I was sitting with my journal drinking a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts when two middle-aged men sat down next to me and began to talk loudly. I tried not to eavesdrop on their conversation, to concentrate on writing in my journal, but something they said drew my attention.
I heard the words “crazy people” and “people with mental problems.” One guy said, “They can work, there’s work out there, they just don’t want to.” My impulse was to chime in, tell them that I am a person with mental illness and that I would love to be able to work, that I’ve tried many times, but I can’t. I wanted to tell them that it was my employer who told me I need to be on disability, that the federal government declared me permanently disabled, that I paid into social security since I was sixteen. I didn’t like the negative tone in their voices, so I kept quiet and tuned them out. I later told myself that I should have said something. I could have possibly educated them about mental illness.
This is a misconception – that people with mental illness can work but choose not to. Many of us want to work, but our illness makes it extremely difficult to hold onto jobs. I’ve always been able to get a job because I have a good resumé and interview skills, but I could never keep one for very long. Most of my jobs only lasted a year to a year and a half. The longest I’ve ever worked somewhere was three years, but each year my performance evaluation got worse. This was the employer who told me I needed to be on disability.
Symptoms which make it difficult for me to work include: intense migraines and back pain due to severe stenosis in my spine, poor concentration, being easily distracted and easily confused, difficulty remembering tasks, procedures, and instructions, difficulty coping with stressful situations, manic rages, feeling overwhelmed, PTSD being triggered causing angry outbursts or bursting into tears, panic attacks, intense nervous energy, racing thoughts, and triple-checking for mistakes, which made it difficult to work productively; I would take much longer than required to complete a task.
My mania symptoms include: intense irritability or agitation, pacing, racing thoughts, pressured speech, insomnia, impulsivity, poor judgement, wanting to harm myself or others, thoughts of suicide, feeling like I’m crawling out of my skin, and auditory hallucinations.
My depressive symptoms include; lethargy, wanting to do nothing but sleep, not eating, poor hygiene, brain fog, feeling overwhelmed, distorted and negative thinking, and an inability to do simple tasks.
I experience mixed episodes in which mania and depression exist simultaneously – something I call “wired and tired.” These can be excruciating. I also experience rapid cycling between mania and depression.
Because of mania, depression, migraines, and back pain, I would miss work for days at a time; I was a highly unreliable employee. Several times I was fired for poor attendance. Because of my PTSD symptoms being triggered, employers called me “emotionally unstable.”
After experiencing an episode of bipolar disorder or PTSD, or after experiencing a panic attack, I would become incredibly ashamed and embarrassed. I’d be mortified. I’d be full of self-loathing. I would beat myself up relentlessly.
People will ask me what I do for work. I tell them that I‘m permanently disabled due to bipolar disorder and PTSD related to trauma. They reply, “You don’t look like there’s anything wrong with you, you look normal.” They ask me why I can’t work. I tell them what I’ve written here. Most times, people will be supportive and sympathetic towards me. But every so often, someone will insist that I can work if I put my mind to it.
Although I’ve learned coping skills through therapy and take medication to help manage my bipolar symptoms, I still experience symptoms that can become debilitating. I did try to return to work in the summer of 2017. I paid $1,800 on my credit card for a beauty school to train as a professional make-up artist; I wasn’t any good at it. Then I trained to update my computer skills to rejoin the workforce as an office employee (I had been an administrative assistant in the past). I couldn’t remember instructions and procedures. The stress of trying to learn new skills triggered manic episodes. I had to stop.
Doing volunteer work for several hours a week is a way for me to give back to my community. It helps me feel like I’m contributing to society. Being a volunteer, instead of depending upon a paycheck for survival, takes the pressure off me. If the job becomes too stressful, I can leave without any consequences. There also are no consequences if I need to call out because I’m symptomatic.
I no longer allow myself to feel shame or embarrassment when symptoms arise. I’ve come to accept that I have mental illness and that symptoms I experience are beyond my control. I’ve come to accept that I will probably never be able to work a full-time or even part-time job. That’s just the way things are.
I will continue to try and educate others about mental illness, but there will probably always be people like the two men in Dunkin’ Donuts who choose to judge people with mental illness for not working. I have no control over what other people think. All I can do is keep my head held high and congratulate myself on doing the best I can. I choose to focus on the things I can do rather than on my limitations. I will continue to be kind and gentle with myself and remain confident that I have much to offer this world.