Sunday, November 23, 2008

Is Returning to Work an Essential Component of Wellness?

I have haven't slept well the since my last therapy appointment. Something in my session triggered some kind of potentially life changing thinking. I cannot sleep because I keep waking up thinking about how to change, accept and move on. When I wake it seems to take forever to fall back asleep. My mind has been racing with thoughts of how to make the leap, the decision, to change; how to create the will and motivation to change; and finally how to create change for myself despite my lingering and often paralyzing symptoms.

My appointment and meeting with a friend afterwards instilled a sense in me that I have been approaching my mental health "healing" and expectations of what is "well" from the wrong angle. I have been trying to get the old me back, but I suddenly recognize the old me, in many ways, is gone. My job now is not to recreate who I was, but to create a new me. Who I was led to my depression and anxiety. Who I was led to increasingly worsening Major Depressive Episodes)MDE's. Who I was is not a desirable goal to have. I need to be different than who I was in order to heal.

My entire life I expected that I would get meaning and purpose from my job, from working. I never wanted children, so that was not the way I sought meaning or purpose. It has always been through my job, or my schooling. School was extremely meaningful for me. Although I had two MDE's; one first year university and the other a few years later during second year university; both times the episodes were not triggered by lack 0f purpose/drive/interest/or meaning about school. Both were triggered by indecisiveness and fear of failing at something that mattered so much to me; although these may have been symptoms of an already "creeping in" of depression.

Once I came out of my depression in 2nd year I was happy for the next three years of school. I loved school. I loved the challenge. I had a sense of enjoying the moment, being IN the moment, feelings had not had for a long time. While going to school I worked part-time, but for the first time since I began work with babysitting when I was 12 years old, work became secondary to something more important to me. It was a means to and end, a means to do what I really liked to do; which was learn.

Until yesterday I did not realize what I have been doing for the last 7 years of depressive hell, and for the 11 years of my previous career. I have/had been trying to hang onto the job I had because, I thought it was the only way to create meaning and purpose in my life.

It never crossed my mind (even when I was doing the parts of the job that I hated) that my work was not the path to creating meaning and purpose. I just thought maybe I was not on the right work path. I even turned my favourite hobby (gardening) into work, because that is how I understood meaning could be found: through work.

As I left Dr. X's office I thought..."what if my volunteering really is work like he says?" Or what if even a more dramatic shift is taking place and work (volunteer or otherwise) is not my path to happiness?"

The former thought is a bit easier to accept; although I am loathe to concede Dr. X. may have been right all along. Only because I told him his insistence that "I was working" (i.e. volunteering) was really starting to annoy me. However, maybe I am working. Maybe it is important work. Maybe I am helping more people than I am taking from people? Maybe my volunteering balances out the disturbing thought that I am accepting disability money when so many others struggle more than me and deserve the help more than me.

The latter thought, "That maybe work is not my path to happiness" comes with all kinds of emotional baggage. Not the least of which is my fear of avoiding responsibilities, or feeling like I owe it to society to work, to not receive money for nothing; that awful feeling that I am a drag on my countrymen and women for being on disability, that I am shirking my duties and responsibilities; that I am doing something immoral or unethical in deciding work is not healthy for me. These thoughts are hard to manage.

Yesterday I just tried to take a Utilitarian approach to the idea of not working. I tried to imagine how my not working might be helpful, not only to myself, but to the greater good of society.

Perhaps, if I did not work, did not think of how to get working, did not try to find ways to work I would become well. Perhaps all that energy I spend negating and berating and hating myself for not working would go into constructive enterprises, painting, drawing etc.

Maybe, if I became well, Dr. X could help another person. Maybe, if I stopped worrying about work and focused on the things that bring meaning and purpose to my life: things like art, or music, or building and maintaining friendships, I would have more energy and the means to spread the joy to others who need more joy in there lives.

A tiny part of my mind is willing to concede that "work" as I define it is not healthy for me. Unfortunately, the largest part of my mind is preoccupied with what others will think, what is the right thing to do morally and ethically (for my community's greater good). It always appears that the point of wellness, (according to most mental and physical health providers), seems to be defined by an ability to return to work. If that is so, then how can the counter intuitive idea, that not working may help me become well and stay well, be correct?

Am I supposed to decide to not work? And if I decide that and become well, will a return to work make me unwell again? Am I forever unemployable, yet able to help others while helping myself? I cannot understand what it is I am supposed to be doing; what it is that will KEEP me well if I manage to get there?

Am I misunderstanding what Dr. X is trying to express to me?


Polar Bear said...

I like the idea of you creating a "new you", rather than trying to get the "old" you back. It feels like you have a fresh canvas - and you can do anything you like with it.

I think it's important for you to find something that gives you meaning. I don't really know what that would be for you (although I would guess it might involve creativity). Often, I don't really know what that would be for me either.

For me, I don't think that work or my career is MY path to meaning. I see it as a means to an end, as you put it. Work gives me money. I need money to survive, or at least to maintain the lifestyle I currently have, and I KNOW I want to maintain my lifestyle. And it helps a bit in the self confidence area as well.

I certainly don't think that work is the path to happiness. I don't think it is for a lot of people. Only lucky people, truly lucky people can say that.

But whatever it is, I hope you do find that something. I hope I find it too someday.

And when you find yours, perhaps the work part will fall into place somehow. I wouldn't worry too much about it right now because I know you are doing all you can, and don't forget that your contribution in volunteering is very valuable indeed.

Seattle Wellness said...

I really appreciated your post. I have been through severe depressions in my life, and at the same time, I can relate to your feelings about work vs learning. For 30 years my work has been in the wellness field, and my various illnesses and injuries have led me to the holistic mind/body work I do. My passion has always been to help people, and yet, I can relate to your feelings of perhaps this work isn't my real passion, or at least in it's present form.

Our society teaches us this lie, that we are our work. Yes, we all have a need to feel like we contribute to others, to the world...but does that have to come from work. I believe that someone sitting in their home, feeling happiness and joy, in and of itself will be spreading joy throughout the world AND being a model for joy in the world.

I have a CD I've been listening to and one of the statements on i is...don't try to figure out what the world needs and then do it...figure out what makes you come alive instead...because what the world needs is more people who have come alive!

I love this statement because I feel it's truth. Depression often masks anger, and why wouldn't someone be angry about following a path that doesn't bring them joy?

I support you in figuring out, listening to...what makes you come alive, what brings you joy and following that path. I will thank you for that, the world will thank you for that. It may end up looking like a joy, it may end up looking like volunteer work, it may end up looking like just walking on a beach...and all of that is a wonderous contribution to the wellness and happiness of this world.

Milo said...

Dearest Aqua, I really think that your new approach towards healing is actually the true meaning of healing after going through an experience such as yours. that is how i approached my healing process and you know what? it worked. it is going to be a beautiful journey. I do agree 100% with what Polar Bear is saying about finding something that is meaningful to YOU and only YOU. something that gives you a sense of happiness and yet comes so naturally to you. for me, I have always been good with kids. so i get to look after the little ones in my church. and to see mother's appreciative faces when their babies have calmly fallen asleep in my arms, is very very beautiful and rewarding for me. I hope your journey would get you to a full and happy life, full of peace and all the good things. I think we all worth it and deserve to be in that place... coz it is a lovely place that's for sure!

Lola Snow said...

Work is a contribution to society. You help others, that is a far greater contribution than someone who is out with the sole ambition to get power, or become rich. Think of some of the people who you admire the most. Are they the ones who are devoting their lives to helping others? As they say, we make our own meaning Aqua {{{Hugs}}}

Lola x