Why Not Working Is Crucial to Recovering From My Mental Illness


A lot of shame and stigma often surrounds the concept of not working due to mental illness. I’ve commonly heard the opinion expressed that work is good for mental health: the routine, the social aspect, the sense of accomplishment and so on.

While I absolutely agree that for some people this is true, it is also a key part of recovery for some people to not work. I am one of those people who can’t work. Defending this position is challenging, especially because deep down I believe I should be working. Accepting that I can’t work at the moment, although I will in future, was incredibly difficult for me.

Nonetheless, not working has been crucial to my recovery — to breaking free from the driven, perfectionistic, overachieving, overworking, “superwoman” persona that I was living as. This persona represented what I thought I was supposed to be, but she had a few problems. She didn’t know when to stop. She considered tiredness, illness, and rest of any kind as unnecessary and self-indulgent. She drove me to the point of a literal physical and emotional breakdown.

My diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and a number of other complex diagnoses followed the breakdown. Alongside the mental illnesses, the burnout I experienced took a long time to recover from — months and months. And the superwoman mindset took even longer (I’m still working on that one).

I have been off work since February of 2016. I’m still not well enough to return and I won’t be for some time. My doctors agree. This was a hard pill to swallow. I loved my job, was good at it and didn’t want to let it go. But my therapist felt I was using it as an unhealthy coping mechanism that was getting in the way of my recovery. I had to reluctantly agree. I had been stuck for a while in therapy and had been using the excuse, “I’ve been too busy,” to try to not face the hard things.

I’m having a new assessment at a new organization on Tuesday. I have discussed this with my care coordinator who agrees and thinks that maybe in the two years of recovery and transition to well-being support I can start to get back to a place where I can do some volunteering and perhaps slowly work up to part-time work.

I am a workaholic. I love my work. But I cannot do it because of my illness.

I am not lazy.

I am not making excuses.

I fought this decision.

I reluctantly accepted that my psych team knew more about my conditions and about recovery than I did — so now I don’t work. But I write a blog, maintain my Facebook page and fill my time with meaningful or recovery-focused activity, even if that means hiding under a duvet for three days.

I attend therapy at least twice a week for at least five hours. That’s a lot! I have tons of work to do in between sessions too. Therapy, and my therapy in particular, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), has been working. It has definitely worked. I am living proof. I’m not there yet, but I am so much better than I was. But it takes full commitment, a lot of effort, complete willingness to change and the ability to devote a good portion of your time to the therapeutic work; all the while, coping with the massive behavioral and emotional changes you will go through and how these impact your life and all your personal and professional relationships. It changes the way you see yourself, others and the world as a whole. Or at least, it did for me.

Perhaps you can see how recovery can be a full-time job if you are really committed to it, especially intensive therapy. It’s not easy to analyze, dissect and rebuild your entire self. Especially if, like me, that self is fragmented, and the first step is learning that you actually have a self. It sounds absurd, but that concept took me more than six months of intensive therapy; and 18 months in, I am still trying to integrate my multi-fragmented identity, or identities, and figure out the relationships between my many “selves” and how they fit into my overall narrative.

I am not “useless” because I can’t work.

Work is not all life is about. Life is about finding meaning. And if work gives you that meaning, then sure, go for it. But if it’s getting in the way of your recovery, take my advice and:

Stop.

Take a break.

Figure out what amount of work, if any, you can manage alongside your recovery.

Make a decision. Professional advice is optional, but it can be helpful from a compassionate professional who knows you well.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all people with mental health problems should not work. I know plenty of people for whom work has been crucial to their recovery. That is also OK!

My key message is to prioritize you and your recovery. Everyone’s journey is unique and everyone’s path to recovery is different. But if, like me, you find yourself unable to work for a time, listen to yourself — or your friends, family, partner or doctors if you can’t see it for yourself. Believe me when I say: you will have so much more to contribute to the world when you are well.

It’s hard choosing not to work. It’s made extra hard because of the judgmental attitudes people who have made this decision might have to face. But for some people, it is absolutely the right thing to do.  There needs to be a more clear societal understanding that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” approach to mental health, and each person’s recovery plan needs to be carefully tailored to their specific difficulties and needs.

I absolutely know that one day I will work again. I don’t know what I will do and I don’t know when, but I do know that I am so much better than I was a year ago, and even more so than two years ago. There are so many things I can do now that I couldn’t do before, and not working has been a crucial part of that process. I’m moving forward into a new stage of my recovery, focused on transition from intensive outpatient treatment and back into a “functional life,” through a carefully designed two year rehabilitation and well-being program. And I feel so fortunat, because the jump from therapy to “real life” always seemed impossible. But now, with help, I know I can make it.

Follow this journey here. 

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure


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