When Having a Disability Means You Can’t Work

Right now, my doctor doesn’t want me working. I’m simply not ready, and I have to come to terms with the fact that I may never be ready.

I have a very good friend who has bipolar disorder. He is also on disability, and we recently discussed working. He was feeling like he should work, but was unsure about whether he could handle it.

He’s been stable for a few years, and here’s the conclusion we came to: He remains stable by (1) taking meds, (2) going to counseling, and (3) maintaining a therapeutic lifestyle 24/7.

We concluded that, without any one of these, he would probably go back to the hospital.

It’s the same for me.

I continually do things that are therapeutic—whether it’s participating in poetry, painting, writing, reading, photography, walking, and so forth. I maintain a therapeutic environment for myself 24/7, under the advisement of my doctor.

It’s only been a year since I have been in the hospital, and just under a year that I’ve been on my current medication. That’s far too early to tell whether my medications will prevent me from having a psychotic break if I should try working. I have, in the past, had a psychotic break every six months to a year. I still vividly remember my last break, and I don’t want it to happen again.

Keep in mind that I was given a poor prognosis. The very first psychiatrist I saw told me I should expect to lose a lot of cognitive functioning. I’m lucky to have not lost as much as they thought. I chalk it up to having good care, and fighting like hell.

But I still struggle with not working. The feeling of not working for a living.

If you browse around my website, you will see that, from an early age, I have been involved in many things, and have been very career oriented. For a person like me, not working is devastating.

This is true even though I have doctors’ orders.

I know I have a legitimate disability. There’s no doubt about it. I have had serious psychotic breaks. I am trying, each day, to maintain my health, above all else. I don’t like becoming psychotic, and it’s not like my medicine is so magical that it will, with 100% efficacy, prevent a psychotic break.

They know that, for example, stress can exacerbate psychiatric symptoms. So, I try to limit my stress, and engage in stress-reducing activities, like practicing mindfulness.

Currently, I have to come to terms with the fact that I cannot work—my doctors says so, even—and that I may never be able to work again.

For me, coming to terms with this myself is one thing; a big thing. Realizing this is but one step in coming to terms with my condition and lot in life.

But the even bigger thing is having regular people understand this. When people meet me—when I am out in public—they may not know I have a mental illness. (Unless I am symptomatic. In that case, I may be in my pajamas in public, or looking a huge mess.) I have an “invisible disability.” Not to mention, many people still have stigmas about mental illness, making them think a mental illness is not a real illness just because you can’t really see it.

So making other people understand that I may not be able to work—and that I may be on SSI (and poor)—for the rest of my life is difficult. But it’s something that’s important.

I hope that, if you are reading this, you will not judge people who have to be on disability and who cannot work due to disability. There’s a segment of society that makes people feel like it’s not a legitimate option. This often stems from conservatives who tout the notion that people exploit the safety net system. For so-called Christians (as most of them allege they are), they are highly skeptical and not especially loving when it comes to caring for the wretched of the Earth. (WWJD?)

In my experience, it’s very difficult to get disability. It wouldn’t be easy to fake it. I had to be hospitalized eight times and given a poor prognosis from several doctors before I was given SSI. I was suffering, and denied SSI (and, thus, healthcare) for several years. The whole process is insult to injury. And then you end up living in poverty, anyway.

But my whole point is that each of us can make a difference. We can change things so that people like me, who have to be on disability, do not have to constantly feel like we have to justify this to people who have no business prodding for our medical information.

The fact is, I have tried working several times. Everyone who knows me knows I didn’t want to go on SSI. I wanted to work. Take a look around my website—I like professional accomplishments. But I had to go on SSI because I simply could not work.

Let’s try to make things easier for people who are already suffering enough.

Poor People and Mental Illness

Because I am disabled by mental illness, and am on SSI, the topic of being impoverished while suffering a mental illness is a dear one to my heart. I will tell my story.

I suffered a psychotic break in graduate school. I was one of the people who was trying to escape poverty. I worked hard, and tried not to make any mistakes. But one cannot account for illness, and, after discussing things with my doctor, I applied for disability. This leaves me with about $8,000 a year to live on. On this amount, I cannot afford a roof over my head of my own, so I live with my mom and stepdad.

Currently, I have a 2004 Ford Focus that was paid off before I got on disability. It needs work, and I cannot afford to have work done on it. I certainly cannot afford a new car. I give myself $100.00 per week to live on, which is the definition of extreme poverty in the United States. This covers my clothing, hygiene products, entertainment, and so forth. I use the rest of the money to make payments on the computer I am using to write this, and, occasionally, I have enough saved up to buy a new pair of glasses, or a new phone, which is the only way I have a smart phone.

I have been in the hospital for psychosis eight times. I regularly go to the clinic to get medications. I go to a place for low income people. So, I associate with poor people with mental illness all the time.

One of the travesties in our country is that we make people with mental illness poor. Social Security is not enough to live on. It’s supposed to cover housing, food, clothes, and entertainment. But it barely covers my costs for gas, clothes, and hygiene products. Think about it: $8,000 per year. Can you live on that?

Before I got on disability, I tried to work because I did not want to be on disability. I was hospitalized five times before I got approved for disability. After that, I struggled with finding the right medication for me. I am currently on an antipsychotic, but it gives me some side effects.

Every month, I go to the clinic for my medication. There, I see many poor people with mental illness. For all of the good qualities I have mentioned of poor people, let me make one thing clear: Being poor is not fun. It’s not great times.

I don’t know what percentage of the poor population suffers from mental illness, but I’d wager quite a bit. If you are disabled from a mental illness, you are bound to be living in poverty.