Revised expectations

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.

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About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards 2013. Winner of the World in Mentalists Mood Disorder blog 2012. Regular guest blogger for the International Bipolar Foundation http://www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org/ Expert by Experience working with Mind training department. Working on The Incoming Tide, a bipolar memoir. Find me on Twitter @BipolarBlogger or at my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/BipolarBlogger
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10 Responses to Revised expectations

  1. Thank you thank you for writing this, it perfectly explains a lot of how I am feeling but have been unable to articulate. Being ok is definitely something to aim for. xx

  2. Cat says:

    It feels like your life is my life. So many of the same things have happened, and I felt just the same. I’m still pushing to be where I was, and I’m not ready to let that go yet, but it’s so hard to measure myself against myself and be found wanting.

  3. Viv says:

    Very interesting indeed. I think you have hit a certain nail on the head about expectations and so on. What do we expect out of life? I know my own expectations hit a rock within months of graduating when I couldn’t find any sort of employment, let alone something theoretically commensurate with my abilities. Long term depression teamed up with post-natal depression and I never made any sort of career for myself. Even now, much as I enjoy my jobs at times, they are not a career.
    yet, perhaps it is this expectation of career plan, and all that accompanies it, that has undermined my exploration of other things because of my experience with mental health issues, because at some level I have seen those things as either being marking time activities or else purely steps towards wellness rather than a lifepath that I have been given the chance to take. So many folks when achieving a set level of wellness revert entirely to their former lives and never give those Otherworlds a look at again. And yet, those Otherworlds remain, a rich land of exploration and creativity and joys as well as sorrows and madnesses.
    Thanks again for this.
    xxx

  4. Claire M says:

    As usual, fantastic writing.

    It feels very familiar to my experiences with my career and my mental health. I found it very difficult to move past ideas of failure, and things I ‘should’ be able to achieve. Over time I was able to (just about!) let go of the image of the perfect person, and like you say, I revised my expectations. A while back, my goal was simply to leave the house, or answer the phone. This year, I had a new goal – just to go back to working, and stay there. And I achieved it. 🙂 all be it at a lower level! But that’s ok – our potential does not go away, just because we chose to take some time to ease ourself back in.

    I wish you all the best. I continue to enjoy reading your blog.

  5. Jemfmurphy says:

    Beautifully written as ever. I wish I could have read this six years ago when I was going through a bipolar crisis and struggling to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t work and felt, at the time, that I might never work again. I felt I had lost myself. A big part of what I felt I’d lost was linked to my working identity. I’d worked my way up from the bottom in a local authority to somewhere in the lower middle. More importantly to me I’d developed a project which came to have national recognition and which helped a lot of disabled people, so I had immense job satisfaction, if not an immense salary. Going through a number of years of poor mental health leading to a short spell in hospital on a high followed by a deep, long depression made me feel like a total failure and a non-person. I couldn’t imagine how I could ever work again and that seemed like the end of my life. I hated the idea of not being financially independent more than anything. I put myself through hell agonising about all this, and I so wish that back then I’d been able to read your wise thoughts on re-evaluating what ‘normal’ and ‘ok’ look and feel like. I think that would have speeded my recovery no end but as it was I gave up hope and it therefore took me a very long time to recover. I did recover though and I’m now back working full-time in a job I love and which pays enough to cover the mortgage, I’ve also got my social life back (in fact it’s better because I prioritise it more) And have finally gone back to singing in a seriously good (but also friendly) choir. I hope your post will help all those people out there who are back where I was six years ago and that it gives them the hope and perspective that I so badly needed back then.

  6. Henry Dunn says:

    It can be quite liberating to escape from the pressure to succeed. I have similar fears – can my mental health cope with the increasing demands of my job. More and more bureacracy getting in the way of what I love doing – working with people that also have mental health struggles. This work can be draining in itself, without adding all the extra bits to it. I’m in the papradoxical situation where I get the most satisfaction out of my career, but it also can make me ill. It’s the old can’t live with/without it conundrum. Interesting you talk about choirs – I’ve contacted Gareth Malone’s agent to see if he could do a Choir series in a psychiatric hospital. I think it would be an amazing project, if handled sensitively – lots of issues around confidentiality, Mental Capcity Act and vulnerability. However, the benefits could be enormous, and the programme could go a long way towards reducing some ogf the stigma around Mental Ill Health. What do you think?

    • Ooh! A suprising number of my Twitter friends on my account which is largely MH service users sing in choirs and find it therapeutic. I keep meaning to do another post on “what helps” specifically about singing, how and why I do it and why I think it helps my MH. I think it would be difficult to get permission to work in an inpatient setting for the reasons mentioned, although it would be great. A day hospital might be more doable from a Trust’s POV as people are still unwell but not so ill that they might not be able to consent effectively?

      • Henry Dunn says:

        I used to run a drop-in music therapy group on our MH rehab ward, which was wonderful. So many talented musicians struggling with day-to-day life. Sadly no funding to continue (as always happens with the best projects) but at least I’m putting on lunchtime concerts they can come to. Vocal Psychotherapy is an amazing thing, follow @VocalTherapy (Diane Austin) to find out more, or visit her website http://www.dianeaustin.com I went on one of her workshops when training as a Music Therapist and haven’t forgotten it – in fact I use a lot of her ideas myself. There is certainly more to be written about the therapeutic benefit of choirs.

  7. phylor says:

    Having just been diagnosed with bipolar 2 (severe chronic depression for as long as I can remember; manic/hypomanic episodes happened at same time as depression so not picked up on), some of my past lives are more understandable. But, I still have to deal with the present and the future. I’d settle for OK right now.

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