ON MENTAL ILLNESS: More Rehashing of Employment

Jack Bragen
Friday August 26, 2016 - 11:11:00 AM

If you have a life-changing psychiatric illness, the expectation that you can't work a job can be bad for you, yet so can the expectation that you can. Either way, you are dealing with some type of expectation that affects how you perceive yourself. Expectations or judgments that we can or can't work could come from family, from mental health workers or from oneself. 

If mental health practitioners and others tell you that you cannot work, this detracts from work attempts, and it may "program" you to be unemployable. Other people's judgments may affect our level of confidence. We might not even try to get a job, and our outlook, as a result, could become a lot less hopeful. In our culture, the bulk of a person's supposed worth is based on their job. 

On the other hand, if you work in unskilled positions, it won't bring much respect. People might be valued more if they are an unemployed "professional", who is "between jobs" as opposed to someone who works in a car wash, a job many people would believe to be worthless. (It isn't worthless.) 

Some mental health practitioners told me I couldn't work. Yet, for a number of years I did do fairly well at some of the jobs I obtained. Later on, it is possible that my illness got worse and/or that the medication I was on (and still am) took a toll. I experienced a number of employment fiascos. 

I also tried self-employment. At times, I was moderately successful at that. By twenty-five, I was looking at throwing in the towel, at least for the time being. I needed income, and I conceded that the job situations weren't working out. So, I obtained SSDI and SSI. 

The admission that I needed Social Security to live on was both good and bad. The good part was that I had income, and I didn't have to work to survive. I was, and continue to be, grateful for that. Yet, it came with a number of drawbacks. 

Trying to meet a self-imposed or externally imposed "work ethic" can be as bad as wanting to work and being told you can't. Some psychiatric medications do a lot to hinder one's energy level; and this may prevent keeping up a competitive pace of work. Yet, without medication, we could have uncontrolled symptoms, and this will prevent functioning in a job, much more so.  

People of my age are starting to become grandparents and are starting to think about retirement in the not too distant future. People are enjoying the fruits of decades of work, may have income from investments, and may be enjoying many of the good things life has to offer at this age. It hurts to be deprived of that. If I'd had a chance to do it over again, maybe things would have turned out better. Then again, when I was younger, I lacked the basic clarity that most people probably take for granted.  

(However, it might be unfair to compare myself to those who do not have a disability. For someone with my condition, my outcome is probably as good as can be expected. Probably, many people who knew me twenty or thirty years ago, would be surprised that I am even alive and not incarcerated or institutionalized.)  

For most people with a psychiatric illness, there is a lot of emotional baggage in the area of work. This affects our ability to become employed and maintain employment. Not all of it comes from ourselves.  

I haven't tried to do conventional employment in the past fifteen years. It is not a "fit" for me. I do not feel able to punch a time card every morning, try to keep up with an expected work pace, and even fit in interpersonally, among coworkers. Perhaps the most daunting part of this is that I would be expected to adapt to a very different environment. I no longer feel very adaptable. If I did do employment, it would have to be self-employment, possibly an eBay business. 

I have decided to only pursue writing as my career, even with the knowledge that most published authors are unable to make a living at it. I'm doing better as a writer than I did at technical positions and unskilled positions. 

I know of someone who has run a small business doing physical work, and that person, due to health problems, is not able to continue. Psych meds can do a lot to limit a person. Furthermore, the health problems triggered by psych meds can make someone physically disabled--in some instances before reaching thirty.  

If wanting to work, it is important to have a support system, preferably one unrelated to the mental health treatment system. I was given emotional support by individuals in the mental health treatment system during several jobs I held. When I got closer to becoming substantially successful, the rug was pulled out from under me--the programs were terminated.  

However, receiving support and encouragement from others is important. The best way to obtain the emotional support needed in order to stay in a job, is from supervisors and coworkers at that job. When you have that, going to work becomes a good thing as much as it is a difficult thing. 

Our self-worth ought not to be dependent on work. Self-worth consists in large part of the thoughts we generate that we use to describe ourselves. If we find we are getting too many "self-trashing" thoughts, perhaps we could just find ways to stop those thoughts. Doing that is an easier approach than trying to make our lives match improbable expectations.  

If you are upset about where you are or aren't in life, you could mentally shift away from the big picture and focus on what you are doing in the moment. The self-talk on the issue of valuing ourselves or not valuing ourselves can be stopped, and we can get some enjoyment from what is happening today.