Just over two weeks ago I had major surgery. I am recovering well, but I’m not someone who finds it easy doing ‘nothing’. I like to be busy; I like to be productive and useful. It is important to me that I contribute as much as I can and in as many ways as I can to the running of our household, as I contribute very little financially. So, being in a position where I can contribute the bare minimum has been very difficult for me to accept. I have felt like a burden, a fraud, a dead-weight – feelings that are all too familiar to me, and I have found myself once again questioning my worth.
The invisible illness
Being unable to work because of my mental health is not something I discuss much because I feel embarrassed and ashamed. I feel like a failure and a fraud. ‘But you look so well!’, ‘You’re so much better than you were!’ It’s true – I don’t look ill, and I am most definitely better than I have ever been (apart from the recent surgery!) I am well because I manage my triggers – by which I mean I avoid my triggers whenever possible; stress, pressure, deadlines, criticisms and complaints… I could go on, but you get the general idea, I’m sure.
I have always had an innate dread of meeting new people, not least because the first thing they seem to want to know is What do I do for a living? For far to many years I struggled to find meaning or purpose in my own life, let alone justify my existence to others. Where was my worth? As far as I was concerned, I had no worth whatsoever. And I had no purpose. So how on earth could I answer this question?
So, what do you do for a living?
For most people it’s a harmless enough question, really. Someone is trying to strike up a conversation with you, showing a bit of interest in and your life, perhaps trying to break the ice a little. It’s a reasonably safe place to start, surely – nothing too personal, nothing too demanding: What do you do? For other people, the question flips them into a whirlwind of self-doubt, self-abasement and shame. For some people, keeping themselves safe (and in some cases, alive) is a full-time occupation, but somehow that doesn’t seem quite acceptable as an answer.
I FUCKING BREATHE! I take my medication. I just about make it to my therapy appointments – on a good day I even manage to wash before I go. Today I didn’t cut myself, or binge, or make myself throw up. I’m still alive – what more do you want from me?
For a short while I had what I considered to be an acceptable answer, that I could reel off with confidence and conviction: “I’m in-between jobs at the moment. I’m trained in admin, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. No, I’m not sure what I’d like to do instead – something a little more creative.” The problem with this answer is there’s only so long a person can be ‘in-between jobs’.
What do I do?
Nowadays I stick to ‘I work from home; I’m a writer’. Fortunately, that usually seems to satisfy curiosity and tick whatever boxes need ticking. Occasionally, however, people want to know what I write about and I find myself wading through the thick and tricky waters of Mental Health again – how much do I say? How honest should I be? How honest dare I be? Yeah, I know… as a mental health advocate I should be flying the flag a little higher, and with a little more pride… I’m working on it, ok.
In actual fact, my answer to the question What do you do? is far more lengthy and complex than simply ‘writing’. I am a home-maker, a house-keeper, a dog-walker. I will spare you the details of all that this entails, but I am busy! I am productive; I am gainfully occupied; I have a purpose, a meaning: I have a sense of worth and I do a lot of very important things. They might not seem of great importance to others, but to my wife and my dogs they are very important. And to me they are very important.
One thought at a time
I think it’s fair to say that I’m not alone in attributing my sense of worth to the work I do. I can’t change the value that society places on certain aspects of our lives, but I can change my own beliefs one thought at a time. As I continue to recover; as I can’t even hoover the house whilst my wife walks the dogs, I am beginning to warm up to the idea that who I am is surely just as important as what I do. I mean, I could do the most important job in the world but if I was a total dick with it would this really make me a more worthwhile person? Hard to imagine just such a scenario, I know.
I am not fire, but I am flame
For now my wife might have to come home to a slightly less clean house than normal, but she will be welcomed home every time with as much love and joy as always, and a glass of wine to boot. I may not be able to do much, but I can still be as much, and as good, as I possibly can.