Voluntary work saved my career – and my sanity

I was just 14 years old when I decided, having seen a documentary about rehabilitation and head injury, that I wanted to be a Speech and Language Therapist. Every educational decision, from that point, I made with this goal in mind; my GCSE and A-Level options, my work experience choices and of course my University application. In 2001, I graduated with a BSc in Speech Sciences and a licence to practice Speech and Language Therapy. In those days, there were plenty of vacancies for SLTs and it was not difficult to find a job. I wanted to work in London to be near my boyfriend (now my husband) and I applied for and was offered a post in a vibrant and exciting part of London with a fascinating and diverse paediatric caseload and a friendly and supportive team. And I LOVED it. I was doing the work I adored, with these amazing kids and their families and the most fantastic, inspiring colleagues. I was stressed and overworked but it was as though I breathed Speech and Language Therapy and there was never a dull moment. When I became ill, my managers and colleagues were super-supportive and, although they and I had to make many adaptations to enable me to continue to work, I took enormous comfort from the fact that I could still make a difference and add value to the team.

In 2011, things changed both within the organisation and the wider economic and political landscape. My immediate managers and colleagues remained supportive, and I had the backing of the Occupational Health Department, but I was put under increasing pressure to improve my sickness record – something which I could not do. Not only did this inevitably have a negative affect on my already fragile physical health, but the depression I had been managing for many years reared its ugly head once more and I became consumed by terror. My overriding fear was of losing my career. Of course, the financial implications were huge, but more than that I was scared of losing such an important part of myself, my sense of self-worth and identity. Who was I, if not a Speech and Language Therapist? I didn’t know how to be anything else.

With all of this going on, it also became apparent that my level of functioning was now so low that I required 24-hour care which my husband was unable to provide whilst also working a full-time job and taking care of our daughter. With heavy hearts, we put our flat on the market and moved in with my parents miles away.

Shortly after this, I was forced to apply for retirement on medical grounds. This was granted in November 2012. It seemed that, just 11 years in, my dream career was over and a part of myself was gone forever.

At around this time, with a vague idea of ‘becoming more involved in our new community’, my husband and I went to the Annual General Meeting of the local Playgroup (which our daughter was now attending). We hadn’t known what to expect, but found ourselves responsible for reviewing and updating the Playgroup’s policies. I came away from the meeting with the pleasant feeling of being useful again – maybe there was something helpful I could do after all. Over the next few months I enjoyed this activity. I liked having a work-related purpose, going to meetings and getting to know my fellow committee members. Gradually, my husband was less involved in the role as I took on more and more and my confidence grew. I kept careful records of what I was learning and gained enormous satisfaction from recognising how many of my SLT skills were relevant here. In September 2013, I put myself forward as Chairperson of the committee and was duly elected.

Since then I have also volunteered as a reading-helper at the local school and held fundraising events with friends in aid of Ehlers-Danlos Support UK.

And the very best news? Thanks to working so prominently in the local community I have been asked by the school to carry out voluntary work as a Speech and Language Therapist! So, from September, I will be returning to the career that I love. Not in quite the same way of course, but I am thrilled to be regaining a part of myself I thought was lost. And I’ve found a whole load more parts of myself that I didn’t even know existed.

mef

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