It’s Not Your Imagination. Working is Tough.

by Jack Bragen

Many people don’t find it difficult to work a job, and as a result they may lack empathy for those of us who find it highly challenging.  They just can’t relate to the challenge of working with a disabling condition. Therefore, they might believe something is wrong with the person who finds work to be difficult. Or they might believe a person who has a problem with it is lazy or that they intend to mess things up. 

While unintentional, this attitude unfortunately is one of the reasons that many people find work to be difficult. And if you have a psychiatric disability, that entire picture could be unfamiliar to people without family or friends who have mental illness. That could be why some people say the words “mentally ill” in a whisper, as though it is an odd or shameful thing. It is not. 

If for any reason you find it hard to keep pace with what is expected, working can be hellish. In general, work is hard, and as the cliche goes, “That’s why it’s called ‘work.’” People take vacations because they can afford to do so, and because it provides a respite from the challenging routine of working. But many people just don’t understand how challenging it is for disabled people to maintain employment. 

For some, their upbringing has made them acclimated to a work atmosphere. One of the biggest challenges of a job, at least as I see it, is the ability to blend into the office or job social atmosphere. If you are socially inept, as I am, it is an additional challenge just to feel “at home” while on the job. 

The only thing that’s harder than working a job is to be unemployed and not have a good source of income. Being poor or broke is a bummer. And it is not enviable—it’s not a lifestyle choice that any person would intentionally seek. People can become unemployed or unemployable for many reasons. 

In many jobs, how fast you can work is constantly compared to your coworkers. But if your job depends on a special skill that most people don’t have, then your chances of working while slow are better. Slowness may continue to be a hindrance, but it won’t knock you out of the field entirely. 

If you need to take antipsychotics because of a psychiatric disorder, like me, slowness at many things is one of the effects of these drugs. I’ve taken antipsychotics nearly every day for the past forty years. 

If you are older and can’t be a fanatic of efficiency anymore because your body just can’t physically go there, it is kind of the same thing. If you’ve spent time on the street and you are trying to hold a job so that you can have housing—and this is hypothetical because it is outside of my experience—adapting to a work climate could be quite a challenge. 

I did some web-based research about the causes of homelessness in Alameda County, and the numbers are frightening. Many people lose their housing because they lost their jobs. And many others have become homeless because of the increase in the rents in the Bay Area. That causes a person to enter the seemingly one-way ticket out of mainstream society and into the abyss of being unhoused. And I’m having a panic attack just writing this. It appears that if a person can’t generate a very good income at their work, homelessness becomes a looming possibility. 

For these reasons, to live on disability in subsidized housing is to live in a precarious set of life circumstances. 

Upon reflection, I clearly lacked a realistic idea of how to create a livable future for myself. I believed I was enough of a genius that I could just get hired and I would work my way up in a company and become a millionaire. Obviously, this doesn’t happen. For almost anyone, college might be necessary. There are a few who bypassed college and who are enormously successful. Believing you can be in the tiny percentage of those who didn’t need college to prosper could be magical thinking, unless you have actually done this. But I haven’t done it. I’ve lived with disability my entire adult life, and I have never been wealthy.  

I’m almost 60 years old, and for someone with my mental health diagnosis, just living to this age is an accomplishment. No one expects me to do more than I currently do, except me. Any fears, worries, or feelings of inadequacy come from me. Everyone I talk to doesn’t expect me to become a rocket scientist. I suffer from schizoaffective disorder treated with psych medications. I have arthritis in my knees. I have severe sleep apnea. I’m a walking and talking, medical marvel. 

Everyone knows it is hard to get a job and do a job. I want to do that, because to me, it represents a secure future. Maybe other people expect otherwise and don’t expect much of a future. People might believe I’m nearing my life expectancy because of people with my condition not having longevity. 

Is it reasonable for a 60-year-old schizophrenic man to look for a future? Maybe not. Maybe I need to live for the “now.” 

My health is not entirely bad. I might go another twenty years, or I might just last a few more. How I shape future years, assuming I get them, will be partly a result of how good my planning is, partly how well I do my work, and it will also be a result of how much luck I have. 

When a magazine sends me a rejection letter on one of my submissions, the classic line is “Best of luck in placing this story elsewhere.” That’s equivalent to saying “Sorry Charlie. Better luck next time.” But I keep trying. And this itself could be part of the path to homelessness or some other demise. I don’t know because I can’t predict the future. All I can do is to keep trying, and if it doesn’t work, so be it. 

Jack Bragen lives and writes in Martinez, California.