The Money Problem

Several months ago I wrote what I hoped would be the start of a redemptive story of healing. I suppose I still hope it will, but it may take a long time to get there, with many diversions along the way.

In reading over that post and reflecting on what to write next, I feel ashamed to admit I’m still not doing great. In fact, despite making some good steps on what I’ve identified now as a road to recovery, and despite having a new-found confidence that recovery is in fact possible for me, I’ve experienced some of my lowest lows. I had hoped to find that redemptive silver lining by now, but I haven’t.

I suppose this is a good reminder that healing is non-linear. I had imagined a narrative arc that would be elegant and straightforward enough to be worthy of a movie script, but what I’ve got on this blog and what swims around in my head feels more like mashed potatoes. It’s good, but it ain’t exactly pretty or.. elegant.

When I wrote that post, I had actually set out to write about the experience of social anxiety and exclusion as a mad person, which is still something I want to do. I feel so painfully isolated and estranged from other people. My relationships are largely non-existent, barely beginning, or in a state of conflict. As I’ve begun to tip-toe down the path to recovery, as I’ve attempted in fits and bursts to communicate my experience and what I need in order to heal, I find myself more estranged than ever. I struggle to express myself, and simultaneously some people in my life struggle to understand and accept me outside of the conceptual boundaries of “a sick person”.

But I’m not sick. My personality is intense and emotional. I am highly sensitive, and mental suffering comes easy to me while contentment and euphoria are often elusive. I am so, so tired. I desperately crave community and a sense of belonging that can hold me through this process of becoming. But once again, I have to leave this topic for another day, firstly because I just don’t have what it takes right now to unpack it, and secondly because I feel that there is another hurdle that stymies my ability to even begin to heal my social self. That hurdle is the money problem.

The need to make money for survival presents a cognitive barrier for me that has defined large parts of my life. It is paralyzing and antithetical to the way I understand a life worth living. What stood out to me in looking back on my mental state some months ago is the ever-present anxiety about financial security, as I fantasized about having a meaningful career:

“I imagine myself unlocking the key to some deep well of creativity and motivation … that will eventually launch my dream career as a novelist … I begin to envision various pathways into self-sufficiency, wishing hopefully for a day when I can get out of survival mode … A day when I can just write, create, and live my life without fear.”

Reading through that last post, it seems obvious that my most overwhelming fear is the thought that I do not have what it takes to survive in the modern world. And as my attempts to find better support continue to be painfully disappointing, I keep thinking I don’t need a new treatment plan. I need a good gig.

For the better part of the past decade, that gig was academia. Receiving student loans, scholarships, and grants so that I could read, write, think, and talk to people about lofty and transformative ideas – that was a slice of heaven. I had never seen so much money in my life, and even though it still wasn’t very much, it offered me a sense of security and a place of belonging in the world that completely transformed what I thought was possible.

Now, an exile of the academy, surviving on the good will of family and leaning precariously on a temporary social safety net, the scope of possibility appears terribly narrow.

In hindsight it is stunning to me how many times I’ve been subjected to clinical care for my mental health, yet treatment was so focused on my individual pathology it never even touched on the subject of developing healthy, mutually supportive social connections, or finding accommodating ways to pursue an education or a career. I don’t know why – was it presumed these were impossible goals? The medical model’s imperative always seemed to be to make me normal, its version of recovery reducible to “Stop hurting yourself, stop trying to die, feel good about life damnit and get the hell back to work!”

What if the whole cultural obsession with academic careerism and money-making is at the center of my suffering? How is it untenable to suggest that this obsession is itself maddeningly absurd? I’m not saying that I don’t have other psychological challenges to face in my recovery process, but I also can’t deny feeling a deep biological need to secure my survival needs first. I think anyone who has faced the challenge of healing from trauma, injury, or the discovery of a chronic condition while also experiencing poverty knows this feeling of having to choose between taking care of your health and taking care of your bills.

This is one effect of the deeply entrenched prejudice towards mental suffering that exists today: we are told that in order to have value, we must produce value through our work. Failing to do so puts our survival at risk. So many narratives of recovery in mental health awareness campaigns reproduce this narrative that the mad person is redeemed by their ability to have a job. To go to school. To have a family. The suffering goes away, becomes manageable to the point of invisibility, and that appearance of assimilation into neurotypical society is what redeems the mad person as being made valuable again.

I don’t know that my version of recovery includes an end to suffering or a regular job. And I’m really having a hard time trying to square that possibility with the belief that even if I can’t exactly ‘work’, recovery (which, let’s be real, is itself a very labour-intensive kind of work that is falsely judged to be without value to society) is still a real possibility for me. Without any obvious examples to draw from, I find myself wondering, what does recovery look like for me, if it does not in fact look like assimilation into neurotypical society?

To pose the question is to confront a lifetime of learned attitudes and behaviours that are fundamentally self-destructive. The society I live in is steeped and fermented in ableism/sanism, and I’ve internalized it all.

I hate myself for not being able to hold a job; for being unable to cope with the demands of higher education; for being in my thirties with no career and a C.V. full of conspicuous gaps; for being an inadequate parent, partner, and friend because I don’t have either the material or emotional capital to invest in my relationships or my own wellbeing; for leaning so heavily on my loved ones for financial and emotional support, and it goes on…

I try not to dwell on these thoughts, because I don’t really think they’re mine. These are the thoughts of the sick person that others saw in me, the person who was broken inside, irredeemably disabled. I want to reframe these thoughts instead: How fucked up is it that a person like me who has so much to offer actually feels worthless on the basis of their employment status? What does that say about the world we live in and its devaluation of human emotion and transformative experiences? How can a society that enforces a narrative of normativity vs. pathology ever be sustainable? How can I heal from these wounds and help create a better world for future generations? These are a few of the questions I am genuinely interested in asking through my ‘work’ (paid or not).

In my previous post months ago I meant to talk about social anxiety. Today, I meant to talk about the interaction of madness and money and why I support a basic income policy – I never did get to that last bit. I guess I’ve touched on both these topics, but not in the way I intended to, and I will have to revisit them again. But this post has been a helpful (if rambling) writing practice, I have to admit.

Don’t get me wrong, there has been progress, and despite the tone of this post, I’m actually leaning towards optimism that the money problem has a solution – but I’m a skeptic and I’ll choose to discuss that at a later time, because today I just want to sit with the deeply uncomfortable and distressing reality that I am in, and fully acknowledge that for many disabled/mad/neurodivergent folks there is always a threat that we will never be able to make enough money, never be able to integrate into neurotypical society, never feel secure or like we belong. And that’s okay, too. That doesn’t mean I’ve failed. It only means that the society I was born into, failed me. The fact that I’m here to talk about it also means that despite that systemic failure, I survived. And I love that I survived. I’m happy to be here.

Maybe I’ve started to find just a hint of silver lining after all? Until next time mad people. To close, here’s a rambling note I found on my phone that touches on what I’m trying to express here:

We need to be able to see the mad subject as a person outside of the institutional framework that prescribes knowledge all the way from childhood into adulthood and especially the clinical setting. The mad subject has their own phenomenological framework of non-prescribed, undisciplined, experiential knowledge that is just as valid as the clinician’s or anyone else’s, despite the challenge it presents to our normative ways of thinking about health and illness, madness and sanity. The mad subject has to have a protected right to exist outside of normative institutional boundaries that define a student or worker and so on – all of these socially prescribed roles – as the only desirable outcomes for a healthy existence. Sometimes it must be enough that we give space for the mad subject to exist as an act of resistance to arbitrary claims of authority, an affirmation of the mad subject’s experience and knowledge, and to allow the mad subject to uncover whatever insights they can offer to expand the limits (or reduce the prejudices) of the normative fantasy.

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