A drawing of a human head is silhouetted in white against a light blue background. Inside the head, where the brain would be, there is a brightly coloured ball made of many jumbled-together lines.
Fighting My Demons

It’s A Full-Time Job, But It’s Not A Living

Content note: discussion of mental health problems and treatments. Also, capitalism.

I’ve been having trouble keeping it together lately.

I rely on my pen-and-paper organizer to track appointments, and I’m doing pretty well with that, but where I struggle is the day-to-day stuff. I had an app reminding me to take medications, so I remembered to do that, but I would forget to do self-care exercises, Spanish lessons, and even washing the dishes because I didn’t have it scheduled.

Per the advice of Sam Dylan Finch, I got a new app on my phone to help organize my tasks through the course of the day and make sure I do all the important things that need to get done. I spent this morning entering all my appointments into it.

I’ve been wondering lately if I should try to get a job — not because I think I’m healthy enough to handle it, but because we’re in dire straits financially. Seeing all my mental health obligations laid out for me convinced me of one thing: I can’t go looking for a full-time job. I already have one.

Trying to get better is the equivalent of a fairly intense career, and I’m clocking in a ton of overtime.

For just a moment, let’s bracket self-care activities and day-to-day chores like washing dishes or getting groceries. These things can be extra difficult to do when you’re mentally ill, requiring more time and energy than they otherwise might. But we’ll set them aside for now.

If we’re looking at just the things I do to directly address my health conditions, here’s a sampling:

  • meeting with my hospital psychologist;
  • meeting with my Family Services therapist;
  • meeting with my social worker;
  • meeting with various systems navigators who can help me get social assistance;
  • meeting with my RN (until I’m formally inducted into the trans health program);
  • meeting with my family doctor (mostly about the repetitive strain injury I got from journaling too hard to try and resolve my mental health problems);
  • working through Dara Hoffman-Fox’s workbook You and Your Gender Identity to be sure I want to go through with HRT;
  • working through Bev Engels’ workbook It Wasn’t Your Fault, which is specifically aimed at helping those who survived child abuse learn the self-compassion that was never modeled in their family of origin;
  • weekly gender support group;
  • weekly self-compassion study group;
  • bi-weekly Survivors of Childhood Trauma group;
  • measuring and tracking my food intake to avoid cognitive problems;
  • and filling out (at least) daily cognitive behavioural therapy worksheets to try to address my various issues and stressors.

I have answered a bunch of job ads with far fewer bullet points than just the everyday experience of living my life.

Of course, this list is incomplete because it pretends that self-care isn’t a necessary part of trying to address these issues.  In fact, it’s not optional. It’s required. I require even more of it than I did previously, because I’m engaging with some really heavy topics and painful experiences. If I’m going to have any emotional stability at all, I need to debrief from those experiences; otherwise I’ll constantly be in a state of boiling-over stress.

We live in a society that teaches us self-care is not a real responsibility, but a pleasure to be indulged only when all the other work is done (which, of course, it never is). So I have to put restful activities on my to-do list just to make sure I remember to fit them in.

And on top of all that, there are the everyday household tasks that have to be completed no matter what your job is. Dishes still need to get washed, laundry still needs to get sorted, food needs to be purchased and prepared.

Some people would argue that these latter things shouldn’t really count as part of the work I’m doing; after all, if I had an actual job they’d be relegated to my outside time. The problem is, in work like this, the lines between what’s work and not work are a little bit murky.

When this is your job, you’re always at work.

Maybe I sleep poorly because I’m having trauma dreams, and the following day requires more relaxing or even a nap to compensate.  Maybe I’m doing dishes but also listening to a podcast about self-compassion or healthy relationships or gender identity. Maybe I’m spending time with friends, but that time is also spent practicing the boundary-setting behaviour I was discouraged from learning as a child.

I’m essentially rewiring my entire brain from the very beginning — because childhood abuse means you don’t have a memory of the time before the trauma. That work is constant. I don’t start and stop according to scheduled shifts. And believe me, I would rather just have an ordinary job in an office than have to sift through the shattered pieces of my entire life to try to determine what kind of person I’m allowed to be.

It would be easier. But it wouldn’t be more valuable. This is probably the most important work I’ll ever do.

I’m not asking to make six figures or buy a yacht or anything. But a basic living income while I try to stitch together my soul would be very helpful.

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