Navigating the Transition From Full-Time Sick to Full-Time Work
Last Monday I stood in front of my mirror with tears in my eyes. I was dressed, had done my hair and makeup, eaten a nutritious breakfast and packed my bag, including a homemade lunch. It wasn’t even 7:30 a.m.
I walked the hundred meters to the train station with my heart pounding its usual slightly uneven, definitely tachycardic rhythm. I caught my train. I even ran a little to make my connection, and I made it. I did. I then crossed the road from the train station to a small but seemingly insurmountable building. My new office.
You see, I’ve been chronically mentally and physically ill for almost five years now. I spent 26 weeks of 2020 in hospital, more time with tubes and wires, or in group therapy, or standing at the medication window while a nurse counted out antidepressants, antipsychotics, and beta blockers than I spent in my own home. If there were a bingo card for diagnoses, I’d win the prize. Complex PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, autism, an eating disorder, polycystic ovarian syndrome, irritable bowel disease, suspected gastroparesis, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, and chronic pain. I was depressed, suicidal, panicky, dissociative, in physical pain, and thanks to my malfunctioning heart, could barely make it up a flight of stairs.
Somehow, between rounds of electroconvulsive therapy and rigorous refeeding programs, I finished university (18 months late) with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. That was in June of 2020. I started looking for jobs, but with no real seriousness because I was too unwell to actually work more than a few measly hours as an English tutor. I scraped by living at home, with government payments as my main income. I slept most days away, or drowned my sorrows in pointless YouTube videos and occasional trips to brunch with friends.
In April of this year, 2021, I tried to take my own life. When my psychiatrist asked me why, I broke down. Here I was, 23 years old, no real purpose, no real drive, destined to be a revolving door patient who could never stay well from one thing or another for more than a month. He told me I had no identity outside of being sick. I cried. I tried to disagree, but deep down I knew he was right. I’ve been “sick” since I was 12, chronically since I was 15, and had my first hospital admissions. I used “sick” as my identity because in my twisted thought processes, “sick” justified my imperfections. It justified a B instead of an A on a test, it justified taking extra time at university.
“Sick” allowed my perfectionistic, self-loathing brain to rest. But it also justified being 23 and barely working and sleeping all day. So enough was enough. I made a decision, I didn’t want to be defined by “sick” any longer. I was going to find full-time work, move out of home, and become as independent as my friends who seemed to be flying past me in life. While I lay in hospital beds, they were moving on. And I realized that fact was actually making my depression, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness much worse.
In September of this year, I got a job as a journalist. It happened very quickly, it was a huge surprise to everyone around me (especially my psychiatrist, who thought I was doomed to the revolving door of his inpatient clinic). I went to the interview on a Friday, and was asked to start the following Monday. I had less than three days to find some clothes, make some lunches, and most importantly, find some energy and mentally prepare myself for the fact that I would be working five days a week.
My new employers don’t know a lot about my history, though some of the scars are telling. They are very accommodating and allow me to shift my hours around based on appointments I have to go to. But as I write this, I’m at the end of my third week as a full-time worker, and I must say the transition from full-time sick to full-time work is a huge one. A scary one. I come home every day aching and tired, I long for the cool, dark cave of my bedroom still. I get anxious. I have social burnout. Some days I wish I’d never gotten a job.
These thoughts and feelings are all normal. I’m admitting it all here because no one talks enough about how hard it is to start full-time work. Especially not when three weeks ago, my identity was “sick.” Now…? My identity is unsure. Journalist? Writer? Worker? Expert train-catcher? For now, I’m going to say my identity is simply “Georgia.” A human who is smart, sometimes funny, who always spills food on herself when eating, who really likes sleep, who is still battling mental and physical illness every day. But no longer am I “sick,” because I don’t need to just be sick. I can be so many more things than just “sick.” I am strong, too.
Getty image by Carol Yepes.