This essay was originally published on Kaha Mind here.
Along with everything that living with a mental health condition brings with it, it also often leaves you in a double bind: because you have been so convinced and socialised to believe that you just can’t do certain things due to your health, you often find yourself holding all those things in front of you and challenging yourself to do them. Since when has it been easy to know and be okay with the fact that you just can’t do everything everyone is doing, that you don’t have to, heck! that you might not even want to in the first place.
Working a full-time job was one such thing for me. I was convinced it wasn’t for me long before I even started looking for one, while also constantly challenging myself to do it. I am usually not the ‘challenging-myself’ type, but with this one thing, I knew I had to do it; be it ingrained ideas of what ‘work’ is or just curiosity.
So I did.
Three months and ten days into it, I am still alive, functional and coping. Needless to say, this has involved me crying at my workplace in the very first week of my joining, me trying to explain boundaries to my manager and colleagues (but also of course mostly failing at it!), me spending hours crying thinking to myself “why am I putting myself through this?”, me deciding every second day that I will go and quit, me struggling to find breathing space for days (because WHY IS EVERYTHING SO FAST). At the same time, it has also included me standing up for myself in front of strangers and in situations that were hitherto alien to me, me confidently reaffirming and guarding my boundaries even when they were constantly attacked, and me being confident and comfortable in my skin; none of which I hadn’t really known before.
I am still, however, not sure how I feel about any of this but I know it from way too close now that the capitalist work culture ensures that all the odds are stacked against you if you are not neurotypical, among other things.
But, if you are struggling to keep your job, while also making sure that you don’t have a mental breakdown because of it, know that you are not alone. And that even though this is essentially a huge structural problem and the individual shouldn’t have to bear this burden, there are little ways in which you learn to cope and thrive despite all this.
For starters, it is essential to maintain boundaries; with your workplace, your work and your colleagues. Make it a rule to not take work back home or attend to any work emails or calls beyond or outside your work hours. People don’t always appreciate it and often misread it as insincerity towards work, but nothing can ever surpass sincerity towards self. It often comes with a lot of guilt and self-doubt, but know that it is everything but insincerity and if you don’t put a stop to this in the initial stages, it just might get way out of hand for you to be able to manage later.
Be unapologetic and guilt-less about wanting/needing a break even on days that might not be otherwise your off-days. Take a leave if you have to. But don’t push yourself more than you can take. I have done that, fallen terribly sick, loathed my job, decided to quit it and just before I actually went ahead and did that, I took an off-day out of nowhere; for no reason other than the fact that I needed rest. That I just needed to be in bed all day. I did that and realised that I didn’t hate my job so much by the end of it, and was in fact, ready to dive back in.
Know that your time and energy are for nobody else to claim. From being a student to suddenly being in a full-time job, I couldn’t make sense of how to make space for everything that had been a part of my life before that; my relationships, my family and myself. Trying extremely hard to make all of it fit just meant that the me-time took the worst hit. But it took a bit of learning from that mistake and a few reminders from friends that I first need to be there for myself through this extremely difficult and humongous change in my life.
Even after all this time, there are days when I can’t stop questioning this (now) major aspect of my life. And considering the kind of work cultures that are in place, I believe these struggles will continue to emerge in some form or the other. But I also believe that a big part of that fight is won when the self-doubt and self-reproach takes a backseat and you claim your right to be sick, not in a mood to work or even just lazy sometimes.