We’re not encouraged to have anything other than great expectations in our society. Enough is not enough. On a personal level, we are conditioned to anticipate success and increase, while whole societies reject sufficiency for economies which must keep growing, no matter what the environmental cost. We’re exhorted to trade up and acquire newer or bigger houses, cars, phones. Until this year, I pretty much viewed my career as a continual push forwards. I was at home with my children immediately after graduation, and I had a couple of big episodes around then too, which made it difficult to really get a toehold in the world of employment. Since gaining full time work in 2002, however, I have put a lot of time and energy into building a career in health and social care, moving quickly (probably too quickly) up each rung of the ladder from unqualified frontline worker, to trainee, to qualified professional, to middle manager. I enjoyed gaining more and more terms of responsibility and status, as well as money; although money is less important to me than the work being interesting, and feeling that I am “making a difference”, I would be lying if I said that I did not enjoy getting to a point last year where I felt economically comfortable.
It’s not surprising then that through most of my sick leave (which stands at eight months and counting), I have been preoccupied with when and how I could get back to work. A large portion of my identity has been derived from my professional life and initially I felt confused and guilty to be on sick leave, despite being simultaneously grateful for the respite. I also had mixed feelings when after a couple of months I lost my temporary management contract. Despite feeling that the seemingly impossible demands of the job had been the main trigger for my relapse, I was devastated, and took a long time to come to terms with the situation. Every medication I have taken this year has been measured in my mind against how possible it would be to return to work with that particular set of side effects.
As with all large organisations, my workplace has a sickness management policy which requires me to meet with my line manager and someone from HR from time to time. Not unreasonably, aside from “how are you?” their most pressing question is, “when do you anticipate you might be able to come back to work?” Twice now I have made as good an attempt as I can at answering this, based on my treatment plan at the time and the date of my next consultant review. Although on both occasions I have clearly explained that the plan can only succeed if the latest medicine I have been prescribed turns out to be effective for me, and if I am not debilitated by side-effects, I have still found it humiliating not be able to keep to the plan.
Because of this context, all the while I have been absent from work anxiety about the length of my sick leave has been building. This goes hand in hand with my anxiety about money, which reached unmanageable proportions a couple of weeks ago. My financial state is not, in truth, bad at all; in the past I have faced the sort of money troubles where I feared losing my accommodation and had insufficient money to buy food for my kids. I’m nowhere near there now (and I thank Zoe Smith for kicking my arse recently for selfishly catastrophising about it). What was getting to me was not that I am objectively poor, but how disempowered I felt by having dropped from management salary, to frontline worker salary, to half frontline worker salary – and of course, in a few months, I will drop again to nothing at all this time. I didn’t like being financially dependent on a partner when I was unwell ten years ago, and I don’t like it now. Nor do I like my income being pretty much back to exactly what it was when I started at the bottom of the scale for unqualified workers in my field when I joined the sector in 2003. My financial situation feels symbolic of how this episode has robbed me of much of my functioning as what I considered “a functioning adult.”
But reaching crisis point a week and half ago made me re-evaluate things. All this time I have been clinging to the belief that I deserved to be “normal” again, by which I meant exactly as I was before this episode – pretty much asymptomatic, working full time and progressing in my career, parenting, contributing significantly to the household finances, and enjoying an active social life. Spending time in a mixed episode during which literally every minute felt like I was trapped in a waking nightmare has given me some perspective. “Normal” may remain the ideal, but for now I am going to revise my expectations. For now, feeling “OK” is actually enough. OK means not wanting to kill myself or hurt myself right now. OK means still feeling somewhat anxious, or depressed, or talkative, or sedated, but still recognisably “me”. OK means getting up late because of the meds, but being able to do most of the activities that are important to my children at weekends. OK means being able to sing in a local, low pressure choir and postponing a return to my more prestigious, audition-only, central London choir for another year. OK means being able to undertake a few low-key social activities, but leaving the party early to keep my sleep patterns regular. OK means looking at how I can see myself as valuable, worthwhile and interesting person without having a paid work role. Next time work asks me when I will be well enough to return, I’m going to answer honestly and tell them that I have no idea, and that OK is a place for living day to day, not committing plans to paper.
OK is OK for now.