A lot of shame and stigma surrounds the concept of not working due to mental illness.
Commonly expressed opinions are that work is good for mental health; the routine, the social aspect, the sense of accomplishment, etc., etc..
But while I absolutely agree that for some this is true, it is also for some a key part of recovery to not work. I am one of those people, and defending this position is challenging. Especially as, deep down I also believe I should be working, and acceptance of the fact that I can’t at the moment (although I will in future) was incredibly difficult for me. Nonetheless, it has been crucial to my recovery and to breaking free of the driven, perfectionistic, over-achieveing, overworking “Superwoman” persona that I was living as.
This persona represented what I thought I was supposed to be. But she had a few problems. She didn’t know when to stop, she considered tiredness, illness, and rest of any kind as unnecessary and self-indulgent, and she drove me to the point of a literal physical and emotional breakdown.
My diagnosis of BPD, etc., followed this, but alongside the mental illnesses, the burnout I experienced took a long time to recover from; months and months. And the superwoman mindset, even longer (I’m still working on that one).
I have been off work since February 2016. And I’m still not well enough to return and won’t be for some time. My doctors agree.
This was a hard pill to swallow. I loved my job, was good at it and didn’t want to let it go. But my therapist felt I was using it as an unhealthy coping mechanism that was getting in the way of my recovery. I had to reluctantly agree as I had been stuck for a while in therapy and using “I’ve been too busy” as an excuse to not try and face hard things.
Now, having had a new assessment at a new organisation on Tuesday, I have discussed this with my care coordinator, who ALSO agrees, and thinks that MAYBE in the 2 years of recovery/transition to wellbeing support I have been offered there, we can get me to a place where I can do some volunteering and perhaps slowly work up to part time work.
I am a workaholic. I love my work. I cannot do it because of my illness.
- I am not lazy.
- I am not making excuses.
- I fought this decision.
I reluctantly accepted that my psych team knew more about my conditions and about recovery than I did… so now I don’t work.
But I write this blog, and I maintain my Facebook Page and I fill my time (as best I can) with meaningful or recovery focussed activity (even if that’s hiding under a duvet for 3 days).
I attend therapy at least twice a week, for at least 5 hours. That’s a lot! And I have tons of work to do in between sessions too.
Therapy, and my therapy in particular (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) works. It absolutely works. I am a living example – I’m not there yet, but I am SO much better than it was. But it takes full commitment, a lot of effort, complete willingness to change and the ability to devote a good portion of your time to the therapeutic work, whilst coping with the massive behavioural and emotional changes you will go through and how these impact your life and all your personal and professional relationships. It changes the way you see yourself, others and the world as a whole. Or at least, it did for me.
So perhaps you can see how recovery can be a full time job in itself if you are really committed to it. Especially intensive therapy.
It’s not easy to analyse, disect and rebuild your entire self. Especially if, like me, that self is fragmented and the first step is learning that you even HAVE a self… sounds crazy, but that took me more than 6 months of intensive therapy and 18 months on I am still dealing with trying to integrate my multi-fragmented identity and figure out the relationships between my “selves” and how they fit into my overall narrative!
So I am not “useless” because I can’t work.
Work is not all life is about.
Life is about finding meaning. And if work gives you that meaning, then sure, go for it.
But if it’s getting in the way of your recovery, take my advice and:
- Take a break.
- Figure out what amount of work (if any) you can manage alongside your recovery.
- Make a decision (professional advice is optional, but helpful from a compassionate professional who knows you well).
If work helps, that is ok too! I know plenty of people for whom work was crucial to their recovery. That is ALSO OK!!
Prioritise YOU and YOUR recovery. You will have SO much more to contribute to the world when you are well.
It’s hard, and double hard cos everyone judges us for it… but it’s the truth.
One day, I will work again. I don’t know what I will do and I don’t know when. But I DO know that I am SO much better than I was a year ago, and even more so than 2 years ago. There are so many things I can do now that I couldn’t do before. And not working has been an absolutely crucial part of that process.