Life after the OU
Me in an admin/secretarial/office career was like squeezing a square peg into a round hole. So after 25 years of trundling along and yet another bad work situation I decided I was getting out. At the age of 42, I took up a degree in Psychology with the Open University, with a view to eventually training as a counsellor.
I was very aware of my advancing years (advancing towards retirement with many years of study before me), but it was going to be worth it. Doing the degree seemed like a good route to take. My options would be broader than pursing counselling alone. After all, everyone seems to want to do therapy.
Around 5 years before I began my studies I’d been diagnosed with Endometriosis. This was largely manageable, but it did mean I had to be extra efficient in my planning, so that I could cope with the workload and work full time. It was working well. My organisational skills and methodical approach as an administrator really helped. It definitely has its uses. However, and unexpectedly, at the end of my second year I became very ill again, needing an emergency hospital admission. There was a new diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis. The two diagnoses together were life changing and I became so poorly, 2 years later my doctor told me I also had ME/CFS and referred me to a specialist for this as well. This had massive implications for my future, not just managing it but with applications for new jobs. Life was much tougher and I gradually dropped from full time working hours (37 1⁄2 hours per week) to 30 hours to 20 and then 16 hours per week. I was forced to leave my job, before being sacked for no longer being able to carry out my role and take on a less demanding role. They’d already adjusted my duties, twice. It still wasn’t working. Despite the severity of my suffering at the end of it I somehow achieved a 2:1.
With my degree completed and achieved, I needed to consider where to go next. Working such short part time hours and on a low salary, postgraduate study was now simply unaffordable. Paying back any loans would be unrealistic. I had managed through the degree by saving for the next module as I went along, but I was working full time initially and then 30 hours. It was also much more affordable – just as I completed subsidies were cut and the cost rose dramatically. The cost of the Diploma in Psychodynamics was a big £6,000. Would I also have to do the lower level courses leading up to it? It proved impossible to get an answer from anyone about whether or not my counselling NCFE certificate would be valid. It was most probably out of date now anyway, after 14 years. Nevertheless, I still investigated the diploma. It always runs in the evening and health dictated that I couldn’t attend an evening course. Nothing was available during the day or in a distance-learning format that would be accredited, which would be necessary to practice or secure some kind of career with the NHS or a recognised charity. The OU introduced a Foundation degree, which would qualify me. Exciting, I thought. Yet again, it was too expensive and they were not able to answer my query about whether my certificate would be recognised by the British Society of Counselling. Although, they thought it unlikely. I had to ask myself can I really manage all those hours of study again? It seemed that I would have to start from the beginning. It was so tough for the first 5 years doing it at home. It was excellent to be able to study when I want and am able, but also very hard and exhausting. To do a further 5 years - oh dear... At 48 years old too! Perhaps not. Having had my own psychotherapy sessions, I also began to realise how fatiguing one counselling session would be. All the concentration would tire me out for the rest of the day. It would be impractical and ridiculous to do only three sessions a week.
There was still the dilemma of my career change. I had to get out of administration and therapy was now seemingly no longer feasible for me. I had to look for a plan B. Doing the Psychology Degree was most certainly a good move. It would definitely give me a broader career base to choose from. My lack of good health and the number of hours I can manage at work is severely limiting. I realised that I had to be realistic, but at the same time I refused and still refuse to give up my dream.
Voluntary work was pertinent; it seemed, in order to gain experience. A fellow OU student sent some details of Mind and becoming a peer support volunteer. This was exciting and very appealing to me. I had a careful think about whether to pursue the other voluntary work I’d applied for, working with people with learning disabilities. Whilst that was interesting and exciting in itself, it was mental health where I really wanted to be. So I withdrew from that application and applied to Mind. The procedure was slow, not helped by my need to train during the day, meaning I had to miss the Spring-time training sessions and wait until September. My initial application was in February!
Meanwhile, I wasn’t giving up on my dream and continued to apply for work in mental health or at least people focussed (just to gain more appropriate experience.) Opportunities were few and far between. My mental and physical capacity was restrictive. Despite this, I found some interesting and doable posts to apply for. Without the experience, I was, rather frustratingly, but also encouragingly, repeatedly coming a ‘close second’ following interview. At least my goal wasn’t ridiculous and I knew that I just needed to fill the gap that was my lack of experience. The feedback was regularly ‘come back when you’ve done some voluntary work’. It seemed my new goal was realistic and attainable.
My old OU buddies were starting their postgraduate studies in October. The courses sounded so interesting, it made me pine for more study. However, I wasn’t missing all the blood, sweat and tears that go with it all. This gave me flash backs of foggy brained, stress filled, ill, anxious hours. You wouldn’t believe that I did actually enjoy my OU years. I think most of my contemporaries have gone onto further studies. This does worry me, in terms of my future; however, I still believe it is possible. I will remain focussed and realistic. I am currently considering some of the free online short courses being offered for interest and knowledge.
Whilst I promised myself that my admin position would be my final one, I was struggling to work a 9 hour day once a week, so relented and also applied for other admin roles. I found one working in a very small company, which has given me the opportunity to contribute my own ideas and be more involved. Although completely unrelated to my degree, studying at that level has changed my attitude and thought process, which means I am able to make this role more fulfilling.
The very same week, in November I started voluntary work and I really, really love it. It has helped that this is exactly what I want and it feels like ‘home’. They asked me last week if I would like to apply to be a locum worker. This is something to seriously consider. It is just managing the time and yet again my health. Maybe there will be an opening within Mind? Maybe somewhere else, but I will try looking again for work in a few months and see where it leads me. I am not giving up!
For further information on Mind, Endometriosis and ME see: