In 2011, I found myself in the frustrating position of being a trailing spouse — that wife or husband who has to give up, well, pretty much everything in order to follow the other spouse, who found a job in another city. I had moved to Emporia 11 years earlier to be with my soon-to-be husband, who was working on his master’s degree at the time. In 2000, it was kind of a tough town to get to know, but I finally found my niche. I was good at my library job, I had bonded with many of my patrons, I had friends, I loved my 1930 bungalow, and I loved all of the flowers I had added to the backyard to make it my own.
During the 11 years I carved out the grooves that would become my rut, my husband finished grad school and found a position teaching in Ottawa. Teaching turned out to be his calling, but there was a problem: the 55-mile one-way commute, which was exhausting and expensive and eventually resulted in a new car payment when a deer jumped out into traffic on I-35 during one of his long drives home.
I had the lower-paying part-time job. Jim’s job was putting the bread on the table. We were bleeding almost half of my pay into the gas tank. There was no way around the math. It was time to move.
So, kicking and screaming, I started looking for a job in the new town so we could put our house on the market and get on with our lives. I was really hoping to find something meaningful, but we were desperate to move, and I knew I was just looking for a job, any job, something that would pay the bills so we could transition to the new town.
But as luck would have it, I found a job that changed me, changed my life, and changed the way I see the world.
And because of this good fortune, I never had the chance to really understand what it is. So when I accepted a job with the community mental health center in my new town, I thought it would be an interesting experience in an academic sort of way. I had no idea how much it would touch my heart.
Even though I was coming aboard as an administrative assistant and not a service provider, I was lucky enough to go through Mental Health First Aid training. Mental Health First Aid is a program that aims to teach ordinary people about mental illness. I learned what it’s like for the person coping with it, their families, and their coworkers. I truly believe everyone should have the opportunity to take this class, especially those of us who work with the public. I was lucky enough to be in the first class taught by our community mental health center’s staff. I didn’t just learn about mental illness; I was empowered to be a better human being. There just aren’t a lot of on-the-job training programs that do that.
Beyond the training, I was lucky enough to find myself shuffling papers in a department that works with adults with severe persistent mental illness. It was incredibly overwhelming to realize that even in a community as small as ours, there are so many people who find themselves too ill to work, homeless, and lacking family support. It is humbling to witness people who feel like the weight of the universe is crushing them, who are bombarded with voices, and who are coping with addiction issues to find the courage to come in for mental health services, work with case managers, work through therapy, work to find housing, and work toward a better life.
I was lucky enough to meet the kind of people who make it their life’s mission to help those with mental illness. Case management isn’t the kind of job you go into to get rich. Being the person to reach out to someone hurting means sometimes you’ll see that person experience failure. It means heartbreak and facing some of your own worst fears. But it also means being there to help someone through the hurdles and cheer for them through all of the little victories. What amazes me most about many of the case managers, therapists, and group leaders is the fact that they’re often in the field because mental illness touched their own lives somehow, and they know how hard it can be for the person who is ill and the people who love them. Case managers taught me a lot about patience and hope and helping people get their footing, even if they fall over and over again.
Beyond all of this, my new coworkers warmly invited me into their circle of friendship. After all my fears of moving and starting over and potentially losing the connections I’d struggled to make in my last town, I had the amazing luck of landing in pack of the best people.
I would eventually move on to the next amazing job, but my time working at the community mental health center is still near my heart. I did not know, when I first accepted that job, how much it would change the way I see people. I have a much deeper appreciation for both the fragility and the resilience of all of us human beings. I think I’m a better person for it. I hope so, anyway. And it’s all because I was unlucky enough to have to leave behind one town in order to be lucky enough to start over in the next
Diana Staresinic-Deane, is a Kansan-gone-Californian-gone-Kansan, former library assistant, county history museum manager, writer, history junkie, cemetery photographer, and guinea pig enthusiast. Fascinated by little Kansas towns and their histories, she’s happiest when she’s digging through old newspapers and exploring old cemeteries. She is the author of Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder and she blogs at Diana Staresinic-Deane: Unearthing Stories on the Prairie.