Disability Insurance for serious mental illness. Many days I found it hard to even get out of bed as I was so compromised by my illness. My only access to health insurance at that time was continuation of my previous employers COBA policy. The insurance was time limited and costly. In fact it exceeded my SSD monthly income by more than half. Perhaps needless to say I was rapidly going through my hard won savings. While I had the good fortune of inheriting a modest home from my family I feared I would soon lose it if I was unable to secure full time employment with medical benefits.
A decade prior to this time I had studied psychology at the University and left there with a Master’s Degree. I had the privilege of working in the helping profession for about a decade after that. The irony was not lost on me.
At first I was in denial about my illness. I engaged in magical thinking. I said to myself I am far too educated regarding the nature of mental illness for me to fall ill.
I began to find it hard to hold professional employment despite the fact that initially I had coped with it by throwing myself into my work. On occasion I would achieve great success, honors, and recognition. However, my illness only worsened.
For a time I found myself reduced to working any odd job offered me. I cleaned toilets, picked up cigarette butts and discarded chewing gum, packed dogfood, and even shoveled dead rats out of the basement of a club in the shadow of the University I graduated from several years before. Yet I found it impossible to maintain even the most basic labor.
My doctor and therapist encouraged me to apply for social security disability as did my family. I resisted for a time saying: "I know many folks more ill than me who were denied Social Security Disability." Collectively those around me intervened and I relented. As I lacked the concentration to apply independently I was given a huge amount of help with all the paperwork and other hoops to jump through. I received benefits three months later without the need to appeal. However as I eluded to before the award was modest. It would only help me go broke more slowly which would culminate with the loss of my modest home.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, months into a year. During this time I found it hard to get out of bed and nothing gave me pleasure. I hoped for nothing, looked forward to nothing and I did nothing.
Those around me came together to make sure I went to my doctor and therapist and after a time I started to feel some lifting of my mood. On good days I day dreamed about returning to the full time professional position I would need to save my house. On bad days I would take to my bed often staring at the ceiling for hours as my thoughts slowed and wandered. Deep down I believed my career was dead.
One day while staring at my ceiling more bored than depressed. I began to pray. I said, "God you know how hard I worked at University. All those years, all that knowledge, what a waste." I said further, "God if this is all you want from me I will accept your will and not mention it again."
Just then the phone at my bed side gave me a start when it rang as no one had called me for some time. I picked up the phone and said yes. While technically it was not God calling. It was an old friend with news of full time employment for something called a Mental Health Advocate. A few weeks later just prior to Christmas I was named Advocate stationed at the Erie County Base Service Unit. Twenty years later I continue in my role as the Advocate.
Becoming professionally employed full time with medical benefits in a role that used my hard won education and personal experience of serious mental illness proved to be a powerful tonic. While I still must keep in touch with a doctor and comply with a medication schedule. I find the structure of employment, combined with supervision open to reasonable accommodations, is key to my personal and ongoing recovery journey.
Brian Patrick McLaughlin MS/CPS
MH Consumer Advocate
Erie County, PA.
© 2016 Mental Health Association of Northwestern PA