Working at Excel Feeds in Abbotsford has given Bryce Oostenbrink much-needed stability in a sometimes chaotic life.

Employment does wonders for local welder

Second in a series, local opinions are split on whether people with mental illnesses should seek jobs.

This is Part 2 of a series of stories about living with mental illness in Chilliwack. Read Part 1, on housing, and the introduction to the series, online.

Chilliwack welder-fitter Bryce Oostenbrink had just turned 30, but life wasn’t going as planned. He was splitting from his wife, and had quit his job. Feeling totally lost, after several days without sleep he got it into his head that he would drive to California where something, he didn’t know what, awaited him. He started his blue Mustang at 3 a.m. on Halloween night 2005, flashed his passport at the border, and sped along the I-5 highway at 90 miles an hour. He stopped once at a gas station to pick up a two-litre bottle of Pepsi from the counter, calling “see ya later” to the stunned cashier. Oostenbrink hadn’t brought any cash or cards.

Just before Seattle, his car stalled as he ran out of gas. He steered toward the shoulder, got out, and saw the bright lights of a truck just before it hit him.

“I think I just got out of my car. I didn’t realize how close I was to the slow lane. And I got out. And I just remember turning. I think I shut my door. I turned, and bang, I got hit and went down in the bushes,” he says now of the incident.

He flew 20 or 30 feet into the prickly bushes in the deep ditch along the I-5. Ragged and bleeding, his shirt off, shoes lost, and pants ripped, Oostenbrink crawled out to see the gathering of police and firefighters at the roadside. He resisted treatment, then fell into cardiac arrest.

Oostenbrink awoke several days later at a hospital with his ex and brother standing over him, whispering.

He learned he was bipolar, a diagnosis that made sense to a man whose life until then had been laden with chaotic and incomprehensible ups and downs.

Upon returning to Chilliwack, Oostenbrink was immediately applying for jobs, ignoring advice from his psychiatrist, family and friends who feared he would fail. And fail he did.

First was the midnight shift at a fast-moving baby formula factory in Abbotsford, where he only lasted a few weeks.

“I felt really overwhelmed. I felt stressed,” he said.

Next was a job assembling greenhouses in Chilliwack, but a new fear of heights invaded him.

His third attempt stuck. For the last eight years, Oostenbrink has been at Excel Feeds in Abbotsford, now the head shipper/receiver coordinating trucks at the feed mill. He eventually revealed his diagnosis to his manager, who has supported him through tough times.

Oostenbrink’s case is unique. Few people with serious mental health issues hold full-time jobs in Chilliwack. The result is that many live in poverty on the government’s persons with disabilities allowance of $906 per month.

The idea that everyone can do some kind of job is prevalent in how society treats people with physical or developmental disabilities.

But with mental illness, people that the ill person trusts, such as psychiatrists and family, often discourage seeking work. Stress can aggravate symptoms, and showing symptoms like mania or depression at the job site may lead to yet another termination.

Sharon Holburn, who works with women with mental illnesses at Ruth and Naomi’s Mission, does not encourage clients to seek jobs upon first arriving to the treatment program.

“We’re more concerned about them. They need to be able to put their feet on the ground, their self-esteem needs to be brought up, before they could hold a position and have a job,” she said.

But at the Cheamview Clubhouse, a rehabilitative centre for people with mental illnesses in Chilliwack run by the Creative Centre Society, job development specialist Rob Dueck says that being sequestered in a lonely apartment is stressful as well, and does not promote mental health. Same goes for living in poverty, and for being excluded from the working community. He references a study that found that employment does more for recovery than therapy.

“Statistics show that going to a job, not a great job, not a perfect job, as far as therapeutic value, when we stack it up against all the therapy, it comes out on top,” said Dueck.

The clubhouse’s “Why Work?” program focuses on getting a job, any job, that provides fair pay for fair work. Dueck drives members around town one Wednesday per month to ask workers at various job sites what they do all day and how they landed the job. This demystifies employment, and restores people’s confidence in the labour market, Dueck argues.

“If mental illness is just an illness like any other, then everybody can work,” he said.

Oostenbrink agreed.

“Anybody can do a job. They need the work, even if it’s a day a week. They need to have something to look forward to,” he said. “Working brings your self-esteem up. No matter what you do, I don’t care if you scrub the pavement with a toothbrush, or you’re fixing cars, or whatever you’re doing, work gives you something. It gives you drive.”

The main problem, as clubhouse staff see it, is not a lack of jobs, but a lack of self-esteem among people in a system that excludes them.

“They’ve been living within a system that has suppressed that (employment) from happening for decades, for centuries, where people with a mental illness aren’t able to work, aren’t able to contribute to society,” said Jennifer Ridgeway, executive director of the Creative Centre Society.

There are very few other employment programs for people with mental health issues in Chilliwack, and it remains difficult for someone to find an understanding employer. Just introducing a resume can be an obstacle.

“How do you explain the blank periods?” said Eric Hunken, a 58-year-old man living with bipolar and borderline personality disorder in Chilliwack. “It’s very difficult to say, ‘OK, I was out for a year and a half because of mental illness.’ It’s hard to get a job that way.”

Medication can also make a person too drowsy to job-hunt, let alone show up at work. Hunken himself has had one employment failure too many, having cycled through 50 jobs in his lifetime, forever getting fired or quitting.

When Oostenbrink was contemplating a return to the labour market, he was greeted with a lot of pessimism by doctors and friends.

“There was no positive, ‘Let’s get you back on track,'” he said.

Chilliwack psychiatrist Dr. Nizaar Lilla values the therapeutic benefits of working, but discourages employment for patients who have poor insight into their symptoms.

For Oostenbrink, his job has become the rock of much-needed stability in his life.

“One thing about being bipolar is stability. You got to have that routine. I work a Monday to Friday job. I know I can make more money going to Alberta or working at other places where they work shift work. But I need my Monday to Friday.”

Eight years older and wiser, and buoyed by daily medication, Oostenbrink has mellowed. He used to believe that people around him — his wife, his boss — were purposely trying to anger him. He used to fight, and used to crave the forever larger house and larger truck.

“Now I just want to live a decent life and survive, and enjoy things,” he said.

Oostenbrink offers peer support to patients at Cedar Ridge, a long-term psychiatric facility in Chilliwack. He has stubbornly conquered the labour market, and has never been on persons with disabilities assistance. He’s going through another separation now, but is better at handling personal crises than before.

“I’ve come to the realization that next week may be a rough week…But I’ll survive it.”

As Oostenbrink often says, “you gotta keep ticking.”

Read Part 3 of the series, about the importance of social supports to people with mental illnesses, in next Tuesday’s Progress. The week after, Part 4 will examine the negative side of living with mental illness: what happens when a person lacks adequate housing, employment, and social support?

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