The Cost of Not Working

Before all of this began, before bipolar disorder sat hard on me and my life ground to a halt, I was a sales executive and I loved it. Although early symptoms of the disease rocked me while I was young and led me to drop out of college and into methamphetamine, by age 23 I seemingly recovered and entered a remission that lasted years.

I got a good job with a growing company and I dove into it. My energy was pulsing and my mind was ablaze with strategies and ideas. I worked with an equally engaged and creative group of people and we all excelled. There was a true purpose to my life, growing a new business, and in that purpose I found community, reason and self-expression.

Then, right about my 30th birthday, psychotic mania struck and I spent the next decade-and-a-half in and out of hospitals, in and out of episodes, no longer ready for or capable of the responsibilities that fueled me just a few years earlier.

My career was over. My work life was not.

Zen embraces the concept of samu practice – the effort of strenuous labor to support the community. In many traditional monasteries this practice is of equal importance and focus with seated meditation. During the great Buddhist purge in ancient China the few monasteries which placed emphasis on samu practice endured. Those which relied on donations instead of self-sufficiency floundered and disappeared. Samu, with its philosophy of, “a day without work is a day without food,” is the reason Zen survived.

I embraced this philosophy and between hospitalizations always tried to work. I knew I’d never again enter the executive suite. The jobs I found were menial and very low paying. Even today I work in retail. But they provided health insurance and enabled in me a sense of independence, purpose and belonging that has greatly benefitted my mental health and made the difficulties of severe bipolar disorder more bearable.

The discipline of getting up and going to work every day, despite the disruption of roiling moods, has enabled me to take responsibility for my recovery and health and face the future with optimism.

I don’t mean to make the fight with mental illness seem easy and I won’t gloss over the very real struggle all with an affective disorder confront. I’m fully aware that there are many people for whom the structure and demands of work are impossible. Past mistakes can keep some from finding gainful employment. We who function highly must never forget our responsibility to others who fight the same fight we did but remain in the grip of crushing episodes and serial hospitalizations. Also, many don’t have the family support or the support of caring and effective social service organizations to make the first steps toward meaningful work possible.

However, most people who have bipolar disorder don’t work. Many of them find themselves on disability and very few people who go on disability for a mood disorder ever come off. Part of the blame falls on the regulations around disability. It provides no incentive to re-enter the work force even if a claimant is ready, willing and able to work. The risk of losing benefits and the difficulty in regaining them if a person on disability leaves the rolls, chooses to give competitive employment a shot, and subsequently fails is too great for most who’d like to take a job but find this risk too daunting.

I once found myself in a situation where holding a job, even getting a job, seemed impossible. I applied for disability and was turned down. Despite all the doctors, medication and therapy that have helped me, I consider this failure to enter the roles of those on Social Security Disability Income the most important event in my finding and developing ways to live well with bipolar disorder. I had to.

We must make opportunities to work available to those who suffer alone on disability. Voluntary associations like continuing as a member of a family, making close friends, sharing in peer groups, finding faith in churches and, yes, joining a company for which to work, make life meaningful. They make positive relationships possible and disprove the notion that we only succeed or fail as individuals who struggle to navigate a system that all too often rewards people for suffering alone without the meaning and discipline, without the focus on a task, even a repetitive task, without any sense of accomplishment, and without the ability to give back to the community that helps them get better and enables them to offer the same kind of help and support to others in need. Work can do all of this.

For each of us to work and contribute to the common good is fundamental to the building and maintenance of a community. The ancient Zen practitioners who insisted all participate in samu practice knew this. The theology of work has long held importance in the Catholic Church, where work is demanded and rewarded. The idea that an individual owns their labor is foundational in Western Civilization. We must re-introduce and extend this focus on work to those of us with mental illness.

Through meaningful work we can heal, thrive and give back to our communities. Work pulls us out of the inactivity that can kill one’s will to live. In looking for some elusive meaning of life we can miss the purpose found in simple effort and common tasks. The little things are often the most profound, and the most profound things are often found in work. Find work you can do, or learn to do, and do it. Survival, health, family and faith require effort – effort best learned, communicated and rewarded through the sacred, purposeful act of work.