Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I – oh :(

Recently I decided that I was ready to get a job. Aside from the freelance stuff I did a couple of years ago, I haven’t worked for a long time. The last time I worked for an employer was in 2011, when I left following a spectacular relapse and was never able to go back, so there was a lot of agonising involved in my decision. What if I found it so stressful that I lost my recent, fledgling stability? What if I loved it so much I soared, then crashed and burned? (This has been a pattern in my work history.) To make things even more complicated, for dull reasons it had been made clear to me that if I ended my claim for Employment and Support Allowance, I was not entitled to anything further. We can get by on Tom’s money but losing an independent income would be a big deal to me.

I looked around. What could I do, with such a big CV gap? Having moved to a rural area job opportunities were thin on the ground, particularly for someone who can’t drive. I settled on looking for admin posts, and a couple of weeks ago I unexpectedly found myself accepting a job as a receptionist at my local GP surgery. The “local” bit was problematic. I was told I would have to change GP practices and register with another nearby. Two were accessible by bus: in the first, one of the GPs at the first is my next door neighbour, and the second is out of catchment for my new Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) and would mean a change of Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN), something I really wasn’t keen on as she and I have only just met and I feel we get on well.

Despite all this, I was willing to give it a go. More than that, I was excited! I was pleased and proud to announce my start date on social media. I mentally projected into the role, imagining myself helping people and being indispensable to the doctors.I bought work clothes in anticipation of wages I had not yet earned. In particular, I bought two pairs of comfy shoes, knowing that I would be on my feel at the front desk most of the day, and tops in the “uniform” colours.

I lasted just four and a half days before today, by mutual agreement, I left.

From day two onwards I had woken up with dread in the pit of my stomach and needed diazepam to get me in a fit state to go to work. I had endless conversations with Tom about it being very very early days, and needing time to settle into it, but I quite quickly began to fear that I had made a horrible mistake.

Today I made it in OK, but by mid morning I was trying not to cry in front of patients, which would have been the ultimate humiliation. I went, with a sickening sense of déjà vu, to cry in the ladies’ loo. When I tried to splash water on my red eyes I found that the cold tap was stuck and wouldn’t turn. It would be obvious that I’d been crying, so I preempted any questions by almost literally grabbing the senior receptionist and telling her that I did not think I could do the job. She took me back into the ladies as there was no other private space and took stock of the state of me. There was no way I was going to be going back onto that desk, so she told me to go upstairs to the staffroom and wait for my manager. It was intended to be supportive but I felt like I had been summoned to see the headmistress.

I had expected the job to be stressful. I had thought about all the complexities of juggling patients, sluggish IT systems, and constantly ringing phones. But it was the things I hadn’t thought of that were unmanageable. Part of my obsessional anxiety is about getting into trouble; another component is about causing harm to other people. I sometimes find it very hard to cook for others because I fear that I will poison them, and Tom has had to endure many a rubbery chicken dish because I let my anxiety overrule the stated cooking time. Recently I cooked for a group of mainly elderly people and almost didn’t give them anything because I was so frightened that they would die as a result of eating my lentil salad. I had to talk myself down from simply throwing it away, and because I fed it to them anyway I lay awake in the night, awash with waves of unbearable anxiety. I even ruminate about harm I could had caused, but didn’t; the time I held a baby after a glass of wine and could’ve dropped her, that time I left the bedroom window open by mistake and my young daughter could’ve fallen out. We are talking 12 or 15 years ago here. I frequently fear being found out and even sent to prison for past or current misdemeanours.

Now I don’t know why I didn’t think of this, but there are so many important mistakes you can make as a GP receptionist. You can book the wrong appointment for the right patient, or book an appointment for the wrong patient entirely. Your actions can mean that they miss a critical blood test or that their elevated blood pressure goes unnoticed. You can give someone the wrong test results, causing them needless worry or generating false reassurance. You can forget to send a message to a doctor asking for a phone call to be made to advise a patient on what to do next. Any of these could result in harm coming to somebody. This fear of risking the health of the population of largely elderly patients built and built in me to the point where I was anxious about every single action I took. And this morning I did make a mistake.

Is there any way I could’ve been better supported to cope with the job? Well, yes. I never had my induction last week as my manager was – through no fault of her own – absent. And the team was so short staffed that I was pitched into the middle of things with no real training, the approach being to have me deal with phone and face to face enquiries, booking appointments, etc as best I could and ask for help when I got stuck. In other words, get into it and get on with it. Important general questions I wanted to ask just never got answered as there never seemed to be time for anyone to sit down with me and explain how certain things worked. Maybe I should’ve been more assertive, but whenever I asked I was told that I would get an induction next (this) week.

But this week is too late for me. When my manager came to the staff room I explained why I wasn’t coping and she suggested the job wasn’t right for me. I told her that my primary goal was to stay out of hospital and that I felt like the job was making me sick, and she felt that in that case the job really wasn’t worth it and that I should go home and “draw a line under it”. I’m not 100% sure whether I quit or whether I was gently let go. Maybe a bit of both, but I can’t do the job either way so it doesn’t really matter I suppose.

I’m feeling pretty raw. It’s hard not to feel like a failure as an adult when you can’t even do five days at a job before you lose it (in both senses of the term). I feel like I gambled massively and I lost. I just rang the DWP and now I have to reclaim ESA with no guarantee of getting it back. Like I say, we’ll survive, but it’s a big chunk out of our joint income. Now I get to stay with the same GP practice, but I have the humiliation of going in and knowing everybody as a now ex staff member. At least there will be no question now of having my CPN replaced with a stranger.

What I do now, I have no idea. Maybe do a little volunteering. Hide away. Lick my wounds. I suppose that if I do ever get to a point in the future where I feel like I can work again, there is some learning to be had from this, but really if you ask for support and the support isn’t there, what can you do? Disability was flagged up at interview and I still ended up in this pickle.

Bipolar 1, Charlotte 0

About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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