My Get Well Job

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My Get Well Job

By Maria Weeks 05/21/15

An unlikely job opportunity has reshaped the way I view myself and the world. 

Image: 
Maria Weeks

I was sitting across the desk from Nabokov (is what I’ll call him), my psychiatrist. Poor guy, I’d really put him through the ringer. He’d first met me when I had no insurance and had just gotten out of a fancy rehab that had put me on lots of medication: detox drugs and after-care drugs. And these “after-care” drugs were not cheap. Some of them I could have easily done without, but two in particular, Neurontin, (used for depression and anxiety) and Seroquel (for sleep) were two I felt I couldn’t live without. These drugs—bought without prescription—could have easily cost me $1,200 a month and I just didn’t have the money. I should have had insurance, but being the irresponsible sot that I was, I dropped it because I’d felt my money could be put to better uses—like more illicit drugs and booze.  

When I first got out, I behaved like a very responsible woman, taking my sobriety very seriously. The doctor also knew I had severe issues with depression and anxiety, that was why he agreed to help me in the first place. (If I had just been a drug addict, he would not have been allowed to treat me since this was a state-run clinic for mental illness.) After hearing my stories, he’d say: “Too bad you’re a drug addict, because Klonopin could really help you out.” Still, he was kind, and I liked the idea that he even bothered to listen to me talk about what I was going through, instead of just pulling out his pad and not saying much.  

While I was in rehab, they told me: “You need to get something easy, something not stressful for your first job. We call them ‘get well jobs.’”

I remember being flabbergasted: “Moi? Are you kidding?”

I hadn’t worked for minimum wage since I was 18 and I’d just turned 40. 

So I didn’t listen to them and instead got a well-paying sales job. But, it proved to be too much. I had a lot of trouble learning the computer (probably due to the 20 or so seizures I’d had, and the many concussions I’d racked up falling while seizing). Plus, it had been a good five years since I’d worked at all. Going from drugged-out couch potato to a fast-talking, "Don’t let ‘em leave without buying" mentality was too hard for my phlegmatic brain to grasp. And to top it off:  I’ve got serious learning disabilities to boot! I needed time and this company just didn’t carry around that kind of sympathy for ADD ex-drug users.

I kept hearing "baby steps” and I fully complied with all of them except when it came to the job. It was more than just paying the bills for me—it was my ego! I had to prove to myself and the world (like they even cared) that I could be a successful businesswoman. Right. Right out of rehab. Okay.  

When I got fired from my sales job for not being up to par, I just lost it. I’d decided, since I was not an alcoholic, but an ex-pill popper, that I would deal with getting fired by getting drunk. Little did I know, that decision would put me in the most macabre and tragic place I’ve ever been in my life. Alcohol took me down fast. In just a matter of six months, I’d tried to commit suicide several times, and spent so much time in the psych ward I was dubbed a “frequent flyer.”

Then, I ended up in long-term rehab, got my shit together and did not relapse again. At first, Nabokov was suspicious of me, and was waiting for the other shoe to drop. But after about a year of observing me not getting into trouble and getting stronger and happier, he said one day: “I want you to call this agency, Work Options. It’s a work program sponsored by the government for disabled people. Tell them I sent you.” I inquired into what exactly they did and he mumbled something about stocking shelves. I inwardly balked, but because he’d been so nice to me, I thanked him, pocketed the flyer, and made a mental note never to call them.  

I began looking for jobs and was actually getting them only because I interview so well. Only problem was I kept getting fired. I was just too damn slow. Oh, how frustrating it had been for me! At one job I was expected to learn the accounting program in a day, and was told that it was so easy, I shouldn’t have a problem. Well, I proved them otherwise—I fucked up every invoice I did, which of course, resulted in termination for my “incompetency.” I even lowered my standards (yeah right, like I was some friggin’ queen) and took a waitressing job in the hood. I remember the owner saying when he fired me: “Too bad. The customers really like you, and I gotta say, I’ve never seen anyone try as hard as you, but you’re just too slow.”

Oh my god. I felt I was going out of my mind with that line: Just too slow.  

Finally at my wits end, I called Work Options. No, they were not hiring but they would put me on a list. I waited and waited for months and they never called. Then out of the blue, they did, offering me the graveyard shift, and instead of balking this time, I yelped with tremendous enthusiasm: “Yes! Yes, I’ll take it!”  And what really stupefied me was Work Options not only paid a decent living wage, they offered us insurance as well!

So, when I went about stocking the shelves in my predictably snail-like fashion, they gave me a warning to “speed it up.” But—and this is a big but—they did not fire me for being “too slow.”

I love the people I work with. About 20% are non-disabled, which helps out tremendously. The rest of us are disabled with things like: learning disabilities, depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and schizophrenia. The non-disabled make the same salary, but instead of complaining that they have to do more work, they gladly and compassionately pick up the slack. It is about as egalitarian a situation as I’ve ever been in. And it shows that all people from all walks of life and color and backgrounds can work together harmoniously if we just put our minds to it.  

I also work with a lot of ex-convicts. At one point, they’d been diagnosed with depression, or anxiety, etc., in the prison system, so they too were qualified to work at Work Options as disabled workers. 

The trenchant stories I’ve heard from some of these ex-drug dealers have been really eye-opening. To hear that one guy became a drug dealer at the age of 12 to feed his hungry family was shocking. You just don’t think in the United States people go hungry, but they do. And all I could think was: “Damn, if I grew up in that environment, I’d probably do the same thing.” Maybe if there were more jobs out there, and more programs like Work Options that hire ex-felons ... wow, maybe they wouldn’t be returning to that life after their prison term was up. But what I’ve observed from most of them is they work hard and seem to enjoy it. One fellow even told me: “It’s a helluva lot easier stocking shelves than selling drugs!  Selling drugs is hard work ... and scary as all shit!”

Sometimes, we have a person that just stops working and goes out into la la land. If he/she gets sent home for not being “productive,” we just have to work a bit harder with less people. But the great thing is: people understand, and don’t become resentful.  

This job has taught me more about kindness, tolerance, and doing your best than any other job I’ve ever had. All I can say is I have immense gratitude for my “get well” job. It’s strange how sometimes you find yourselves in situations that you think you’d absolutely hate, and they turn out to be the best things you’ve ever experienced.  

I’ve actually become a pretty good stocker. I’ve sped up a lot. Only because this program gave me a chance to catch up, and gave me that extra time to get there. It’s truly a blessing that the government has job programs for people such as myself. And the funny thing?  We’re actually doing pretty good—sometimes we even surpass the “non-disabled” vendors from other companies. Now that is saying something!

Maria Weeks lived in Japan for 12 years, worked as a translator for Sony in San Diego, then sold Jaguars (though her sales license was revoked due to a DUI). She got sober by going to a great rehab, and is now stocking shelves. She is happily married and thoroughly enjoying recovery!
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