My employment journey began over three years ago, when Rob Robinson who was working with me as part of the IPS (Individual Placement and Support) trial at a substance misuse service introduced me to Jason at Citrus Ornge. At the time I was volunteering, studying and taking part in wellbeing groups but I could not really visualise a pathway into employment for myself. Looking back, I realise I had internalised a lot of stigma and my self-esteem was quite low – I didn’t think anyone would believe in me enough to offer me paid employment. Many of my IPS meetings had been spent agonising over gaps on my C.V, which felt like a road block… something which even if I got to an interview I could be faced with trying to explain or apologise for. I felt I had wasted the career I had before.
Rob came with me to meet Jason informally. It took a while to absorb the fact I was in a room with a potential employer who was in recovery themselves and open about that, and that I was invited to be too. There was no need to explain gaps in my C.V or that my references would be from people I volunteered with rather than worked for. And so, I became the first employee of Citrus Ornge.
I had no media or business experience and did not even own a laptop, so Jason lent me one and I went to work one day a week. I was shown how to do what I needed to do – learning new skills in the process – and I did it. What I did know was that Citrus Ornge had a social mission that I admired and wanted to help with if I could.
Emotionally, it was a time of change and growth. Like many people in recovery, I had experienced trauma and feeling safe in different spaces was something I was working on. Sitting in an open office space surrounded by people with laptops from 9am to 5pm was something new, and I had to learn to be in that space. Facing anxiety and not letting it win, grounding myself in a place where I felt the acceptance of being with someone else in recovery. Continued regular IPS support was vital to keep me focussed on the positives, recognising my achievements and moving forward.
Jason introduced me to the idea that people in recovery have unique assets that should be valued by employers, and I learned from how open and honest he was about his own recovery that it is not something we should be ashamed of in professional spaces. I wondered if other employers existed that thought about recovery this way.
Months on, Citrus Ornge had grown to a handful of employees. Someone at the service I was still volunteering with showed me an advert for a job at Fulfilling Lives. Having lived experience of multiple complex needs was a requirement for the role, much of my volunteering experience was relevant and I now had recent experience of employment. The project looked too interesting to let the opportunity pass by, so, I decided to apply for the role. I didn’t expect to get the job or even an interview and had prepared for that outcome with people in my support network but saw applying as a step in the right direction.
I started in a 3 day per week role at Fulfilling Lives and was then promoted to full time. I have been here 2 and a half years now. During my early months, I benefitted greatly from having regular supervisions where I could measure what I was learning against an induction checklist, raise any concerns and set goals. Having a list of what I was expected to achieve during my first six months was a reassuring, clear and objective way to look at my progress – this was important as I was tending to focus on my perceived failures and shortcomings at that time.
Like my experience at Citrus Ornge, I saw others being open about their lived experience but took time to feel I could start to do that myself. After building relationships of trust with my team, discussions in reflective practice sessions, and training about professional boundaries, I became more confident about judging what to share and when, knowing what I was comfortable with, how to speak from lived experience without sharing details I was not comfortable with, how to assert boundaries and making judgements about whether sharing something about myself would be of benefit to someone I was supporting or a piece of work. Over time I have started to make peace with my lived experience, integrate those experiences into my current identity, and rather than making a journey from a person in recovery to a professional, I have become a professional who is also in recovery.
Monthly strengths-based, psychologically informed supervisions have facilitated development of my confidence and I am now able to recognise my own strengths and interests and more likely to take on new challenges at work. Being in an environment that genuinely supports me to perform at my best means I feel like my team are behind me even when I’m working as an individual. I know that if something is a challenge for me, I can view it as an area to work on rather than something I have failed at. As an example, the first time I had to stand up and speak in front of a room of people, I was so nervous I could not even stand up from my chair and a colleague delivered my part of the presentation. After working with my manager and development worker, and conversations with colleagues who were so non-judgemental and generous with their own stories of overcoming nerves, I presented at a conference two weeks later. To date I have taken part in delivering training to hundreds of people.
This style of supervision has also positively influenced the way I mentor others within my role, by modelling a collaborative approach based on trust, building on and affirming strengths, supporting people to achieve their goals and creating safe strategies to cope with times resilience is tested.
I hope that anyone reading this gets a sense of how grateful I am for the IPS Trial, Citrus Ornge and Fulfilling Lives, and the impact they have had on my life. As I write this, I am about to start a new role and continue my employment journey – a journey I wasn’t sure would ever happen. We acknowledge the critical importance of believing in people whilst they are accessing support services and in the early stages of recovery, but recovery, learning, and growing never stop. Can we say we really believe in people if we only believe in them up to a certain point?