I think all people wrestle, at some point, with the question “what does my life mean?”. I think we all look for meaning, for purpose, to give us some reason to get up in the morning. For whatever reason I am stuck on this question this morning (all right, I’ll be reasonable, it is definitely afternoon at this point).
I have been ill, or crazy, or disturbed for over 25 years. In that time I have been spectacularly successful at some things, like education, and spectacularly unsuccessful at others, like making a living. It is a real effort to keep struggling and fighting to get to the bottom rung of the ladder, financially and in terms of independence. I don’t have a career, that mark of “making it” that my family is so desperate for me to have. I am 40 and not off the family payroll. You can say it is not all about money, but let’s be realistic. Money is the way we measure ourselves, it is how we provide food, shelter, clothing and much of our entertainment. It is the reward our society gives for being successful in the working world.
I would like to have money. No, scratch that. I would like to earn money. I would like to be part of that world that supports themselves through work, through producing, through creating. I would like to be free of the influence of my funders – much as I love and respect them. I would like to feel that my work is valued, and in turn get value out of it. I selfishly want to take a vacation. I want to go somewhere nice and do fun things, maybe get some sun during a hellish February, or maybe see cathedrals in Cologne. I want to introduce my husband to the countries in Europe where my relatives live, and where I spent time as a child. But, this is impossible because I can’t make enough money to pay my rent, let alone afford airfare.
The travel thing is not the hill I want to die on, really. I think I can live a full life without seeing Havana. What it is is a symptom of the deprivation that chronic illness enforces, and particularly chronic mental illness. This inability to earn cuts me off from enjoying the things that my friends take for granted. Holidays, the symphony, conferences, dinners out, buying presents for milestone birthdays, updating my computer and paying my rent. Sure there are lots of low-cost things I can do. If I could get over my guilt at not working I would rock the staycation. The long and the short of it is though, that my illness keeps me impoverished and dependent, and this eats away at my search for meaning.
I don’t have choice, which is essential for feeling like you are in control of your life. Feeling like you can go in any direction you need to to fulfill your needs, wants and wishes is essential for feeling that your life has purpose. It means that you can act out on the choices that you and your brain make about how to live, what causes to support and the way in which your work can support your ideals and beliefs. You can choose to become an engineer and design tools to make other people’s lives more interesting, or that contribute to the economy of your region or country. Or maybe, being an engineer is enough in and of itself because it exercises your intellect in a way that makes you feel accomplished. Maybe it allows you to go home at night feeling like you have done something meaningful with your life.
I tried being a teacher for a while. This was a spectacular failure, for two reasons. First, I’m not really good at it. I don’t have the patience to shepherd 28 seven year olds through arithmetic. Oh, I provided a nurturing environment, and my kids felt cared for and important, which I am sure contributed to their development in a positive way, but in all honesty I can’t spell and I hate arithmetic. This tends to dampen your enthusiasm for teaching phonics and basic addition. I’m sure it showed. Second, I can’t handle the stress. Teaching children is possibly the most stressful job in the universe (a little over the top, but seriously ask a teacher and be prepared for a rant about being overworked and under appreciated). There is the whole issue of trying to manage a room full of children who have not yet learned to manage their emotions and behaviours, and then there are the administrative expectations of schools, boards, and your elected overlords. That doesn’t even factor in the parents. I was attacked by a parent once for calling children’s aid after they beat their child with a coat hanger. Fun times.
When you are a little unhinged at the best of times, the stress of teaching will invariably push you over the edge. I ended up on sick leave at least twice, and had to leave teaching all together this year. So I can scratch that one off my list of possible sources of income, contribution to society and meaning. It also means that the years I spent training as a teacher are pretty much in the dustbin as far as preparing for my future goes.
I also took a run at being an anthropologist. I started a Masters degree in Physical Anthropology in 1996. I loved it. I loved the bones and the study of evolution. I was going to analyze the efficacy of a particular computer program for divining the degrees of relationship between species represented by fossils. It all looked good. But then I got sick, and the shame of being crazy and the guilt for having abandoned my supervisor got to me. I spent months trying to recover and trying to psych myself up to go back, but in the end I couldn’t face my professors because I had been so weak, and failed them so badly. Of course, now I can see that I wasn’t weak, and that they would have welcomed me back (well, there was a chance anyway), but at the time the internal stigma that I have absorbed from living in modern western society overwhelmed me. I bailed on the degree, and on any chance at feeling like I was following my dream.
So, for those of you playing along at home I have now lost the solid dependable career with good benefits and a pension, and the more risky career in the field that I loved. I have also had minor jobs here and there that fell apart for a variety of reasons, companies went out of business, my job was no longer needed, things that were not my fault. But what it all adds up to is the fact that I have failed utterly to create a way for me to participate fully in the working life of my society. This is not the only way to create meaning, but it is a big one.
So what do I do now? I have little part-time contracts here and there, that don’t use my skills and don’t pay very much. I spend time with my friends and my family. I read the newspaper and get outraged at the state of the country. I get indignant about how the crazy folk are treated in this world. I spend a lot of time alone, trying to figure out what to do next. The obvious thing is to finish my degree in the spring of next year. The thing with that is I’m not sure where that will lead me. Will I be able to find a job anywhere that will let me work part-time, when I am not crazy, and not fire me if I can’t come in to work for a week?
I floated the idea with my family of doing a doctorate. That did not go over well. They need me to start earning my keep, and plunging back into the financial black hole that is higher education does not fit with their world view. I think doing research and maybe teaching adults would be a good fit for me. I would love to investigate things like identity formation in online communities, but it would appear that that is completely out of my reach. Scratch that off the list as well.
So can I create enough meaning in my life working at some part-time admin job, or trying to cobble together enough short-term contracts to support myself? Can I be happy with being a good friend and trying to be politically active on the internet? At this point I have no idea. All I know is at 4am when anxiety wakes me up and it is dark and lonely I feel that there is precious little meaning in my life. I feel like what I have to contribute is not really valued, and that the great wider world is not interested in making accommodations for my disability so that I can give what I am able. I am still sick right now, and I recognize that tends to favour pessimism and dark thoughts, but honestly I’m having a hard time clinging to the shreds of my self-esteem as it is. I don’t need the world telling me that I am not “pulling my weight” or “contributing” if I am sitting at home being crazy.
The search for meaning is universal. It spawns religion, academia, science, wars and art. I’m not looking to become enlightened and find the one truth that will reveal the secrets of the cosmos. I’m looking for a reason to get out of my apartment once in a while and to feel like I have a purpose beyond staying alive to prevent my relatives and friends from grieving. The world is stacked against the mentally ill in this regard. Many of us can’t make a living the way mentally healthy people can, and we don’t get the sympathy and understanding that cancer patients get. For the record, I have nothing against people living with cancer. It is a horrible and sometime chronic set of illnesses that can render a person disabled and non-functional. I am glad that people with cancer get the sympathy, understanding and support that they do. I just wish I could get it too.
It can be pretty disheartening. I think, ultimately, the meaning in my life will come from a patchwork of friendships, advocacy and maybe a bit of writing. I think I have to give up on travel, having the financial freedom to follow my interests, and paying my rent, in terms of feeling like a worthwhile human being. Overcoming the internal stigma we have been socialized to believe in means giving up traditional notions of meaning. I don’t want to sound shallow, it is not cool to say that you want money to make you feel worthwhile – although the people saying that usually have achieved a level of wealth where they can own a car and take a week off here and there. Money won’t buy you happiness, but it will buy food, office appropriate clothing and internet access. It is sort of a prerequisite for stability, and I think stability is what allows you to find meaning and happiness. Stability, unfortunately, is precisely what a person with Bipolar Disorder lacks.
So, what I can take from this ramble through my discontent, is that I will not find meaning until I can move away from traditional beliefs about what meaning is and where is comes from. Everyone has to find their own, I think my tribe just starts off lower on the ladder when it comes to this topic. I will be fine. I’ll figure something out, eventually. I am just tired of having to climb from greater depths to reach the place where everyone else seems to have started out.