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When I Realized I Could No Longer Work Because of My Mental Illness

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You can grieve a lot of things. Obviously the most talked about is the death of someone. But grieving doesn’t stop there. We grieve dreams we will never accomplish. We grieve our limitations. We can grieve the loss of friendships. We can grieve our childhood. We grieve lots of things.

The one I want to talk about that impacted me the most in the past year is grieving the loss of the ability to work a full-time job. You see, my illness became too much to handle and I had to go on disability. I went from working 40 to 60-hour weeks to working less than 10 hours a week. You might think that’s like a vacation and wish you only had to work 10 hours a week, but it is not.

I struggle with schizoaffective disorder, where I have symptoms of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I can barely function between the mood cycling and the psychosis. It is difficult to find a job that is flexible enough to manage my ever-evolving illness and keeping that job is even harder. I’m still in the process of grieving the loss. It hurt my pride. I used to be called a hard worker, someone who put in overtime and got the job done. Now I lack the ability to put in those long hours. Managing my illness has become my full-time job.

Disability isn’t a vacation. I’m not lazy. So much of my energy goes towards managing my illness. Managing the ups and downs and the hallucination and delusions is now my full-time job. My illness became unmanageable when I was 26. I found myself unable to handle a job even though I was desperately trying to keep it together. I worked close to 60-hour weeks, completely neglecting my mental health and the impact my job had on it. It was causing me to spiral out of control. During mania, I was able to work 60 hours and spend little time eating or sleeping or basically taking care of myself. During depression, I would try to keep up the 60 hours. When you are suicidally depressed, it is hard to do anything. I would push myself beyond limits and I was slowly dying inside.

After a few job switches where the same thing was going on, I finally reached my breaking point and ended up in the psych ward of my local hospital. I spent several days there, where for the first time in at least 10 years, I slowed down enough to listen to my body. My body was crying out for help. I had to face the fact my mind was broken, and I couldn’t keep going on like this. I was at my end.

This is where I met my caseworker. She listened to my story about how many jobs I had gone through and the hours I was putting in. She finally said to me, “Amanda, it is time to apply for disability benefits. You can’t keep doing this. Wouldn’t it be better to actually manage your illness instead of the illness controlling you?”

It stopped me right in my tracks. I had to face the prejudice I had towards being on disability. She reassured me with my diagnosis and the severity of the illness I had a good chance of qualifying. I was shocked at the idea of going on disability. I didn’t know what to think. I was scared of the drop in income and surviving on the amount disability gives out. I was mostly scared of what people would think. They would think I was lazy. That I didn’t want to work. That I was making this all up. The truth is, I started grieving the loss of the ability to work right there in the psych ward, where it became apparent I couldn’t do this anymore.

I felt completely useless, like my whole identity had been stripped from me. I always prided myself on the work I did, the job I had, the hours I put in, and the income I made. Now all of that was gone. Nine months after filing, I was awarded disability benefits. They sent me a letter congratulating me. It didn’t feel right to be congratulated, it felt like I should mourn, and so I did. I cried a lot. I cursed a lot. I got angry at the illness. I was angry at the situation. I was scared of what it meant to be on disability. I was so scared of what people would think when I told them.

I grieved, and at moments I missed the hours I would put in. The sense of accomplishment I felt when a big project was done. I missed seeing my coworkers every day, and surprisingly, I even missed meetings. I missed collaborating with people. What I didn’t miss, though, was the fighting and striving to manage my out-of-control illness while keeping up appearances at work. I was finally free to admit my illness and the severity of it.

I’m still grieving the loss. I still feel the hit on my pride. I haven’t gotten over it yet. I still have moments when I feel incredibly useless. People ask me what I do all day and I reply, “I work full-time managing the illness that controls my life.” My illness has made me stop working. It has taken that away from me. It has taken all the good parts of working a full-time job away. It has taken away the financial security of a good-paying job provides. It hit my pride at the core.

But disability has given me the freedom to admit to people how severe my illness really is and what it is like living with it. It has given me my life back and made it more manageable. I don’t find my identity in the work I do anymore, and I’m still searching for the best place for my identity. I am trying to live a life where I come to accept disability as a blessing instead of a curse I am under. If you are grieving the loss of work, know you are not alone. It is OK to embrace the grief and process through it. I believe there is freedom on the other side of the grief, it just takes time to get there.

Image by Jess Bailey on Unsplash.

Originally published: October 13, 2020
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