—by Nicole Clevenger
(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in "Work Is Recovery: True stories of real people who benefit from Supported Employment, the evidence-based practice," a booklet which was published in March 2007.)
Kent, OH—Henry David Thoreau wrote that everyone marches to the beat of a different drummer, stepping "to the music which he hears however measured or far away." As the composers of our own life's music, each of us is charged with the task of arranging the high and low notes of the feelings of our daily experiences in a way that is pleasing and useful to us. This can be challenging because experiences do not always flow in an easy manner. Rather, they often require us to integrate a wide range of emotional "notes" in the writing of our respective songs.
Harmony: Having Different Parts Agreeably Related
Elizabeth has a Master of Library and Information Sciences (MLIS) degree from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. She describes this field as her "calling". She has always been an investigative person who hungers for information about the world around her. She loves to collect, organize, and share facts. She also has a deep appreciation for music. For her, music provides comfort, catharsis, and a point of connection with others. No matter what happens to her, she always comes back to the music.
Elizabeth currently works from home as an abstractor for the American School Health Association, a job she has held for over two years. Her work requires her to read journal articles about the treatment of adolescents with mental illness and to convert each to a succinct one-page summary. Then, she reduces the summary to a single paragraph, known as an abstract, and enters it into a database that is used by library patrons in their search of research materials. All of this work requires a clarity of thought and a level of concentration that, at one time, would have been almost impossible for Elizabeth to achieve and maintain.
Dissonance: Clashing Sounds In A Musical Interval
Elizabeth admits she has struggled with anxiety and depression, strained interpersonal relationships, underdeveloped social skills, and communication difficulties throughout much of her adult life. She has also experienced many losses, including numerous jobs, a marriage, and ties to family and friends.
In 1997, Elizabeth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but she refused to let mental illness halt her plans for the future. In 2000, she enrolled in the master's program at Kent State University even as she was struggling with symptoms, which gradually got worse. She remembers spending a lot of money to expand her collection of books and music and finding herself in debt as a result. Her mind was racing. She was thinking too fast, talking too fast, walking too fast, and not concentrating enough to perform adequately at school. The severe manic episode left her without her own residence, without financial stability, and with the feeling of being very much alone.
"Things got jumbled up like a ball of yarn that needs to be untangled," she says. "I felt like I didn't have a friend left in the world."
Rhythm: Repeating Strong and Weak Elements in a Song
Elizabeth started her recovery by finding as much information about her diagnosis as possible. She contacted the Students with Disabilities Office at Kent State and with an academic counselor devised a plan to stabilize her grades. She also contacted Coleman Professional Services (CPS), a provider of mental health services in Portage County (see sidebar map). At CPS, she began seeing a psychiatrist, mental health therapist, and a case manager on a regular basis. She describes the comprehensive treatment as thorough and "critical" to her recovery. The treatment team helped her gain control of the rapid cycling of her symptoms and helped her manage her budget and find independent housing.
With her emotional and academic lives stabilized, Elizabeth decided to proceed with her master's thesis, entitled "‘Anything Goes': Composers with Mental Illness-An Analysis of the Music Library at Kent State University." It was her way of integrating new perspectives on her life in an enjoyable way: she combined her love of music and her experience with an increasing knowledge of mental illness. The thesis also gave her a way to reconnect with her sister, who is a classical musician.
Melody: An Agreeable Arrangement of Sounds
In 2004, Elizabeth graduated from Kent State. Her service providers from CPS were in attendance at the ceremony.
"It was the best feeling I had ever known," Elizabeth says. "I got to wear the cap and gown, but I really felt like they were graduating with me."
Although this was a happy time, Elizabeth had some difficulty adjusting to an identity shift after graduation. She explains that for four years she had spent all of her time and efforts "single-mindedly" focused on her education, which did not provide her with time to deal with other issues, such as social skills, which she needed to succeed in the workforce. She began to feel overwhelmed, and her symptoms began to intensify. Yet, she did not let this stop her from pursuing a career. She began to work closely with a supported-employment specialist at CPS, who helped her prepare for the interview process and encouraged her to apply for her present job.
"I felt it was important not to give up on my dream," Elizabeth says. "I had to deal with my mental illness in tandem with my career goals. I don't think it would have worked for me to say I am only going to deal with my mental illness and then get a job. That may never have happened."
Symphony: A Complex Composition With Continuity
Elizabeth has addressed her need for mental health treatment and employment services by maintaining supportive relationships with service providers at CPS. The therapeutic work has paid off, literally. She maintains an intense focus on her job as an abstractor, and her performance has been noticed by her employer, who recently rewarded her with a substantial raise.
In the past, the bits and pieces of Elizabeth's life felt to her a bit disjointed, like parts of an unfinished song. Today, these experiences feel more cohesive and fulfilling. Evidence of her recovery can be seen in her efforts to advocate not only for herself but for other people who are recovering from mental illness as well. Today, she participates in the Client's Rights Committee and Continuous Improvement Committee at CPS. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees, where she provides a voice for other clients.
The "Work Is Recovery" Stories
Nicole Clevenger, BFA, is a peer consultant at the Ohio SE CCOE, an initiative of the Center for EBPs at Case Western Reserve University. Edited by Paul M. Kubek, director of communications at the Center for EBPs. Editor's Note: Brain Eskridge, BA, was Elizabeth's supported-employment generalist while this story was being written. He contributed information to this story. Brian now works for the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission.