What do you do? It’s a question I’ve been bracing myself for over the last few months. I’m in a new relationship and at that point of meeting friends and family, the question is sure to arise. When you haven’t worked for over 2 years due to severe OCD and depression it’s rather tough to put a positive spin on things. ‘Oh, I’m between jobs right now’ or ‘I’m taking a sabbatical,’ only seem like reasonable answers if you can then answer the follow up question, ‘What do you plan to do next?’ ‘Sit in my pants watching Netflix and eating my body weight in Coco Pops’ probably isn’t the response people want to hear.
The truth is, when you are struggling with mental health issues, you spend a lot of your time justifying yourself. Not just your future plans but your entire existence. When Lord Freud said ‘some disabled people aren’t worth minimum wage’ my heart sank. He may have apologised but we know what he meant and we know much of our society agrees with him. We seem to live in a world where our only barometer of self-worth is our job and our position in the economy. When you are asked what you do, very few people want to hear ‘I can’t work and I rely on benefits.’
I find myself complaining about my illness and my situation on Twitter. I can’t help myself. It’s not even so much about my own misery feeling so ill at times, but about defending myself. I see friends tweet about their work, how their day has gone, what they have planned for later and I almost feel obliged to tweet an excuse for why I won’t be doing any of that for some time. ‘Oh, I can’t stop sleeping’ I’ll tweet. It’s true, my new medication knocks me for six and I spend lots of time in bed. My depression certainly doesn’t help matters there. But what I really want to say on Twitter is ‘I’d love to be working, I’d love to have plans to see friends tonight but I’m just too ill.’ Every time I tweet about my illness what I’m really saying is ‘I’m sorry I can’t contribute more to the world.’
I have recently been awarded Personal Independence Payments. It’s taken about 6 months of sheer hell, waiting for answers, dealing with the stress of it all, including the financial implications of it taking so long in the first place. When I received the letter with the award, I cried. Not for me but for the people I know still struggling in the system. The people who have a medical assessment next week, or who have just been signed off work and could be starting on a journey I’ve been on for some time now. I have a kind of survivor’s guilt. I question myself, ‘am I worth it?’ do ‘I deserve to get these benefits?’ Never mind that all I’m receiving is what I’m entitled to. The system is designed to keep you quantifying your contribution in life. The questions you are asked make you form such a low opinion of yourself, as you have to admit to needing prompting to change your dirty clothes after 3 days. Or that you need help to walk down the road and get a pint of milk because you are so terrified of the outside world that you daren’t leave your house alone. You finish the process asking yourself what contribution you bring to society and the conclusions you draw aren’t pretty.
Of course this entire piece is me justifying my life, my right to exist, just on a larger platform than Twitter. I convince myself that if I can write enough articles and blogs about mental health then I may make a small difference in the world. Then I can say I contributed.
What do I do? I survive. For now, that’s enough.
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