I’ve read that 70-90% of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia are totally unemployed or completely disabled. I received this diagnosis when I was 20. And today I decided to shut down the home based business I have been running for the last 10 months, mostly because of the toll it was taking on my mental health. I haven’t slept in 4 days. I am 39 years old. I was 27 when I took a medical withdrawal from a graduate program that was perhaps my last, best hope to live something resembling a normal life. I am on disability benefits now, living at home as my mother ages, unsure of whether I can afford to even inhabit her home when I eventually inherit it.
I am not as unhappy as I once was, though I have only recently been diagnosed with depression. I think the diagnosticians didn’t much care whether I was happy, they were only overjoyed that I didn’t fall into the worst tropes of my illness. I was composed. I spoke reasonably well, took the pills they gave me, showed up to my appointments on time. I speak for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I remind myself not to use the word “technically” when I say that I am an employee of their Stanislaus affiliate. I have a timesheet, they pay me, send me a W-2 once a year. Their program, In Our Own Voice, has given me a platform to share a short, condensed version of my story. And I buck those odds, by doing it. I am not “totally” unemployed. Nor am I “completely” disabled. I am not entirely unfulfilled. I am not bereft of happiness. I am not destitute of spirit. But I am not whole.
The In Our Own Voice format has three parts. “What Happened,” “What Helps,” and “What’s Next.” The first is when you hook the audience with the mess you made of yourself before you discovered treatment. You give them a couple gory details, nothing too incriminating, enough to set the stage for the eventual resolution you will deliver. The second is when you sell treatment, convincing the supposedly malleable audience of the salvation modern psychiatry has offered you. Then comes something a bit more nebulous. You must sell them the future. And I’m terrible at selling the future. For a while I sold them my business. It was convenient. I am doing this wonderful thing to be productive. I may work my way off disability, I may not, I do not care. I am unflappable in my commitment to my own basic human worth. I will succeed in loving myself despite my success or failure financially. I will shoulder the weight of disability. I will perform that success, even as the family member of someone else diagnosed with schizophrenia watches, wishing their loved one would take the pills as religiously as I do. Wishing they would stop making everything so difficult. Wishing they would be as compliant as me.
I hate it.
I do not want to sell the future. I am less depressed than I once was but I do not see myself as a success. It will never be enough to be somewhat less damaged than the next person in my diagnostic category. If I die and that is all I did, worked a tiny bit more, lived a little bit longer (we die much younger too, I won’t even quote the average years lost) committed to treatment a little harder, it won’t be enough. I won’t be enough. I want so much more than to do a little better than the death sentence my mother read about when she learned of my diagnosis. I want to thrive. I want to transcend this illness. And I didn’t. My business failed. And it’s OK. I’m not as depressed as I used to. I am better at surviving my disease now. Therapy worked, reading every philosophy text I could find worked, loving people and living and yearning and growing and trying to be a better human worked, and I can survive all this so much better than I could even a couple years ago. But I didn’t transcend it. And I still want to, I still yearn for it. I don’t have to starve that part of myself. I can want what I cannot have. And I guess that is success, what success there is to be had. And I’m doing it, even now. I’m tying a bow on this essay, painting a picture of some overcoming, and it isn’t that. It’s never that. I don’t get to have that. Still, there is some kindness here. I offer it to myself. I have learned to do that. The stone hasn’t reached the top of the mountain, my protagonist’s demons are not drowned, the victory is not won, but I am gentler to myself about it now. And that is all. I have not fixed myself, and I do not claim nothing was ever broken. I only, but slightly more fully, inhabit the person that I am.
Sean Rodgers is a mental health advocate and personal trainer living in the California central valley. He has a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from CSU Hayward in 2007. His myriad interests include public speaking, writing, exercise, and the outdoors.