When You’re Able to Work With a Mental Illness, but Still Live Below the Poverty Line


Where I live, it’s unusual not to own a phone, specifically some sort of iPhone or Android. It’s unusual to bike all around the city because I have trouble affording public transportation. It’s unusual not to hit up the bars every weekend, to be wearing the same clothes I bought in high school five years ago and to spend $20 on groceries a week.

It’s unusual to have such a low income, to have a part-time job that pays minimum wage and gives me eight to 12 hours of work a week. Since it’s unusual, it often comes up in conversation, say, when a friend asks for my cell phone number or to go out on a Friday night. It’s hard to tell these people the half-truth, which is I don’t have enough money. It’s harder to tell them the full truth, which is I’m sick and I couldn’t get more money if I tried.

There’s something distinctly horrible and exhausting about living with an illness that affects every part of me but doesn’t take away all of my functional abilities. With the antidepressants I take, I’m able to get through my days consistently, completing the tasks I set out for myself. Yet, every task still takes more effort than it should, from attending class to biking to work to brushing my teeth. I’m functional, but I’m not healthy.

This leaves me in a desperate situation. I can take three courses at university. I can work eight to 12 hours a week, but nothing more. This salary, along with some help from family, leaves me staggeringly below the poverty line. If I were more sick, then I would be able to get some financial aid for having a disability. Because I’m “functional” I get nothing — no bursaries, no grants, no tax exemptions, nothing.

This illness, this subtle, digging illness, is the equivalent (in the world of physical illnesses) of having a constant, nasty cold. It won’t let you call in sick for work or skip class. (No, it’s not that bad!) Yet, it also won’t let you feel well or even content for any substantial amount of time.

It will make you go to bed early and wake up late. You will have a lot of uncomfortable symptoms, like feeling generally out of sorts, becoming dizzy, having a lot of mucus seeping out of all parts of your face (in the case of a common cold) or having panic attacks and near constant anxiety (in the case of depression).

Now, imagine that common cold went on for years and years. Imagine thinking it would never go away. Imagine deciding you would have to live with it for the rest of your life, half-productive, half-sick, half-hopeless. Half-starving.

Imagine the waking nightmare that would be.

What’s worse is that, because of my financial need, my depression doubles. I am functional, but who knows where I would be if I received even a little bit of monetary support? My fear and stress about whether my next paycheck will cover rent, groceries and textbooks would almost certainly disappear, no doubt benefiting my emotional state. I wouldn’t have to worry about where or how I’m going to live in six months when my family stops supplementing my income. Perhaps I would not only function, but strive — perhaps I would be able to work a full-time job and eventually support myself.

Most importantly, it wouldn’t seem so impossible and terrifying to live with this illness long-term, to battle it possibly for the rest of my life. With a little help, the future wouldn’t look so hopeless, and it wouldn’t feel so lonely.

Image via Thinkstock.


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