When you are diagnosed with a mental illness, the definition of who you are and what you are capable of is often squashed into a stereotype-shaped box. Without asking about the unique ways your illness affects you, many job applications are immediately put onto the toss pile because you admitted you occasionally had anxiety or suffered from depression. If you throw in a word like bipolar or schizophrenia, then you can be sure that your chances of employment are minimised even further.
If you wish to travel internationally you need a letter from your doctor declaring that you are fit to do so and that the medication in your luggage is prescribed. I once wanted to teach English in Taiwan but couldn’t even make the first round because of my diagnosis. I understand that there are risks involved when you have a mental illness. Of course there are. Just like there are risks involved when you have diabetes or epilepsy. However, these illnesses don’t exclude you from the same opportunities, even though they pose just as much risk in certain working environments, such as a classroom.
Fortunately, I have never really given a shit about taboos and stereotypes. Even before I found out about my own diagnosis, I would (and still do) get to know people on an individual level, entirely separate from the identity slapped on their file by others. Just because someone is in prison, doesn’t mean he is “of bad blood,” he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. A highly successful CEO of a massive corporate (and a lovely family man) could be a far more dangerous sociopath. What you see isn’t always what you get. And that works both ways. I may be naïve to always give people the benefit of the doubt. But I guess it’s because I hope it’s what they will do for me.
Then again, this hasn’t always worked in my favour. My innocent faith in someone that others walked away from blew up in my face more than once. And allowing the ones I love to expect more from me than I could possibly give…well…that didn’t end fantastically either.
I’m a smart girl and those pesky IQ tests you do in school lifted my parents hopes far higher than my little feet would ever take me. With that level of intelligence, we were told, I could be anything I wanted. A doctor. An engineer. A fucking astronaut.
Unfortunately, thriving in a stressful career like those, demands more than just a mental aptitude for maths and science. You need to be emotionally resilient, driven, and…stable. The higher you climb up the ladder, the tighter the hands around your head squeeze. The pressure cooker will eventually push open the door and make the skeletons fall out.
For some that is a vicious temper, for others it’s a drink too many. Even the strong and healthy can succumb to burnout and anxiety. And if you have bipolar disorder, for example, you can do well for a while – and sometimes forever – but, as for any human being, there will be triggers that you have to manage. It’s just that much harder when you aren’t living in your head alone.
When I went overseas for my 40th birthday this year, I decided to figure out what I really wanted, and not what would fit my IQ best. Or even what would fit my “dream” most snugly. I travelled alone for two weeks in the city that would sew its name onto my heart in stitches of red, blue and white.
I walked the equivalent of a few marathons while I was in Paris. I explored hundreds of little streets, had rather expensive cappuccinos in quaint cafes, stood in awe of the greats in museums, and climbed many, many stairs for the oh-so-worth-it reward of the view. All the time alone gave me the space I needed to clear my head and really come to terms with who I really am and what I want most in the world. It’s no surprise that it isn’t to be an astronaut.
Paris is a bibliophile’s heaven. As a book-obsessed nerd who loves to write, nothing could be more blissful than the Latin Quarter. I spent many hours in Shakespeare and Co. It’s a rather famous little green and yellow bookshop right alongside the Seine River. One day, as I was putting yet another book purchase into my bag and beginning the long walk back to my apartment in Montmartre, the answer moved from my heart to my head. I had known all along.
I knew that I would come home and do what I loved and what I was good at. Where my personality thrives and my mental weaknesses are supported by its strengths.
It’s not big and fancy, and in fact, to most people it would seem mundane. Last time I followed this path I heard, “You could do so much more with your life,” and “Why are you working here?”
Well, you know what, screw it.
I don’t want to sit behind a computer all day, typing in figures and earning big wads of cash. I don’t want to walk around in a lab coat or play with algorithms. Those are things that make many other people happy, but what makes me happy is very different. I don’t think any of us should be forced to do something based on our intelligence, our mental illnesses, our physical disabilities, or our personalities.
The number on my payslip doesn’t measure my self-worth any more than the number of milligrams written on my prescription.
So here it is:
The week I returned I landed my dream job at THE BOOKSHOP.
On my off days I will be writing THE BOOK.
I’m embracing the good and the bad parts of myself and by doing so I have found that blissful balance. Just like Goldilocks was looking for – not too hot, not too cold. I’m no longer pushing myself to achieve a standard or expectation I will never reach, but I’m also not throwing myself to the ground and using my illness as an excuse to never get anywhere.
I broke the box I was put into (admitting I was one of the people doing the shoving), and started building a new life with the pieces.
Oh, and by the way, I tossed the label.