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I Refuse to Define Myself by What I Do

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This past week, I entered into an eating disorder partial hospitalization program (PHP). I’ve been to treatment before, and I’ve noticed that providers always tell me the same thing — they imply that what I’m doing (or not doing in their view) is not good enough.

Honestly, I hate when people, especially treatment providers, go on and on about “maybe you could go back to school,” or “maybe you can try doing _____ job,” when they find out I left physical therapy (PT) school with only a year to go. They keep talking about this even after I tell them that I realized being a PT was going to be too physically demanding for my body.

When providers say these things, I feel completely invalidated because instead of asking what I want to do/feel capable of doing with my life, they go to the “one must work and be productive” route even just minutes after meeting me. Why do our lives need to be defined by what we do for work?

Like most times, I got frustrated having this same conversation again because I know the psychiatrist at PHP in this instance had access to my chart. I already had the same conversation with my new therapist at PHP last week. I don’t want or need that same conversation again. The repetition is tiresome.

I get frustrated because I know my chart mentions my history of cerebral palsy (CP), a physical disability I’ve had since birth. It often feels like providers and others forget that maybe there’s more than my mental health limiting my ability to work. I know my CP plays a role in that too.

It feels like everyone thinks they’re the first ones to say to me that maybe I should work or go back to school, but I’ve heard the same speech a dozen times at least. Every new provider has it with me and I’m tired of it.

I know people mean well by initiating this conversation, but it’s so frustrating. I want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them while screaming “YOU DON’T GET IT.” But, instead I sit there silently feeling even worse about myself for being home from school for close to five years with no school or real job lined up.

I’m not saying I won’t ever be able to work or go back to school. Right now, I know holding a paid position or working toward a degree is not the best thing for me. And I don’t want my treatment providers to make me feel guilty about it. Being free of those responsibilities allows me to focus on my mental and physical health.

I hope everyone — caregivers, providers, and people struggling to work — realize that our lives don’t need to be defined by what we do.  Instead, I think focusing on who we are and other ways we contribute will help us all feel more accomplished and accepted no matter where we are in life.

I don’t want to be defined as the 28-year-old disabled woman who dropped out of grad school and has been in and out of mental health treatment for the last five years and still isn’t working. Instead, I want to be recognized as the woman who has worked hard to better her life and has not given up. I want to be known as the woman who has looked for and accepted help because she knows she can’t go on this journey alone.

So instead of defining yourself by your work or school role, who else are you? Are you a child, a parent, a caregiver? Are you working to better your life no matter how that looks like? Are you taking time to focus on your mental or physical health while taking a step back from other responsibilities?

I have to believe that life doesn’t have to be defined by what we do, but instead by who we are because I am still a person navigating this world trying to find her way. And I shouldn’t have to feel guilty about taking my time to do that.

Getty image by Maria Voronovich

Originally published: August 16, 2021
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