“So, what do you do?”
When you meet new people or catch up with people you haven’t seen in a while, one of the first questions they ask is, “What do you do?” It’s a basic “get to know you” question. But when you can’t work because of a mental illness — that question isn’t so easy to answer.
In my experience the conversation goes a lot like this:
Person: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m not really doing much right now.
Person: Are you working?
Person: Are you in school?
Person: Are you studying?
Person (visibly confused): Well, what do you do all day?
I know this question isn’t meant to be malicious, but it’s typically said in a way that makes me feel ashamed of not working or studying; as if the fact that I’m not going out and contributing to society in the conventional way, or studying so that I can do so in the future, makes me less than people who are. People see a physically healthy 18-year-old and wonder why she’s presumably lounging around at home when she should be doing something productive.
For me, surviving is the most productive thing I could possibly be doing right now, and it is not an easy thing to do. Getting through each day is my job, and I don’t get a break from it. There’s no paid vacation when it comes to mental illness. My version of work assignments are the basic tasks needed to keep myself alive: remembering to eat, drink enough water, shower, change my clothes, brush my teeth and take my meds. It might not seem like much, but some days even the basics are near impossible.
I would love nothing more than to be working; to have a stable job and stable income. I don’t live week to week because it’s fun; I do it because at this point in my life I have no other choice. My depression drains me of my energy and motivation and my anxiety stops me from interacting with people and putting myself out there. It’s not that I’m just not trying hard enough to push past all that — it’s that I can’t. Sometimes people are able to push through it — but that’s not the case for everyone.
I wish I could say the more I get asked this question the easier it gets, but every time it comes up, I still find myself at a loss for words. Lately my reply has been, “I’m just trying to get through each day.” This seems to work relatively well with most people. I’m trying to accept I don’t need to make excuses or give anyone an explanation, because it’s simply none of their business. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but the stigma that anyone who isn’t currently working is “lazy” makes it difficult and sometimes uncomfortable to be put in that situation.
If you’re like me and unable to work, I want you to remember these few things:
1. You don’t have to be working to be a valuable member of society. Your worth isn’t measured by your ability to contribute something measurable. Your worth is innate. You are worthy of good things simply because you exist. You don’t have to earn that right.
2. You don’t have to prove to anyone that your illness is “bad enough.” Everyone experiences things differently and you don’t need to justify yourself to anyone.
3. You’re not alone. There are many people that can’t work, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. It’s out of our control. The best thing we can do is work toward improving our mental health, and that is one of the hardest jobs out there.
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Thinkstock photo via a-wrangler