Why Taking Time Off Work for My Mental Health Was So Difficult

When I was diagnosed as bipolar 18 years ago, I asked my father if mental illness ran in the family. His response was simple, “No. Everyone has held a job.” His answer made sense to me. How sick can you be if you can work?

Grandma Rose was moody and prone to anger but was smart and charming enough to run the local Democratic Club. Grandma Bertha was paranoid and would bring us purchases in bulk like 20 identical pairs of Levi’s jeans and think it perfectly normal. However, she served over 40 years at the post office. One uncle was depressed but worked in a trade. His son killed himself at 13, so he never held a job but no one in my family expected him to. Even my agoraphobic mother was a home-based legal secretary, working for dad, so she was also “fine.” I had problems keeping a job, so clearly I had mental illness.

As I struggled to maintain employment before I went to law school, I felt my condition keenly. I believed then (as I did for many years) that work would set me free.

However, it didn’t.

I ultimately went to law school and held some prestigious positions. I worked at the largest law firm in New Jersey, the main legal nonprofit in the state, a think tank and for a government agency. I had success with some troubles along the way. I made it 15 years between hospitalizations and gave everything I had to work, sacrificing well-being along the way. And when I finally broke in 2013, it was long overdue.

All my defenses cracked and I found myself unemployed, depressed and actively psychotic. I was re-diagnosed as having schizoaffective disorder and I could not ground myself. I knew I could not hold a full-time job and I could not escape my “Protestant work ethic” (even though I am Jewish). I felt bad.

I went to a partial hospitalization program for six months. People complained of being impoverished and homeless, abused and lost. Yet, I could not get over that I could not work. My problems paled compared to others, but my self-worth was tied up in employment. If I could not be a lawyer, what good was I?

Then we had a workshop one day on establishing core values. I looked over my list of what I wanted in life. I wanted a small and peaceful life full of happiness and not necessarily money. I have a beautiful partner, wonderful friends, a now supportive family and more education than the majority of mankind. I was awarded Social Security Disability Insurance. I finally realized I don’t need a full-time job to be happy. I had everything I needed except a challenge. Work was my challenge. I knew at some point I would go back to it.

So I gave myself a break for a year and a half. When I felt better, I went back to work as a part-time adjunct at the Rutgers School of Social Work, teaching master’s students social welfare policy. I now lawyer on the side, limiting my caseload. I am also embarking (slowly) on a new career. I am enrolled in social work school myself. I am not sure of my future. I toy with getting my Ph.D and studying work incentives for Social Security disability recipients.

Work obviously still weighs on my mind. But I’ve managed to have it work for me.

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Thinkstock photo via shironosov.

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