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When Having a Mental Illness Is a Full-Time Job

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Growing up, I had plenty of aspirations — and it looked like I would achieve them all. I was going to complete my bachelor of nursing, do an honor’s degree, do post-graduate studies in critical care and eventually move into academia and education.

Now, my only aspiration is to remain well.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

Let me tell you a bit about myself: I’m 25. I have a bachelor’s degree in nursing. I’ve worked as a nurse for four years and I’m currently completing an honor’s degree. I write for several blogs and online magazines. I volunteer as a Youth Presenter and Community Presenter for a mental health organization. I also receive a disability pension for my mental illness.

2013 was a big year for me. I landed my dream job in the emergency department, was doing well with my studies and was on track with my career plans. That year, I was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and my world turned upside down. I was 22.

Bipolar disorder had taken over my entire life. My career was not only put on hold, but it crumbled before my eyes. I was hospitalized three times due to episodes of mania and depression. In a 14-month period, I had spent roughly five months in a psychiatric hospital.

In between my hospitalizations I did return to work, but the work wasn’t good for my mental health. The late nights, early starts and night-shifts either fuelled my mania during times of elevation or were impossible when I was depressed. I was constantly swinging from one mood state to another. Eventually I had to resign from my position because my work couldn’t accommodate my health needs. I worked casually as a nurse, but I didn’t get many shifts. My mental health still suffered. At the start of this year I ran out of money and had no choice but to apply for a disability pension.

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was suggested I go on a disability pension. I refused because I didn’t want to be a societal burden (the stigma attached to receiving government payments); I wanted to contribute to my community by working. But managing a mental illness is a full-time job — only you can’t clock-out and don’t get weekends off. It’s around the clock, seven days a week. I can’t hand off my symptoms to someone else after eight hours. My bipolar keeps me up at night or keeps me bed-bound. It can make me psychotic, paranoid and suicidal. Keeping myself well and working hard to avoid the deadly consequences my disease can bring takes a huge amount of my energy and time. Believe me, I would love to be able to work like most people. It would mean there was nothing wrong.

The application process for a disability pension was not easy. It took over 100 days before my paperwork was reviewed. It took many more weeks of degrading meetings and appointments so they could assess my “level of disability” (despite many medical certificates from my psychiatrist, psychologist and general practitioner) until it was approved.

If it weren’t for my parents I would probably be homeless. They provided me with a roof over my head and food (and continue to do so). I’m in financial debt to them because they made my necessary payments when I didn’t have the money. They did a lot of the groundwork for my disability pension because most of the time I was too unwell to deal with it myself. I shudder to think how people without support systems cope. I’m not sure they do.

So what do I do with my time? I keep myself busy by working on my thesis, volunteering and writing for online sources. Most importantly, I keep myself well so I can become independent. I just recently stopped grieving the career I had planned.

Though I’m fortunate receiving government payments will probably only be temporary for me, many others can’t say the same. Relying on government payments is not fun. It’s a hard battle to stay afloat, and I’m sure many would agree they’d rather be making their own money. For me, being on a disability pension reminds me of my mental illness and my lost of potential. Still, I work hard everyday to establish a new future – a future where I won’t be on a disability pension. And I’m grateful to say that future is probably not far off.

Note: Since time of writing, I’ve returned to do weekly/fortnightly casual shifts as a nurse in my emergency department. However, I’m still dependant on my disability pension for financial support.

Originally published: December 21, 2015
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