I started a new position on October 1 to complete a service year with Public Allies, an Americorps program that pairs you with a local nonprofit where you work for 10 months while also receiving other types of leadership training. I was matched with an organization in Bridgeport, CT, and I am helping them with community outreach in various ways. It’s a remote job, and the first (perhaps only?) job that I have ever felt particularly qualified for. This has been making me think a lot about my job history, and the way I have been conditioned to equate my worth with my employment status.
I always searched for validation wherever I could get it. I wanted (and needed) to know that I was as capable as everyone else. The people around me would not only assure me that I was as capable, they would insist that I was even more capable than others. I used to swell with pride at the idea that I was somehow more capable than my peers. At one point, I looked back at such pride with disgust; indeed, I do still look back at certain things I said and did with distaste. I did realize, though, that it wasn’t exactly pride that I felt during these years. It was insecurity.
My first job was an office job through my dad’s work. It was a program meant for children of employees of the company, which I was. At 16 years old, I worked 40 hours a week over one summer doing various office tasks. I was making money and felt valued. It felt amazing. Of course, my joints and back would hurt by the end of the day, aching from sitting at the desk all day. But I managed. I was convinced that with this experience, I would be able to work my way into another office job, skipping right over the much more physically taxing retail and food service positions.
But it didn’t work.
After that summer, I began a year at the local community college. With school only a few days a week, I was determined to find another part-time job that I could work at to earn some spending money. Since I wanted to go to film school, I thought it only fitting that I work at my town’s movie theater. I dressed up far too nicely to speak with two adults who I felt, at the time, held my future in their hands. They ended up hiring me on the spot which thrilled me to no end. I couldn’t wait to get started. Of course, I did not disclose my disabilities.
The job quickly took its physical toll on me. It took less than two hours into a shift for my joints to ache and my back to spasm. I quickly began dreading the job, despite my love for the movie theater environment. I was quickly forced to disclose my medical problems as I became unable to complete particular tasks, such as taking huge barrels of trash out three times my size. And with every added task that I could not for whatever reason complete, my self-esteem rapidly deteriorated. When I didn’t get the positive feedback that I would get from my teachers in school, my self-esteem plunged even further.
Just as I have always strived for such positive feedback from my teachers and employers, I have always yearned for it most from my parents, needing their approval for nearly every major decision I make for myself even well into my twenties. And that’s why I remember the night my mother told me she was okay with me quitting my job at the movie theater: the pure relief of knowing I would not disappoint the people whose approval I craved most. And with that, my job woes were solved for all intents and purposes, until I would try again when I moved away for college, and the cycle would repeat.
Ultimately, though, my parents’ approval alone can’t pay my bills. Worrying about whether or not you can handle a job right now versus wondering if you will ever be able to handle a job is pretty different to say the least. When those jobs cause you to lose your health insurance and keep you from being able to schedule doctor appointments, my curiosity as to how I was expected to continuously survive only increased. The cycle of me getting jobs that I feel as though I can’t handle whether it be physically or mentally, begging my parents to allow me to quit so I can take some time to breathe has continued and most likely will continue. And now, I’m 3 weeks into my new job.
How’s it going, you might ask?
It’s the first job that my lived experience with disability is seen as an asset, and for that I am entirely grateful. I decided to go into this job with the refreshing mindset of I deserve to be here. The truth is, though, is it’s much harder to believe that sentiment than it is to say it. I got permission from my supervisor to go full speed ahead, but I made some vital mistakes in the process. And suddenly, the thoughts come spilling back into my brain. It’s not just that these moments make me feel not good enough, but they strike a fear in me of never being capable enough to maintain a job and support myself. Yes, I catastrophize.
The fear is so overwhelming sometimes that I simply can’t see the future. I can’t see any possible way to move forward and lead a “normal” or “average” life. I find myself in the cycle of self-hatred as I decide to rest my body, ultimately only feeling guilty and lazy. Oftentimes, my anxiety will hold me down, restricting me from making any move forward.
Ultimately, there are a few things I know to be true: just as there are positions I am capable of doing, there will always be positions that I am incapable of doing; my worth does not hinge on my production; I deserve to live, just as anyone, even in the times that I cannot work; people who can work are no better than me.
I just wish I actually believed it. But I think I’m getting there.