Thursday 30 July 2015

The "portfolio" career

I grew up in a pre-internet, certainly pre-social media, age when middle class children like me had a certain path to follow.  Exam results such as mine pointed resolutely towards a career in medicine, the law, or perhaps accountancy.  Upon graduation, we were expected to secure a graduate trainee post and ascend the relentless upwards path towards partnership, consultant post or academic tenure.  Our job was to follow instructions, shine in our annual appraisals, and always ensure our consumption and debts grew in line with our salary.

I fell off this well-trodden path towards the end of 2010, when I was thirty years old.

I was finding it harder and harder to conceal and manage my chronic mental illness. I had paid off my student loans and bought my first shoebox of a flat, but I had no sense of professional fulfilment, ambition or vocation.  I looked at my seniors and wondered "did I really want to be them in five or ten years' time?"  Worst still, as a management consultant by this point, I wondered what on earth it was I was selling - and whether there was any value in it anyway?

The exact circumstances of my departure from this professional life are clouded by time and judgement.  But I got married soon after and from that point on (bar a brief excursion into postgraduate education) was focused on my family.  I took up some voluntary work, and helped out a friend with her bakery and coffee shop business, but other than that gave my "career" very little thought.

It has been the roller coaster of life following childbirth that has given me the career which I now hold dear, and which bears no resemblance to any plan set out by parents or school career advisors.  My working hours are spent on social media.  Being an expert service user.  Peer supporter.  Charity trustee.  Blogger, writer and spokesperson.  I think the modern term for this is "portfolio career".  Here is what the term means for me in practice:

Social media
Few people get paid for engaging in social media.  But it is such a big part of my daily routine, that I feel it has almost become part of my job.  Certainly it has allowed me to meet my colleagues and co-
workers in maternal mental health.  I have found my Tribe, my soul mates, and we gaggle around our online water cooler and gossip and moan and pick each other up like in any other workplace.  I communicate with them through twitter and Facebook groups and we occasionally share google documents and Dropbox folders but more often than not ideas are thrashed out and actions agreed via Messenger and gmail.

Expert service user
I knew early on in my recovery from severe mental illness that I wanted to use my experience to help others.  I was incredibly grateful for the care I received, but I knew that not everyone was so lucky - and that even good care can be improved.  I am now a service user representative for my local "strategic clinical network" for perinatal mental health.  I sit alongside GPs, psychiatrists, health visitors and midwifes and we discuss our local services and how they can be improved.  I'm also a patient representative for the Royal College of Psychiatrists "Perinatal Quality Network" which assesses and accredits every Mother and Baby Unit (and an increasing number of community perinatal services) in the country.

Peer supporter
Related to this, I set up a local peer support group targeting other mums recovering from perinatal mental illness.  Or who just needed a break from the usual competitive mummying mother and toddler groups!  I now have a dear friend who runs the group with me and who has helped ensure its future, agreeing a collaboration with an incredible Children's Centre and joining forces with the amazing charity Cocoon Family Support.  I am so thrilled and proud to be part of this, and cannot wait to see what we can achieve together.  I know first-hand what value good (trained and overseen) peer support can be.

Charity trustee
Doing the peer support work has led to me agreeing to become a trustee of the charity.  The plan is hopefully for me to become Chair of Trustees, allowing the founder to take on a more Chief Executive role (and be paid for her tireless work!).  I am excited to be a spokesperson for the charity, and to ensure that if and when we receive Grant funding or other donations that the money is spent wisely and effectively towards our aims.

Well, here you are reading the blog, so you know by now that I like to write!  I've always been an opinionated so-and-so, and now I have the perfect platform.  Blogging has led to all sorts of wonderful experiences, and I've met some amazing fellow bloggers who inspire me daily.  I love getting feedback on what I write.  Sometimes even my family members will read a particular post and comment on it, and that means a lot.  But mainly I write for myself.  And for my son, who I hope reads all this one day and understands better where his mum is coming from!

Leading from the above, I've been given some amazing opportunities to speak out about my experiences.  I've spoken on Channel 4 news, on Good Morning Britain, ITV evening news and I've just given my story to the Saturday supplement of the UK's highest-circulation newspaper.  I took part in the recent Victoria Derbyshire special programme on mental health, which was a life two-hour debate on BBC2.  I am a media volunteer for the Maternal Mental Health Alliance and Action on Postpartum Psychosis, but it is quite common now for me to be contacted by journalists over twitter.  Even more exciting, I was invited last year by the RCPsych to speak at an event in Parliament.  It was the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on mental health, and on "1001 critical days", and I spoke to a packed (and rather grand!) room on what happened to me, all the while looking out over the Thames to the hospital where it all began.  I thought how funny it all was, how far we had come.

So - that's my explanation of my "portfolio career".  I hope my old careers advisor never reads this!


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