I hope you’ll indulge me in a bit of a personal update post. Emotion Regulation Part 4 is coming, I promise! It’s taking a bit longer to polish than its predecessors, but it’s almost complete. According to the schedule that I keep trying to implement, but almost never follow (please remember, I’m still quite new to this “blogging” thing and there’s a lot of stuff I’m still figuring out), Wednesday is meant to be some form of a personal post – usually one of my Scrawling Toward Sanity posts, or a tidbit from my personal life that has broader applications and relatability, such as When Someone You Love Dies by Suicide.
Tonight, though, I’d like to throw it back to the style of my older posts – like my very first post or On Shoveling, Fathers, and Forgiveness. Straight up reflection on something that’s been on my mind a lot lately in my own, personal life that I’d like to share with you. Maybe you’ll relate, maybe you won’t, but I really feel the need to give this line of thought some air time.
Prior to January of this year, I was employed at a fantastic (if stressful) job: one with great pay, amazing benefits, and the absolute best co-workers a person could ever hope to have. It was meaningful work, too: supporting young men as they learned to regulate their emotions and grow life skills as they worked toward independence. I loved my job. Truly. I looked forward to every shift and left every single night immensely grateful to be where I was. On nights that featured violent escalations, I was grateful for my teammates and the support and skill we all shared in keeping the situation safe for ourselves as well as our clients. On nights that included long, thoughtful, impactful conversations with those clients, I left grateful for the opportunity to walk along side those young men in their journeys; I was grateful and humbled to have the chance to make some lasting impact in their lives, however small it may be. On nights that were not particularly eventful at all, I was grateful to work in a “home like” environment: to have a job that sometimes consisted of geeking out to a Star Wars movie or the staff and clients enjoying each others’ company over a friendly, for chips, game of poker. Regardless of the events of each shift, I was always thankful to work in such an amazing place. And I miss it every single day.
As you know if you’ve been following my blog, my life changed pretty drastically in January. A seven day stay at an inpatient psych unit, another month and some change of Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient, difficulties navigating the mental health system as a patient, and a general lack of direction have more or less consumed the past six months of my life. Finally, though, I am on all of the correct medications, I am in regular therapy, and, as of today, I am once again a member of the work force! The part time, minimum wage work force, maybe, but a member of the workforce nonetheless!
But here’s the thing: going through something like this, living in this state of limbo of med adjustments and intensive therapy; meeting with professionals of all different specialties and areas of treatment; telling my story over and over and over and over again: these things can really start to wear a person down. And the truth of the matter is this: once you’ve gotten “into the system” as “mentally ill”, people’s expectations of you change. In a really big way.
Treatment professionals, I’ve found, tend to have generally low expectations of someone “like me” – you know, bipolar, PTSD, hospital stay. These things, these labels, these events, sometimes seem to carry more weight than anything I do or say. Never mind the fact that prior to this very difficult chapter of my life, I was employed – full time. Often working much more than full time, honestly. I was a student at the University of Vermont, trying to finish my senior year and earn my Bachelor’s in Social Work (and I made straight A’s first semester despite being mid-breakdown). I was an active participant in my own life. I had a pretty vibrant social life, actually. I had a lot of things going for me. But all of that sort of fell through the cracks of crisis stabilization, psychiatrists, primary care visits, and counselors.
I get it. When one is in an acute mental health crisis, it’s not the time to push getting back to full time work and school and all of the responsibilities of life, at least not all at once. I understand that. But, looking back, I realize that somewhere in the crisis stabilization process, the expectations placed on me became less and less.
When I was in the hospital, the doctors said I would just need a few weeks to complete the PHP program and then I’d be back to my regularly scheduled life. At the PHP program, they suggested I hook up with Voc Rehab to get some support around finding a different, less stressful full time job. I was discharged from the IOP with a note saying that I could “maybe work” in a “part time, low stress environment.” When I started up with my new therapist, there was only talk of further therapy. She suggested I join the DBT group the agency runs. I LOVE DBT. If you’ve followed this blog, you know that. And I say this with absolutely no disrespect to the members of this particular DBT group or to the facilitators, but the fact of the matter is no one in that group was a “peer” to me. The pace of the group was far too slow. The facilitator would spend thirty minutes explaining a concept I understood after five. I don’t want to sound like a judgmental, arrogant jerk here, but sometimes groups are just not a good fit, you know? There was nothing wrong with any member of that group. Their lives are theirs; my life is mine. But it was very clear to me that this group would not challenge me at all, and that I would struggle even staying engaged in it. I would not be getting much from the sessions. But my therapist (who I really do like) thought it would be a good fit, and honestly, that stung a bit.
But why wouldn’t she? By the time I made it to her office, professional expectations of me were so low that no one even mentioned a job. Those of you who know me personally know that such a low bar would almost be laughable, were it not for the fact that something started to happen over these months of the medical professionals’ gradually lowered expectations of me: they became my own. The consistent explicit or implicit suggestions that I was incapable of achieving anything remotely close to the life I used to have burrowed into my subconscious and set up shop. And I sat in resigned acceptance. I thought “Maybe this is all life has for me from here on out. Maybe I am incapable.”
And it wasn’t until I realized this, until I recognized what was happening in my own psyche, that I knew I had to put my foot down a bit and refuse to allow others’ perceptions of me to run my life. I’m taking my recovery process very seriously, and I fully intend to continue with the treatments my providers believe will be helpful, but I refuse to do it blindly anymore. I refuse to sit back and have my capabilities dictated to me. I realized that this is just an attitude that I need to adopt for my own well-being. A little self-advocacy can go a long way toward boosting self confidence, I think.
And so, I told my therapist that the DBT group was not a good fit for me. She was a little disappointed, but I think she understood. And I applied for a job. Not through Voc Rehab, not through my therapist, not through the state offices, but by myself. Because I needed to do that. I think I needed to prove to myself that I could. So, I did some good old fashion pavement pounding and filled out applications and handed them in. TJ Maxx is the only place that called me for an interview (I assume because the jump from residential instructor to unemployed for six months to looking at retail jobs is probably a little off-putting to some potential employers).
When I was offered the job, I was understandably excited (because a part time job beats no job, and having something to get me out of the house on a regular basis is exciting, and the idea of being able to be a productive member of a team is motivating in and of itself.)
But again, those pesky expectations reared their somewhat ugly heads when I told loved ones and my therapist about it. More than one person responded with “Oh that’s awesome! You know, it’s really great that you have something to fill your days.” Other people said, “Oh, do you think you’re ready for that?” Some said, “That’s great! You know, some people make full careers out of retail.” My therapist asked, “So, what, you’ll working 4 hours a week?” Now, again, I appreciate the congratulations and I am excited about this job. Retail has always been fun to me, and I’m pretty excited about the discount, too! I enjoy helping customers and making upsales and all of that jazz – I have since I was a junior in college working at F.Y.E.
But do I see myself working part time retail for the rest of my life? HELL. NO. Could I consider making it a career if I got a managerial position? Maybe… but honestly, probably not. I enjoy retail, but I’m hard wired for a career that involves helping people beyond making sure they have a shirt in the right size and are signed up for a credit card to get savings. I’m still not sure what that looks like for me now. Will I ever work residential again? I don’t know, but I know I won’t be doing it in the foreseeable future. Right now, my job is about one thing above all else, and that’s money.
The fact is, one cannot live in this society without cash flow. I’ve got bills. I have a lot of bills, actually, with all the doctors I’ve needed to see over the past six months. And I need to start making a dent in the stack of collections notices. I don’t meant to knock retail by any means. As I said, I enjoy retail. And I have a lot of friends who have careers in retail. But they don’t just enjoy it, they are passionate about it. And that’s the key, right? It’s building your career around your passion.
But passion can get snuffed out pretty quickly in the land of low expectations. If enough people don’t believe you’re capable of something, and they tell you so, you can start to doubt yourself pretty damn quickly, regardless of everything you thought you knew to be true.
So, that’s where I’m at. I’m setting my own expectations for myself. And I’ll be sharing them with anyone who will listen for as long as it takes until they hold those expectations of me as well. And you know what? If it turns out they are right and I am wrong, and for some reason, a sales associate job is too stressful for me at this specific time in my life, then I’ll find a job with a little less commotion and a little less social interaction. But I reserve the right to determine that for myself. And frankly, I need a couple of people in my life to take off the kids’ gloves. I need my treatment team to know that I am not satisfied being the “unemployed crazy person”, and that I am not going to be satisfied working a part time sales associate job for the long run, either. Or even a full time sales associate job. I need my treatment team to recognize that these are stepping stones right now. I need acknowledgement that, yes, I am still hiking that mountain, but there’s no way in hell I’m pitching a tent and living here.
This post is, of course, very specific to me. There are many people who are incapable of work due to their struggles. And it’s feasible that I will be in that situation again at some point in my life. I certainly was not capable of working in January or February of this year. This is in no way a “pull yourself up by your boot straps and stop making excuses” post. I hope it’s not interpreted that way. This is not meant to minimize the experiences of anyone living with a mental health diagnosis or diagnoses.
I just know that, for me, the lack of faith in me by others lead to a lack of faith in myself, which then lead to further depression. That, coupled with med adjustments, lead to me kind of dropping off the face of the earth for a few weeks there. But I’m back. And, honestly, I’m more motivated than I’ve been in the entirety of the last 6 months to continue to recover, to learn to live within and adapt to my limitations (because I do have limitations), and most importantly, to grant myself permission to have the dignity of risk and find those limits for myself, through experience, and not from some checklist on a therapist’s clip board.
And that motivation is not limited to my employment status, either. It is for this blog; for the fight against stigma and against false assumptions and expectations around someone’s abilities; for the fight for support, understanding, and access to resources to those in our community who cannot work; for the dignity of risk for everyone who wants to give it a shot; and for a more comprehensive understanding of the ways that the same diagnosis can look very different for different people. I’m motivated to continue to educate and advocate, and to share my struggles and triumphs with anyone who’ll listen. Because that’s the single most effective method to attack stigma and misinformation.
Thanks for reading.
AS ALWAYS, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever been in a situation where others’ expectations of you dictated your own? When you were first diagnosed and receiving treatment did you feel helpless? Do you agree that finding and setting our own limitations is a good idea, or do you think it might be too risky? Whatever your thoughts, I’d love to engage in a deeper conversation in this topic! Leave your two cents in the comment section below, Tweet me @paradichotomy, or hit me up on the blog’s Facebook page!
ALSO, in case you missed it, I had the opportunity to be on a podcast last week – check it out here! I’ll catch you all later!