This post functions, somewhat, in response to this article, ‘What I Learned When I Gave Up the 9 to 5’. It also, despite its critique of that post, operates from a position of relative privilege; I’m very lucky to have a job that accommodates my needs. Not everyone has that. But here’s a different perspective, with some thoughts that may be helpful to people who find themselves in similar situations to me.
This morning has been lukewarm for me.
I was able to get up, not immediately, but relatively shortly after my alarm went off. I ate a solid breakfast; not extravagant, but sufficient. I showered. I made coffee. I skipped looking at the news–can be iffy for me, and last night was a bad one, so better not today. I checked my work email, made sure the bot had posted what it was supposed to, and after a few tries, found some clothes I was alright with gender-wise for today.
For the average person, this seems like a very mundane list of things to accomplish. But Monday of this week, I barely got out of bed. I opened my curtains. I forced myself to eat. But on Monday, I didn’t beat my mental illness. On Monday, I slept fifteen hours. I had a headache. I felt like the world was a really bad place, and I was a really bad person. I had no attention span. The concepts of showering, of cooking, of getting dressed, of opening my textbook–these were all beyond me. Far, far beyond me.
Tuesday, I was up by 7. I ate a good breakfast, made lunch, bussed downtown for my 9 am class. After three hours of lecture in my second language, I got a coffee, ate my lunch, and did a solid day of work for my job. I hung out with my roommate, and her girlfriend, who is visiting us. I looked after my cats. I put away a bunch of laundry that I’d been avoiding dealing with. I went to the grocery store. It was the polar opposite of my Monday.
Today, I am somewhere between those two extremes. I feel tired and heavy and despite the sun and good weather, I feel down. But I’ve gotten up and done some productive things. After I finish writing this, I’m pretty confident I’ll go deal with my breakfast dishes, maybe even get something together for lunch. I have some photos to take quickly for a project I’m working on. I have work-work to accomplish, and a school assignment to work on–but realistically, I don’t know if I can do both of those things today. I’ll probably need a nap later. I’m sure I’ll need another coffee.
This range of experience is typical for me in a week. I have good days, and bad days. I have generalized anxiety disorder, which has high co-morbidity with depression. I’m on medication, but doesn’t make every day perfect. I’ve gained three inches to my waist on this medication, and it makes me slow to start in the morning even on my best days. But I’m not sleeping sixteen hours a day anymore, and I can actually take public transit again. I’ve come a long way.
It’s taken me a long time to accept that I am no longer the person I was in high school–always bright, always optimistic, always working 20 hours a week on top of school full time, with a 97% grade average and a very detailed plan for the future. I used to believe I was on track for a PhD in history. According to that plan, I would have finished my undergrad a few months ago and be looking to start a Master’s this fall. Instead, I will be wholly satisfied to finish my undergraduate degree in June of 2016–one and a half academic years, 2 full calendar years, after when I expected to be done.
This isn’t to say that I won’t continue my studies, someday. Just that I know, right now, I have to work within my limits. I will be really grateful to finish my undergrad and have one less thing to worry about. I’ll continue with Bold & Mighty, the historical entertainment/education company I’m blessed to work for. Most people would increase their hours. I don’t know yet if I will.
I’m in a unique position with Bold & Mighty. My boss, Jim, has been incredibly accommodating with regards to my mental illness. I was offered my position at B&M in fall of last year–when I was taking four months off of school to try and find a medication that would at least get me out of bed in the morning. I accepted the job, and gratefully–but quickly discovered I couldn’t commit to the hours I was offered, because for most of that Fall I was lucky to be up and moving for five hours, much less working that entire time each day.
And it’s gotten better since then, mostly. But I felt I was being dishonest, and I went to my boss after about a month, to tell him the truth of my health–that I wasn’t working 15 hours a week.
And my boss — and again, I can’t stress how blessed I feel that he had this response, though ideally everyone would be able to work under these conditions — my boss was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Eliot, do you know what a salary is?”
I do know what a salary is. I understand the concept, surely–an annual sum, distributed biweekly, for work completed. It’s typically given on the assumption that benchmarks will be met, and doesn’t always mean a certain number of hours to reach whatever target. As a student, I’ve never been salaried. But that’s the sort of job I want someday, yeah.
“Well, you’re salaried.”
I wasn’t salaried. I was hourly.
But my boss disagreed.
Jim laid out his view to me–that I was doing good work, that the work was being produced in a time frame that worked for him and the rest of the company–and that it really didn’t matter to him how many hours it took me. That, in his view, I was salaried. As long as I got the work done, it didn’t matter how many days I was stuck in bed (aside from, you know, the general wish for my health and happiness that I wasn’t ever stuck in bed. That’s a fading dream for me, though).
This concept of salary is a really great metaphor for how my weeks generally function, as someone with mental illness. I have productive days and less productive days. Busy times of year and slow times of year, like many people who work on salary. I have different spoon amounts every day–generally less than most people on a daily bass–but the results, for me, are the same. And I mean, I’d prefer that I was able to get up every day–even if it meant that I was less productive day-to-day, but overall was able to meet those general requirements we accord adulthood, of eating and keeping your space clean and contributing to society and having social commitments and maybe even volunteering or something. But this is what I’ve got, right now. This is who I am.
This salaried metaphor has done wonders for me. I try really hard not to beat myself up on the bad days–it doesn’t help make the bad days go by any better, and it certainly doesn’t help me on my good days. Taking things as they come is the best I can do at this stage in my life. I have a certain number of good days, and I hit benchmarks I need to on those days. When some days are bad, I pick up the slack other times, when I can. I’m lucky that I’m able to do that.
If you knew none of the details of my life, you might think I was a lot like Jacob Laukaitis, the author of the piece I linked at the beginning, about being a “digital nomad”. Initially I read that piece and I recoiled instinctively, frustrated by what seemed to me to be obvious privilege and elitism–yeah, drop all your commitments and go on a world tour! Must be nice to be healthy enough for the stress of travel, to not have extreme anxiety, to not to have to support your parents, or a family you’ve started, or have school debt, or have your identity put you at risk in foreign countries*. I’d sure to love to travel, too!
But we actually have some things in common, Jacob and I. I, too, am sometimes not immediately reachable by my colleagues–but instead of swimming with sharks or sand boarding, I’m probably asleep, because it’s easier to be asleep than lay in bed and obsess about everything you’ve ever done wrong. And depression wrecks havoc with your sleep cycle; there have been days where I’ve met work deadlines–or started new projects!–near midnight, or in the early hours of morning, because I somehow find myself alert and motivated and I’ve got to take advantage of that in case tomorrow’s bad, too.
Half of the people I work with are in Vancouver, so we communicate online. And the three people who work under me are also students, with different school and work and life commitments. One of them has three jobs while also being in school (and I greatly admire her, though I know I’ll never be her). So even though the four of us are Ottawa-based, our schedules are different, and we coordinate mostly online, with the occasional work brunch.
The end effect is, I suppose, pretty similar; I’m a digital nomad, but not because I have the privilege of health and wealth–not to mention gender and race–to travel safely around the world and experience amazing things during the day and hit deadlines at night. And I don’t blame Mr. Laukaitis for this–Lord knows, if I could do it, I would.
But digital nomadism has a lot to offer people, and not just those who can grab life by the horns. For some of us, digital nomadism is the only way forward. In the absence of having those privileges, digital nomadism is what allows me to stay human when my brain is out to get me. Digital nomadism helps me keep in touch with my long-distance partner. Digital nomadism helps my friends check in on me on bad days, when I can’t handle leaving my room, but can handle logging onto Skype. Digital nomadism helps people with all kinds of disabilities stay in touch with the world around them and retain their autonomy in a world that’s not meant for them. Digital nomadism can be the stopgap until the world lets go of its hangups around mental health.
So maybe you’ve dreamed of exploring the world, and modern employment can let you do that. But maybe your dreams are a little closer to home–maybe, like me, you dream of being able to support yourself in spite of the incredible challenges you face every day. And maybe digital nomadism can be a solution for us, too.
* Disclaimer: These aren’t all true for me, and are instead an example of the immediate responses I had. whee!