The other side of the desk.

I am one of those people who feels the need to make a difference. I hate to stand by and see others suffer. So it’s no surprise that I tend to be drawn to the kind of jobs known as “the helping professions.” Over the last 15 years, as well as bringing up two children, I’ve worked in a variety of helping roles. I’ve volunteered at my local Women’s Centre, supporting victims of domestic violence. I’ve trained as an antenatal teacher (otherwise known as a childbirth educator), and run classes addressing expectant parents’ questions and anxieties about birth and early parenthood. 12 years ago, I began to train as a midwife, and spent an exhilarating year learning to deliver babies and provide antenatal and postnatal care in hospital and in women’s homes. Sadly, the experience proved a little too exhilarating. Without a diagnosis of bipolar, I failed to interpret the intense feeling that I had found my calling, the buzz that from doing something I loved, the sensation of surfing a wave of thrilling stress as I worked an unpredictable pattern of early, late and night shifts. If I was oblivious to the hypomania, I certainly recognised the crash that came next. After a home visit to a vulnerable young woman living with a bullying, abusive man, I simply could not stop worrying about her, and when I got home my mood suddenly switched to a deep low. I’d been having depressions and “busy” times since I was at school, but now at 26 things were out of control. Quite quickly, I could care for neither myself, nor my children. It took one deep depression, one dangerously dysphoric high, one overdose, and one divorce before I felt like myself again and was ready to go back to work.

I didn’t return to a frontline role right away. I continued working at the same hospital, but initially sought a back room job auditing the quality of care the hospital was providing. It wasn’t much more than a year, however, before I began to feel “stuck” behind a computer, and realised that I missed face-to-face contact with clients. Looking through my local paper, I felt a twinge of excitement when I saw that the National Probation Service was looking for people to deliver their offending behaviour groups. Running programmes for men convicted of multiple criminal offences was very different from running groups of well-motivated expectant parents! Nevertheless, I enjoyed being back in a group work environment, and the feeling that once again I was doing something important, something which benefitted the people I was working with.

Miraculously, I stayed well. I stayed well when I moved from being a group worker to a case manager. I stayed well when I signed up to train as a Probation Officer. I thoroughly enjoyed the training, and continued to remain in remission – give or take a few tiny wobbles here and there – as a qualified Probation Officer. I enjoyed the variety of the work. Clients might have any number of problems, from substance misuse to homelessness, parenting difficulties to unemployment, loneliness to lack of money. Frontline probation work was like a crash course in understanding the Welfare State, and I quickly learned how to help people claim financial benefits, apply for housing, register with a GP, access drug treatment, and so on. Many clients needed extra help because they had difficulties reading and writing, having never gained basic literacy skills, or having little spoken English. I had to read court paperwork, letters from the immigrations service, drug test result sheets, prison discharge papers, and translate them into terms that my clients could understand. Sometimes the role of a Probation Officer felt like leading people through a maze they could not comprehend, pointing them in the right directions, to help them re-enter mainstream society.

So that’s what I used to do. Deal with officialdom, complexity, as the bread and butter of my professional life. But then eventually my remission ran out. I carried on at work for an astonishing nine months, getting sicker and sicker, trying not to let it show. Once again, I didn’t really work out what was going on, and so I left it to the point of having panic attacks, nightmares, and gory hallucinations of extreme self-harm before I sought medical help. More than a year into my sick leave, it’s almost impossible for me to believe that I was ever a doer, a fixer, an interpreter of official language and systems. Technically, I’m the same person, so I must have the same level of intelligence, the same qualifications. But my skill base, my understanding of how to Get Stuff Done, has seemingly disappeared. Official letters, complex forms, and financial documents are all now a source of fear. I stare at them, willing myself to process them (come on! You used to be able to do this!), but it just doesn’t happen. I literally struggle to read them, my eyes sliding across the page, sometimes snagging on a word or two which makes sense, seems familiar. The overall meaning of the text is, however, utterly opaque. It’s got to the stage that when a distinctive brown envelope from the Department of Work and Pensions drops through my letter box, I am terrified to open it. What do they want from me?

To manage my life, I now have to find doers/fixers who will do and fix things for me. My endlessly patient partner helps me with my finances. Without his input, bills would go unpaid, mistakes would remain unchallenged, and I would be in all kinds of monetary difficulty. Nor would I have an income at all, if not for the lovely lady at my local disability rights centre. She explains to me what the DWP letters are all about, and helps me complete benefits claim forms. She reads the aloud the questions and skilfully condenses my lengthy, halting, and emotionally raw responses into something which will just about fit into a free text box. Sometimes I cry during this process, or afterwards. I’m grateful to her; how could I not be? But it leaves me feeling depressed, humiliated. I am not as I once was. My continued mood fluctuations and on-going med side effects have put me on what feels like the wrong side of the desk. And I don’t know how or when I will get back.

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