The Necessity of Work
A person has to be productive. A person has to be given the opportunity to take care of themselves. A person has to fail every once in a while. A person has to fall down. And get back up.
My book, Practicing Mental Illness: Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods, hit Amazon, Barnes and Noble and bookstores this week. While I know the importance of original content in this newsletter, I can’t help myself from publishing one more excerpt from the book.
In the book I focus heavily on work as a means of healing and as a means of connecting with community. I don’t think a fulfilling and caring life is possible without work, and I despair that so many people with mental illness turn away from the spiritual and life-affirming value of work.
Freud said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Productivity, getting things done, is key to feeling alive, having good mental health, and developing the sense of responsibility that enables us to connect with others. It also goes a long way toward combatting the alienation felt by so many with mental illness. Work can be a tremendous way to express oneself. Undertaken with focus, discipline and the love that Freud correlates with it, work can even be used as a vehicle to both improve wellness and predict disruptive mood changes. When it comes to living successfully with an affective disorder, meaningful work becomes the most important therapy of all.
Can any work be meaningful or is that too much to ask? There are plenty of mind-numbing, repetitive, poor paying jobs, and often that’s the work that people with severe mental illness find themselves doing, if they can work in competitive employment at all. I’ve been there. After years spent moving up in a financial services company, I made it. I ran the sales force. The work engaged me and I loved it. Then the full force of bipolar disorder struck me and I lost it all. I spent the next two years jumping from one menial job to another. I filed papers, I tagged prices on tableware, I made coffee. But I had this sense that I had to keep working. So I did, and it became the practice that set me up for recovery. For a while.
I got back into finance in the money-stuffed buzz of the stock market in the late ‘90s. I traded stocks. I rode the high as the market exploded for anyone with a few dollars to spare and a dart to throw at the financial pages. Everyone made a killing. But it all ended and with a violent mood change I fell back to earth, just like the market. Mania took me, and after a couple of hospitalizations and a long course of electro-convulsive therapy I moved back in with my parents, pawned most of what I owned, and rode the bus into Philadelphia to sit at a desk and make cold calls to sell tickets and subscriptions to the orchestra.
But I kept working.
It went on like this until I started meditating. Then I made work my meditation. There was a short time on disability, and another job making coffee.
But I kept working.
The time I spent on disability nearly did me in. I lay listless in the house and thought only of ways to kill time, and then rejected every good idea and just continued to do nothing. I studied a bit, which kept me focused, but I still put in the mandatory waiting period and applied for Social Security Disability Income. My claim was rejected, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I needed money. I needed medical insurance. I needed to get off food stamps.
I kept working.
There’s something magical about getting up every day and adding something, even a little something, to the world. Something that wasn’t there before. For a while it was espresso drinks for people at a coffee shop. Then it was a new set of strings strung on an old guitar for $10.00 a pack at a music store. Then it was numbers in cells on a spreadsheet in an accounting department. All work that many would describe as unfulfilling, boring, meaningless even.
But I kept working. And I healed.
One of the cruelest things that happens to those of us with mental illness is that people stop expecting things of us. They expect us to let them down. Their low expectations define us as dependent, ill, without bearing or motivation. They just assume we can’t be fully responsible for ourselves. Usually, we deliver. We accept the low expectations of people, often the people who know us best, the people who should know better, and we give them just what they expect. Little to nothing.
The ugliest part of this stigma is this: That we can’t get out of our own way or contribute to our own employ; that we need to be taken care of. Well, we do need other people and we do, sometimes, need help. But we need them to set a bar that we can, that we have to, reach and clear on our own. Then we need those people to get out of the way. We must have the opportunity to encounter and overcome mishaps, not avoid them, by ourselves.
If we give in to, or even worse, if we embody this stigma of low expectations, there is no way we’ll find independence. We’ll only invite the derision, unintentional as it often is, that we are too sick to fully encounter the stresses and rewards of work. We’ll be denied, of our own volition, the joy of a life well-lived.
Our families and others close to us may hold us tightly and sincerely want to prevent us from suffering. Not expecting much of people with mental illness can be the result of love - love intended to keep us from harm. If episodes of anxiety, depression or mania are triggered by stress events, those who love us will of course work to keep us away from all stressors. But the well-meaning, forgivable actions to protect us from one kind of stress results in other forms of stress, the stressors of dependency and poor outlook, piling on. A person has to be productive. A person has to be given the opportunity to take care of themselves. A person has to fail every once in a while. A person has to fall down. And get back up.
Accept the low expectations of society, of family, and invite failure. Or worse, stagnation. Failure is OK if you learn from it. You can get back up on your feet no matter what knocks you down. Increase your expectations of yourself and strive to set yourself up to get better and work. But like meditation and movement, work takes effort and focus. It’s a simple idea, but very complicated to implement. And very necessary to put aside any stigma against us and overcome the low expectations that hold us down and keep us there. Our families will be proud of us, and society will welcome us. Encourage us, even.
Please consider supporting my work and helping me spread the message about ways to predict, prevent and manage anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder by buying a copy of my book Practicing Mental Illness: Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods. You can find places to purchase it by clicking here. Thank you.