Work and mental illness

It will come as no shock to anyone with a mental illness, or any chronic illness or disability I suspect, to hear that if you are on sick leave, or unable to work due to your illness, people are generally determined to tell you, repeatedly, that work is important & will help you. Sometimes those comments are well-meaning but ignorant, sometimes they are fully intended to express that they see you as a drain on society.

Either way we tend to hear about how good work is, and how it improves self esteem, keeps us busy, and allows us to support ourselves, on a very regular basis. There is rarely, if ever, an understanding that maybe we actually can’t work. Sure, if you can work & manage to find an employer who doesn’t think hiring someone with a health issue is too much of a risk, maybe work is for you. That is not the case for everyone though, and some people can’t work, and that should be OK. They should still be supported & respected & treated like human beings.

work goals list

©Teresa Kluge via Unsplash (link at bottom of post)

But let’s say that we do feel able to get a job, we want to become a ‘productive member of society,’ and we find employment. Great!
Only it’s not always great, because now we often hear complaints about how we work, or when we work, or how we don’t work enough. Complaints about how we don’t work like ‘normal’ people. Maybe we need extra breaks, or work on a different schedule, or need a few adjustments to our work-space, or whatever. We need these things because we are trying to manage our illness while getting work done. We need them to try to avoid our health deteriorating to a point where we can’t work. We need to respect our limits & our needs so that we can continue to be a ‘productive member of society.’

Go normal, or go home

People, and society as a whole, don’t appear to believe in adjusting their behaviour, or anything else, to make life even slightly easier for anyone who doesn’t fit their mould. Instead, they require that we attempt to become ‘normal,’ or at least ‘just get on with it’ their way, so that we can exist in their world without making them uncomfortable. The alternative is to not exist in their world at all. People want us to live, work, and love, but in their way and on their terms.

It feels, to me, more and more like it’s a no-win situation for many people. We will never be ‘normal’ enough for people. If we manage to do something, they will be annoyed that we can’t do something else. If we say we can’t do that today, we hear how “everybody else has to just do their job” and about how unfair it is that we get to “pick & choose” or get “special treatment.”

Newsflash: being chronically ill or disabled, mentally or physically, is not just a ‘great excuse’ to get out of work.

My work reality

If I could explain the level of frustration I feel at not being able to function to the level of other people, at not being able to consistently function at any level, at having to make allowances for my illness every day just so I can work at all, I would. But I can’t because there aren’t words.

There aren’t words to express how I get so angry at myself over a small mistake because I was more dissociated than I realised.

There aren’t words to express how frustrated I get watching/reading successful entrepreneurs sharing their organisation strategies, and having them utterly fail when I implement them because I’m not neurotypical.

There aren’t words to express how sad I feel seeing others do all these things that are considered ‘normal,’ and knowing if I did the same I would crash & burn.

There aren’t words to express how utterly useless & pathetic I feel when there are three things on my to-do list and I break down and cry just looking at it, or when an email comes in and I can’t open it for fear of all the awful things I believe it will say, without any reason to believe those things.

And also, I cannot explain how heavily the expectations of others weigh on me, and how hyper-aware I am that I always fall spectacularly short.

“I’m so busy”

Josie, possibly better known as @porridgebrain, summed up part of the problem, the glorification of busyness, recently. Busyness is something that seems to be highly valued, and not just in work.

It’s OK to do it your way

It’s hard to not be dragged into that way of thinking. It’s hard to stay strong and reject that narrative. It’s hard to convince yourself that your way is just as good, and it’s hard to keep on going when you’re being told it’s not enough.

It is enough though. You are enough. Your way works for you, and they are not you. There is no shame in taking your time, in pacing yourself, in doing things differently, or in needing to do those things. There is no right way, only the right way for you, and I want to thank people like Josie for reminding me of those things every so often.

Goals list image:
Teresa Kluge

Featured Image:
Corinne Kutz

2 thoughts on “Work and mental illness

  1. About 30 years ago, I went from an Office Manager to someone who couldn’t manage what to eat for breakfast. I’ve been “disabled” since. It’s been helpful financially to be able to collect disability for my mental illness, but it’s been hell on my self-esteem. I always dreaded the question “What do you do?” at social functions, and even people that knew me well would say “You seem fine, surely you can work.” Like you’ve mentioned, it bleeds over into everyday life. The other day I said to my daughter “One of the bad things about you living here is that you see how little I actually do all day.” She, of course, told me I did exactly what I needed to do every day. I’m no kinder or understanding to myself than others are to me, yet I have an incredible amount of compassion for others in the same predicament.

    • *Hugs* in a society that puts so much value on paid employment, it’s totally understandable to feel like that. In my time unable to work I have swung from feeling guilty, lazy, and angry at myself for not being able to work, to being angry & frustrated at the society that tells us if we don’t work we are worthless, and back again.
      Part of the problem, imo, is that people have no understanding of the level of effort it takes to remain alive, let alone showered, or fed, or even awake, when you are living with a mental illness. When I’m especially ill, I expend literally all my energy just trying to keep existing. It’s impossible to explain the exhaustion that comes with it, it’s something you will never understand unless you experience it.
      A lot of the problem though is, as I said, society. Paid work is viewed as THE measure of worth. People identify themselves by what jobs they do, people rank their worth on it, people dismiss other people’s worth on it. It’s an awful situation.
      I follow a few people on Twitter who talk a lot about this topic, and they have really opened my eyes. I see what they do, unpaid, and think “that is important” and over time it’s sunk in that clocking in doesn’t make you a good/important/worthy/valuable person.
      You, for example, are an amazing friend, an amazing mother, a wonderful wife, a super duper bread baker extraordinaire, and an awesome mental health blogger. Our worth isn’t in how much we do, or what we earn for it. And let me repeat that if you are struggling, and all your energy is being spent on continuing to exist, and you are still here existing, then you are doing a bloody amazing job & you are working harder than most people will ever understand.
      I totally know that feeling too, holding ourselves to higher/different standards seems to be a common theme! I judge and berate myself for things, but if someone else does the same I’m 100% supportive & loving & understanding.
      Much love coming at you sweety

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