—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. View the "Work Is Recovery" PDF.)
Amelia, OH—Judy and Joyce are sisters. As sisters often do, they share many things, including a history rich with common experiences from childhood and adolescence. Thus, the threads of each woman’s unique perspective interweave to form the fabric of their special relationship. They have a strong connection: their voices have a similar cadence and tone; they have private jokes; they have common stories; they finish each other’s sentences. What affects one sister, by virtue of this bond, affects the other. Therefore, it is not surprising that certain topics stir intense emotions in both women, even if for very different reasons.
One such topic is Judy’s recovery from mental illness.
Today, their interaction seems so natural and effortless; yet, there was a time when these sisters did not communicate very well. Ten years ago, severe symptoms of depression and side effects of medication forced Judy to spend her days mostly sleeping, watching T.V., and smoking cigarettes. She could not muster the motivation to do much else. It was a life to which she had grown accustomed. Her symptoms were so debilitating that she had been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit every year for eight years. She was living with her mother and her aunt, had never lived alone, and had not worked in 20 years.
These were difficult days for Joyce as well, because it was hard for her to watch Judy suffer from such extreme depression. She hoped for change and would often say and do things in an effort to improve her sister’s mood—to cheer her up.
Judy remembers watching with much sadness as Joyce attempted unsuccessfully to make her laugh. She remembers thinking to herself, “I am here, Joyce, but I can’t reach you right now.”
An Amazing Transformation
Joyce is the Director of Vocational Services at Clermont Counseling Center, a mental health service provider in Clermont County, Ohio. She remembers 1989. Judy announced that she wanted to move to the county to be closer to her sister, her mother, and the Center, where she planned to acquire mental health services. At first, Joyce had mixed emotions about this idea. As a family member, she was afraid that her sister’s proximity would require her to provide more care and, thus, exhaust her already dwindling energy to cope with her sister’s severe mental illness. Yet, as a supported-employment specialist and mental health provider, Joyce was hopeful because she knew that with the right support her sister could make significant progress in her recovery.
Eventually, Judy made the move to Clermont County, and the years between 1989 and 2002 were a turning point for her. More accurately, though, this was a turning period, because the turning point in her recovery was actually more than a decade in the making. Once she began to make use of the services at the Counseling Center, Judy began to believe she could get better.
“Recovery is a process,” she says. “It is often slow. I take it one step at a time. For me, it is about not going to the hospital and working within my capabilities. It is an ongoing journey.”
Encircled In Recovery
Today, Judy lives independently in her own apartment. She has been working part time in a competitive job in a local restaurant for over four years. With this independence she has become more than just a sister who needs care. She is, once again, a friend and companion. In fact, Judy and Joyce take vacations together whenever possible.
Of course, Joyce is among those who have surrounded Judy to support her recovery. However, many other people have played a part in her transformation, including a treatment team that helped her learn about medications and provided direction and encouragement about other treatments, including employment.
“I finally found the right medicine, so I could figure out who I really am,” Judy says. “I used to be frozen in a mask of medication.”
In addition, the housing staff at the Counseling Center helped Judy secure her first apartment. A recovery coordinator, also known as a case manager, was a vital link between Judy and the community resources she needed to become independent. Also, at times, the crisis team has intervened with support. According to Judy, even the office support staff has had an important role in her recovery, because they always treat her with kindness and respect.
Returning to work was a major achievement. After being unemployed for 20 years, Judy had many reservations about finding a job. The vocational services team at the Counseling Center helped her overcome these uncertainties by connecting her with the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR), which paid for job-placement services and ongoing job coaching that was provided by the Center’s Work Initiative Network (WIN) Vocational Service Team. Today, Judy is no longer the woman who stays home “frozen by the mask of medication.” She is more animated, more lively.
“I find comfort as a family member in the follow-along services. . . . I count on it. I am supported because [the service providers] support Judy. It can be very draining to try to take care of everything yourself.”
“Work has absolutely brought purpose for my sister,” says Joyce. “Now she sees herself as a valuable member of this community. She has a social sphere, church, co-workers. It has been like breathing life back into her. Judy is herself again.”
Judy quickly adds, “Now, I spring out of bed ready for work every day. Joyce takes more naps than I do!” The sisters laugh. They find humor in this quip. They find humor in its truth.
Through the efforts of many, Judy has gained and sustained an independence and resilience she has not known before. She has remained out of the hospital, even as she has experienced three devastating losses—the deaths of her mother, aunt, and another sister. Judy attributes much of her current stability to her job and the continuous follow-along services she receives from the Clermont Counseling Center.
Follow-Along Provides Security For Clients and Families
Every two weeks, someone from the vocational staff at the Center visits Judy at her job to discuss how things are going. They enlist the assistance of a job coach from time to time as Judy acquires new responsibilities.
“I find comfort as a family member in the follow-along services,” says Joyce. “I count on it. I am supported because they support Judy. It can be very draining to try to take care of everything yourself.”
Judy sometimes experiences challenges both on and off the job, but Joyce does not have to worry every day about how her sister is going to handle these situations. She explains that the staff at the Counseling Center pulls out the “safety net” when Judy needs a little extra help. The security of the services gives both Joyce and Judy peace of mind and the confidence to embrace the future without fear.
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.