Many of us who are blessed with a mental health illness will ultimately confront the dilemma of working while disabled. Working accomplishes many things: it allows us to feel that we have worth in society, enhances our self-esteem, offers us a break in the tedium of our lives, and provides the potential to earn much needed additional income.
I my case, I faced the challenge of working while disabled fairly late in my career. Previous to my serious breakdown in 2001, and subsequent diagnosis as having a bipolar disorder, I was functioning well in a high visibility job in international trade. My erroneous sense of myself, and my idea of self-esteem was based upon what I did professionally. When that collapsed, I was devastated.
I was hospitalized for over a year, and when I attempted to resume my life, I had to take things slowly. First there was intensive therapy, then medication “trials”, wherein my psychiatrist sought to get the medications that I needed right, then the challenge of finding housing, where I could live in a safe environment on substantially less financially. Additionally I was faced with the task of building a social support network. All of this took considerable time, but left me ultimately unsatisfied. I felt that I needed the stimulation of work to make me feel whole again. It was not until 2008, that I felt well enough to consider working, at least part time.
However this was problematic, as I go through periods of relative stability, when I can work as a temporary employee, part time, to periods of total dysfunction, where I need to be hospitalized. I have been hospitalized no less than 7 times, and have attempted suicide 3 time when I was in total despair. I also suffer from acute PTSD issues, and have been in therapy for all of my adult life for this condition. Permeant employment was thus out of the question. That meant finding something as a temp, however that means an unsteady income, no much needed health benefits, and a limited landscape of meaningful openings.
In August of 2008, having been stable most of the time, I started to work part time, as a temporary employee in the financial services sector. I did suffer periods of distinct bipolar pathology, exacerbated by my PTSD issues, where I had to be hospitalized for relatively short periods of time. However during this period, I successfully shared an apartment for twelve years, and was able to function "adequately.”
I found numerous challenges in my new position. My agency was constantly pressuring me to work more hours as the workload increased, and I had to very carefully monitor my part-time income level, so as not to jeopardize my SSDI benefits. I also had to carefully schedule my time, to fit in work, therapy and doctor’s visits, social support group meetings, and much needed “down time,” so as not to stress myself out.
In November of 2014, an offer was made to work as a temporary employee in the same field full time. Having just come out a recent hospitalization at McLean’s Hospital in Belmont Massachusetts, I felt better, and decided to attempt it. At the same time I was seeing a new prescribing nurse, whom decided to take me off many of the medications, which had kept me stable for 12 years. The result was disastrous. Not only did the job increase my stress level to unacceptable proportions, but I found little time to do the things that were necessary to keep me healthy.
I suffered another “complete” breakdown, and had to be hospitalized for a lengthy period of time. Climbing out of that wreckage, I learned several valuable lessons which I would like to share with you.
- Recognize that meaningful employment of any kind is not, in itself, the answer to correct one’s feeling of poor self-esteem, or one’s vision of how to contribute to society. There are other avenues to these including: volunteer work, being an active contributor to various social support groups for the mentally ill, and taking an interest in your peers.
- Believe whole-heartedly in the efficacy of your mental health treatment plan, and let NOTHING interfere with regime which leads to your wellness.
- Do NOT succumb to family or professional colleague pressures to find work instead of “living on the dole.” Many of us need to lead a life of non-employment, in order to discover new horizons and pathways to mental health wholeness and care.
- Finally, if you do find something in the way of employment, be cognizant of the income limits which may jeopardize your benefits, the time commitments you make in the job, and the stress level under which you will be expected to operate.
Marc is a volunteer at Dance in the Rain, a non-profit organization stressing peer to peer support and a “whole person approach” to mental health wellness. He was educated at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts and The John’s Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C., where he obtained his Masters in International Economics and European Studies. He currently resides on Cape Cod.