I call work the “anti-schizophrenia” because it was the prime reason I’ve been able to recover as fully as I have. Getting up each morning and going to a job I love makes me feel productive and engaged in the world. Not all of us can do this, so I’ll expand the definition to include volunteer work or attending a day program. The key is to have structure in your life and to create an established routine.
When I got out of the hospital the first time, I couldn’t go to work because I could barely function. Yet I knew I had to do something. One night a week, I got in my car and drove to a jewelry-making class. It was the only thing I could do. A film buff might polish his shoes, put on a bowtie and go to the movies. An ex-boyfriend of mine voraciously read books in his first year of recovery.
What is work? Can other activities achieve the same purpose or benefit? If they boost your self-esteem, and aren’t harmful, enjoy them. A few weeks ago, after browsing the Metropolitan Museum with a friend, it dawned on me that it’s a mistake to judge a person by what she does. Not all of us can be cardiologists or attorneys. If something like that is your goal, more power to you. I’m simply saying that we all have a place in the world, regardless of whether we’re employed, and we have a lot to offer each other.
In 1989, when I lived in the halfway house, I decided to take a newspaper-reporting course to see if I could make it in journalism. I bombed out. My father told me, “That’s okay, as long as you’re finding something to do with your time.”
Later on, I volunteered at the Forget-Me-Not thrift shop one summer. I assessed the incoming clothes, and sorted and hung them up in the wardrobe room. I’ve always loved fashion, and this gave me the chance to express my creativity as well as do good for others. It’s a cliché because it’s true: volunteering your time makes you feel better about yourself.
Work, in all its myriad forms and expressions, promotes healing. Regardless of whether or not you will ever have a conventional job, I urge you to be active in the world. Being self-reliant will boost your recovery. The more you do, the better you’ll feel about yourself. A wise poet I once knew told me, “The appetite comes with the eating.”
If you are able to seek employment, know that you’re not limited by your circumstances. Your first job, however menial or boring it seems, is probably not going to be the one you keep until you retire. The average person changes jobs six or seven times over her lifetime. I knew someone named Laura who had a job in a shoe store, paying minimum wage, and after that, she got accepted to college.
Indeed, my own healing started through education—something I moved towards because it felt right: acquiring knowledge. Adult education seminars or a college course or two, each semester or year, could give you not only an expanded view of what’s possible but increased self-esteem. For my second book, which offers a unique take on making choices based on one’s value system, I list education as one of my core values. Enriching our minds, for the sake of our mental health, is a worthy pursuit. It could lead perhaps to a job, or new friends, but that’s not the point. It’s in flexing our mental muscles that we combat a loss of functionality.
A person needs to take from the areas in which she is strong and healthy, and funnel these abilities into the areas that need help. That’s known as having “transferable skills.” If you have success in one aspect of your life, you can apply it to other modes. That’s why using your inherent talent, skills and personality to create a recovery plan is the surest way I know to succeed. And doing one thing each day, and persisting, even if you can’t immediately see any results, will guarantee a positive outcome.
Having a disability is an extra hurdle that you need to manage creatively; however, it can be done. My psychiatrist, Dr. Altman, told me once, “You see me? I have a thing. The guy in the other office, he has a thing. You just have something a little harder.” I understood then that recovery involves patience, resilience and commitment to doing what it takes, even if we have to approach it from a different angle, or it takes longer to get there.
In the first 10 years of my recovery, I put my life’s goal of being a freelance writer on the back burner and did what I had to do to survive on my own. Throughout this rocky time, I kept hardbound journals in which I documented my feelings as I navigated the trials along the way. That is all I had: the journals. Maybe you have singing or dancing or music. Or you like to bake cakes or knit or crochet. Take the time to examine the things you feel you can’t live without. Act now to bring them into focus. Get clear on the talents you have that can nourish you and give you happiness. Devote an hour a day to making them happen.
If you do what you love, recovery will follow.
Published On: February 01, 2007