There’s a plethora of self-help books and articles online that claim to have the answer about how to strike the perfect balance between your career and personal life. Many of these resources, however, don't take into account how disability can impact every aspect of your life. As someone who is disabled and lives with multiple mental illnesses, finding a work- life balance has been a little more complicated and nuanced than many step-by-step guides make it out to be.
I worked a wide array of fleeting jobs in my late teens and early twenties — as a waitress, barista, nanny, and even as a staff member at a residential treatment center. But within the first year at each of these jobs (and typically within the first three months) I had to quit from burnout. In some cases, I completely ghosted the job because I felt ashamed for needing extensive time off. With messages like, “Just follow this advice, and both your work and personal life will be wonderful!” constantly saturating my social media timeline, it was difficult not to feel ashamed.
For me, burning out doesn't simply I need to veg while watching Netflix or practice self-care for a couple of days until I feel re-energized. Burnout, when you live with mental illness, can feel almost impossible to recover from. I would end up in bed for weeks at a time, unable to do much beyond order delivery, or maybe shuffle to the bathroom to splash water on my face before heading back to sleep. At worst, I ended up voluntarily admitting myself into the emergency room or psychiatric hospital a handful of times, as the burnout would trigger intense episodes of depression, fatigue, and suicidal ideation — symptoms that stem from my borderline personality disorder, bipolar II disorder, and PTSD.
What's wrong with me?, I'd think to myself. Why can’t I just stick to a routine with work?
From a very young age, I was taught that my self-worth was determined by my productivity: If I couldn’t work at all, I was a "freeloader." If I worked a part-time position, I must be "lazy." If I happened to quit a full-time job before being offered another position, then I was just plain foolish. These sentiments are not only untrue, but they can be downright damaging to disabled people.
Slowly unlearning this has helped set me on a healthier path when it comes to balancing my work and life. I've had to learn that what it means to "give 100 percent" at work will ebb and flow with my mental illnesses. Though symptoms of bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder may be triggered by your environment or major life events, much of the time, I can't always predict when I'll experience a depressive episode or major mood swing.
When I'm not experiencing complete burnout, I have needed to be honest with myself about how much work I can realistically do. On some days, I may be able to write three great articles, juggle my work as a mental health advocate, and send out fifty emails with ease. Other days, I'm lucky if I can make the move from my bed to my couch. In many ways, recognizing that my energy can shift from day to day has become the ultimate test of patience and self-acceptance. Rather than being angry at myself for not being able to adhere to a consistent schedule, I'm trying to be more gentle and compassionate. I'm learning how accept my health needs in the moment, and readjust when I need to.
As a disabled woman, it's difficult to feel as though I don't need to go above and beyond when it comes to working, in order to feel like my contribution is valued and respected. As disability advocate and writer Karrie Higgins recently expressed on Twitter, it's not uncommon for disabled people to feel their work is "devalued" in public spaces or the workplace. Or, that they're blatantly not given the credit they deserve. This kind of erasure that disabled people in professional spaces face has led me to feel like I often have to fight harder to have my work recognized.
However, I'm learning to defy the idea that I need to constantly compete, compare myself to anyone, or prove my value, especially when it comes to my peers and friends who are abled. Before I developed a sense of confidence around my career, and became more aware of how my disabilities affect my body and mind, I'd jump at every work-related opportunity that presented itself — even if that likely meant jeopardizing my health.
Though not everyone with a disability is as privileged as I am to work in an accepting and non-discriminatory work environment, communicating my needs as a disabled person to my supervisor and personal support system has been crucial to my well-being. Setting boundaries with my workload, and learning how to ask for breaks or accommodations upfront have transformed my sense of work-life balance. Being able to comfortably say "no" to events or projects has allowed me to make my health a priority without residual feelings of shame or guilt. Everyone — disabled or not — has to take a break from work every now and again. There's no shame in needing to ask for additional time to recover and feel renewed. Managing my career, life, and relationships as a disabled woman is all about being flexible and gentle with myself.
By no means have I mastered finding the perfect work-life balance. I still struggle with holding firm boundaries. I still struggle with not being overly-critical of myself during a depressive episode. And I still struggle with self-doubt when I feel as though I'm not doing "enough" at work. But, guess what? I also now understand that "enough" looks different for every single person, and that sometimes sending just one email or typing up one paragraph might be my "enough" one day.
When it comes to disability and work-life balance, there's no cut and dry solution. It's all about letting go of ableist expectations, and accepting yourself in the present, in the now, as you are.