The question, though fully expected, still catches me like a possum in the headlights.
"So, what are you doing with yourself now?"
Most people who follow me on Facebook know that I was made redundant ten or so months ago, but since then my feed has been full of self-taken photos of beaches and mountains and other bushwalking-type images. So the question is probably a reasonable one (barring the question of, "Who's business is it, anyway!"), but I still hesitate a moment as I run through my said-in-my-head repertoire of replies:
"I work as a Sub-Contracted Mercenary and Assassin for a Group of Chartered Bounty Hunters."
"I'm a Submarine Propulsion Technology Consultant for the Swiss Navy."
"I and my team, are in charge of Reversing the Polarity of the Neutron Flow in the Large Hadron Collider"
"I'm a Horse-Whisperer at Flemington Racecourse"
And then I fumble with a mumble of an answer, "I'm still sorting things out," or "I'm between jobs," or, fudging between the ridiculous answers and the feux-truth, "I'm doing some photography/ conference videography/ photo restoration." The cold, hard truth though, is that after months of living off a redundancy, mixed with facing up to gruelingly impersonal demoralising interviews, waiting, more reviews, waiting, and more interviews, I have been formally placed on a government Disability Support Pension.
No Swiss Navy or Whispering to Horses, but also no "solid self-sufficient-income self-employment"?!? What am I doing, you ask? I'm a pensioner at fifty-one, and we're surviving.
For twenty-five years I worked at the same place, on a low wage, paying taxes, surviving. I'd often be asked through those years that very same question, "What are you doing with yourself?", as if your very value to society hangs in the balance - your answer immediately determining a pass or fail. And I would answer, and watch the look in the eye as the coin was tossed. But I always knew in my depression and anxiety-ridden mind that it was a double-tailed coin; a fail fait accompli.
The judging then comes. "You're smarter than that; capable of far greater things than that; why are you not doing A or B, or even C? You're a natural at those!" These things are sometimes even said verbally by the other person, saving me the agony of yet-again saying them myself in my head for the thousandth time or more! And yet, there are no accompanying carefully pre-prepared replies to share. That would suggest a mind that plays fair.
Now (being placed on a Disability Support Pension), those questions -spoken or unspoken- will be asked louder, and with more incredulity. And with added judgement; maybe in their minds, but definitely in mine. "A disability Support Pension? What? I see no wheelchair! No cane or guide dog! You slacker! You bludger! You drain on the public purse! YOU ARE BETTER THAN THIS!" You may not say any of these things aloud. You may not even (and may whatever merciful God you might believe in, bless you) say these things in your head. But that is all for naught, for I have already said them for you, in mine; many, many times over. But paradoxically I have enough self-evidence and external diagnosis to also give me the truth, even though it is that very truth that makes it hard for me to accept.
A recent wind storm ripped through an area of forest I often walk the tracks of; ironically I take these walks to relieve the symptoms of my disability, and consequently self-judge (for my family and friends) that this very activity is more evidence that there is nothing wrong with me. The day after the storm I walked my oft-travelled path, only to be confronted by obstacles of fallen tree limbs, and even whole trees. Some of these trees were very familiar to me, and I was shocked at how strong the winds must have been to fell these seemingly immovable, strong timbers. It was only upon closer inspection of a few that had been snapped off at their bases, that I realised it wasn't just the strong winds that dropped these trees. Under a layer of solid-looking, invincible-seeming bark was a compromised, rotted out, weakened interior. It was only a matter of time for these mighty-in-appearance timbers to topple.
Yes, it is a simplistic analogy. But I reluctantly accept it has merit. I have seen the report that reads "Colin has fragile mental health and he meets the DSM-V diagnostic criteria for chronic anxiety (Generalised Anxiety Disorder), Panic Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder and sleep disturbance (Insomnia), which all lead him to feeling helpless and hopeless as his medical and mental health will never improve to a level which would permit him to return to the workforce in any capacity now or in the future." And still I hear "Faker!"
I have read the report that says, "Colin (has developed a) lifelong fear and anxiety due to hypersensitivity of his autonomic and sympathetic nervous system as a result of his 'fight and flight’ response being permanently turned on historically and indeed most definitely currently… Colin's conditions mean that he is in chronic and permanent state of fear, anxiety and panic all the time with his conditions flared with even the smallest task or daily living activity out of his comfort zone." And I hear, "Bludger!"
I have read the report that reads, "it is clearly evident that Colin be eligible for the Disability Support Pension given that his mental and medical conditions will never be fully resolved - he will never recover from his medical nor mental conditions as they are progressive in nature, and it is thus highly unlikely that he will ever learn to seIf-manage his anxiety, panic, and depression, as a result of these conditions being linked to the wiring of his brain rather than a chemical imbalance correctable with medication or an environmental stressor which can be changed." And yet I still hear the voice cry loudly, "You drain on the public purse! YOU ARE BETTER THAN THIS!"
I share this, not for sympathy, but for understanding. Understanding that whatever I do that seems "normal" or even "adventurous" or "overly ambitious" are my often-futile (buying a motor scooter to gain greater self-mobility? Trying to get an overly-ambitious short film made?), BUT occasionally wonderfully spirit-rewarding and sticking-it-to-my-stinkin'-mental-illness (finally getting a slightly less ambitious Short Film made, and still having most of the cast and crew still speaking to me? Pushing myself and my son to do a weekly podcast? Recognising that something is "special" enough to photograph, and actually photograph it? Donating blood products? Or, more essentially, just getting out of bed? Getting out of the house?) attempts to at least thicken that outer bark; to do whatever I can to improve my outer-resilience, because my inner is pretty well fried. Apparently. Or I'm just a pathetic slacker. It's hard to tell when you aren't confidently able to identify your genuine reality. My mental illness lies to me, for good and ill, constantly.
Now you know all this, may I ask a few things of you? It may seem counter-intuitive, but nine times out of ten a suggestion of "Have you tried X? I hear it's very effective/ my cousin uses it / it completely healed my own (sounds a bit like you've got what I've got) mental illness." I am very willing to ask advice of individuals, but this post is not an open invitation for unsolicited advice. I could certainly write a post at least as long as this one covering all the things I've given a good ol' go at, so it's more than likely that I've tried "it".
Also, and this may seem unrelated, I implore you that if you are currently in any way supportive of the yet-again proposed drug tests for welfare recipients, and a Cashless Welfare Card, I ask that you spend as many hours as I have sitting in a Centrelink waiting area. You will quickly realise it is NOT filled with "junkies squandering your taxes on meth and ice". It is filled with "You"- but "you" who has just been laid off, or injured and suddenly unable to work, or replaced by a robot/computer/consolidated team running out of Melbourne. It's filled with people like You, and definitely people like me. If you want "easily-potential-you" or definitely-me to have to be watched peeing into a cup for a drug test that has been a huge waste of money in places like New Zealand, or to only be able to buy things at designated stores using a restricted (and most likely privatised-and-making-a-rich-person-richer) debit card, then so-help me, unfriend me now. The utter humiliation and frustration of enduring the Centrelink "system" -which is now a jumbled mess of cobbled together "smart ideas" from decades of election promises, including the expectation that everyone young and old should be able to navigate their way around an app that seems purposely designed to befuddle, confuse, and crash - is already cripplingly dehumanising. Add drug-testing and payment restrictions to the already down and poor and you are not capable of true "friendship" in my books.
If you've made it this far through my ramblings, I thank you. Understand that most days I'm doing okay. Ask me to do stuff with you; there's a good chance I'll decline - but please keep asking. I don't do "peopling" well, but it's another potential way of thickening my bark.
Also understand that today, as I write this, was not one of those "I'm doing okay" days. The last few have been particularly sucky, in fact. If you need that as an excuse to filter this post, though, I suggest doing so with caution. It may have reduced my abrasiveness filter (for which I am sorry if that is truly the case) but I believe all I've said is what I intended to say in the first place - but maybe with half the words!
Submarine Propulsion Technology Consultant for the Swiss Navy