When I told my mum and my various therapists that I had got a job for Christmas, the general reaction was “Why on earth have you gone and done that”, and admittedly, upon accepting the job, I felt very much the same. Realistically, I knew that my mental illnesses are currently putting too much of a strain on me to manage a job on top of them, but nevertheless I felt I had to get a job and that there was no choice in the matter. Why? Because of a question I always get asked by people in day to day life: “What do you do?”.
Whenever you meet someone new or see a family member that you haven’t seen for a few years, people tend to ask questions along those lines to find out what you are doing with your life, this often meaning in terms of job or career. It is this question and the moment in which it is asked that I always dread.
You see, pretty much all of my friends have proper jobs and it is generally accepted in society that everyone has a job to show that they are a valuable member of the population, contributing to society and earning money to put into a bank account somewhere to save for a mortgage on a house (what the hell is a mortgage!? How do you make a bank account?! Where do banks keep all the money? Who is in charge of all of this? When did they teach this in school? Why are piggy banks no longer acceptable as a money holding receptacle? Have I been mis-sold PPI?!).
Unlike most of my friends and indeed most people my age however, I do not have a proper job nor have I taken my first step onto the career ladder (I haven’t even found the damn ladder).
The reason for this is because my mental health currently dictates my day to day life and arguably makes a regular job impossible (hence why I have not applied for a regular job in years). This means that every time someone asks me what I am doing with my life I feel incredibly embarrassed and inferior having to say that I am “just trying to work on my mental health”. In essence this is ridiculous as I am well aware that there is no shame in not having a job because you are too unwell and I would never judge anyone else for being in a similar situation. Being ill myself, I know how drastically it can impact one’s routine, but as much as I know that I worry that people who haven’t experienced such things will think I am someone who is lazy or sponging off their parents, someone who should be written about or filmed for a Channel 4 documentary so that the general public can watch and rave on twitter about what a terrible person I am. Luckily I have never had any bad comments myself, but I know for a fact that when people ask my mother what I do and she responds with “Katie can’t work because of mental illness right now”, she has received comments akin to “so what on earth does she DO all day?.
It is as if they think I just tick the box for having a mental disability on all the forms I get for the sake of not having to hold down a job and then lie at home complaining about how bored I am. This could not be further from the truth. I tick that I have a mental disability on all of these forms and then when I go home I am not being bored, I am wrestling with a mass of nastiness in my brain that is trying to kill me, and that in itself is pretty hard work. I always felt like it was equivalent to a job myself, but lately the number of “what do you do” questions has been putting such a pressure on me that I started to wonder whether or not I really was making excuses and was as lazy as I assume everyone thinks I am.
After a week of work though, I have fully learnt the lesson that I feel more people need to learn in society, that being mentally ill is very much like a full time job all in itself (a really rubbish job with no time for a tea break, no pay and no Christmas party. Yeah. You heard me. NO CHRISTMAS PARTY.)
Things that should take minutes just take hours when it comes to me and the time simply goes by without me realising it. Showering can take forever and meal times are at least three hours so some days I may only be able to say “I have eaten three meals and had a shower” in response to “what have you done today?”, which doesn’t sound like much.
In the mind of a sane person that probably conjures up an image of two hours activity at the most with time in between to spare, without realising that really to achieve that is over ten hours work a day, and that doesn’t even include other things I may have to do like go to an appointment, go to the loo or get dressed (all of which are more things that go on for longer in duration than the film Gone with the Wind. God have you seen that movie? IT GOES ON FOR HOURS. I swear it never ends. It has been running in my living room since January 1989 and they are still waffling on. Also for a film with the word “wind” in the title I would like to complain that it is simply not blustery enough. I don’t even think we have had a light breeze yet let alone the gale force tornadoes I was expecting. FALSE ADVERTISING. MOVIE PEOPLE ARE EVIL.)
When viewed like this then, it is easy to see how mental illnesses demolish the time and effort people would usually put into a job, and it is the reason that I am struggling so much with my career as a Christmas temp for six weeks.
I only do five hour shifts five days a week which may not be as much as other people, but in carrying out that job the issue is that I haven’t simply been able to resign from my mental illness one to accept it. Having a real paid job doesn’t mean that I can just stop showering or eating for hours on end, so essentially I am now working two jobs. Considering I never really get free time you may be wondering how on earth I am able to do these two jobs as where can i fit these extra five hours in? As an answer to that I will simply say that rather than resigning from my mental illness job, I have had to resign from the position of “person who sleeps” instead.
Nowadays I work for five hours, then come home and work my usual eating and sleeping routine (I can’t bring myself to eat breakfast before work so I literally am having a working day then coming home and starting with the routine from the beginning with meals like breakfast as if I have just woken up).
If I am lucky and my “day” of trying to eat/stop washing/stop obsessively repeating things like brushing my hair finishes, it is then that I will go to bed. However, by this point it is practically time to start the next day in terms of official work, so after two to three hours I am up and have to get started all over again. I have also had to cancel every therapy appointment I had this week and I really am so exhausted that I have no idea what is going on. I am sort of in that drunken state that you find yourself in when you haven’t had enough sleep and end up staggering about, bumping into things and laughing at the pavement which in your deluded state suddenly seems to be a hilarious invention worthy of much mirth and merriment. It has got to the point where yesterday I genuinely felt a small hole when washing my stomach in the shower and panicked because I thought I had been mortally wounded somehow/was about to see my liver fly/spill onto the floor, before I realised that that “hole” is the belly button that has been chilling in the same place upon my abdomen for the past 24 years. As signs that you are pushing yourself too hard, I think “being scared of your own belly button” is a fairly big one.
I know that in writing this I am going to get comments telling me to quit this job before it gets too out of hand, and to be honest if it was anyone else in this situation I would be saying exactly the same thing. Carrying on with this job until the end of December goes directly against all the advice that I gave in my “tips for managing a job interview blog” (e.g. the whole “don’t push yourself past what is possible and take care of yourself first” idea), yet I am frustratingly one of those silly people who can give very good advice but very seldom follow it. That said, I still stand by all of that advice and can reassure you that there is no way I would be carrying on with this if it were a permanent position. I am not stupid, I KNOW that I could not keep up this level of hectic-ness forever. The way I am managing is by thinking I just have to keep my head down, get on with things for another 6 weeks or so and then I can get back to working only my mental health job. After that I think I will accept that I have thoroughly learnt my lesson and there is no way I will be applying for any more jobs until I am a lot less bonkers.
Nevertheless, as difficult as it is, I still really wanted to write this post as this experience is something that I am learning from, and hopefully they are lessons that, in writing them here will help us all out in the long run. If you can’t work because of your mental illness it doesn’t make you lazy, as you technically have a job getting through every day, it just isn’t one you handed in a CV for yet this doesn’t mean it is any less real. Also I really hope that this helps spread the message to people without experience of mental health problems as to what it means when someone is out of work because they are mentally unwell. It isn’t about laziness, it is simply about having the internal job of fighting your demons that nobody else can see, and if more people realise that then maybe the pressure to perform when you are not up to it will one day subside so other people don’t find themselves in my current pickle.
Now if you don’t mind, I will love you and leave you all with the illustration below, an image that depicts what the movie Gone With The Wind would have looked like had I been the writer/director. As for me I think it is time to go to sleep. My next shift at work starts in a few hours. Oh good lord…