Before the pandemic, my husband and I went to a luncheon to raise money to stop the sex trafficking of children in our area. We were at a table with four other people who politely engaged in chitchat with us. Small talk that I knew was going to cause me embarrassment within a few moments of the first hello. My anxiety soared. I kept my hands busy picking at the napkin in my lap.
“What do you do?” asked the woman with the smart fitted suit to my right. What seems like a harmless question to most people is a sore spot for me. I wanted to answer, “I spend my days sending out resumes, filling out online applications, and taking pre-employment tests. But because anyone with an internet connection can Google my name and discover that I have chronic paranoid schizophrenia, all that effort has not landed me a job.” Instead of saying that, I said, “I used to be a social worker, but I’m currently looking for work.” The woman said something almost unintelligible, wiped her mouth with her napkin, and turned to talk to the man sitting to her right, someone she appeared to know.
It isn’t entirely true that my job hunting has been fruitless over the last few years. I landed a job in an Amazon warehouse. On the first day of training, I was so overwhelmed by paranoia (a symptom of schizophrenia) that I didn’t make it through more than the safety guidelines and rules of the facility before I had to grab my purse and head to the comfort and protection of my car.
A year or more later, I got another job. This time as an usher at a theater that hosts broadway performances in my city. My first two weeks of shifts were for the show Wicked. The rules around seating people were strict. There was no seating anyone after the show started until there was a break between songs. That meant I had to tell people who lingered at the snack bar that even though they spent over one hundred dollars on tickets, they were going to miss the first song of the second act. These rules caused me so much stress that I had a panic attack and left my shift early after only a week of being there.
Landing both of these jobs, although outside of my degree and experience, seemed like a win to me. Being unable to do the work because of my symptoms chipped away at what was already my battered self-esteem.
For many people, having schizophrenia is their primary identity, and they prefer the identifier schizophrenic rather than a person living with schizophrenia. I’m not one of those people. Since my diagnosis, I have been struggling to get people to see me in ways that have nothing to do with my illness. I don’t want to be defined by schizophrenia, no matter how frequently it shows up in my life or what I have to do to manage the symptoms.
The very identity which most Americans define themselves by, what they do for a living, is the one thing that seemed to be out of my reach. It is also the question we most frequently ask one another and the one I couldn’t answer in a way that didn’t make me feel less than. I couldn’t find a good fit between my education, my experience, and my disability.
After my two failed working attempts, I only applied for jobs I could do from home. I knew that in the comfort of my living space, I could handle even a stressful job. I sent out dozens of resumes for customer service jobs, for referrals jobs in healthcare and senior living. I applied for some basic tech jobs. I was highly qualified for every job I applied for and frequently landed interviews, but after tests (which I scored high on), I would often get ghosted or receive an e-mail that they had hired someone else. I started to believe that employers had discovered my disability and decided I was a bad bet.
I know that we are all more than the job we do. We are all more than what we do to pay the bills. I know that, but so much of my self-esteem is about productivity. I want to say, “I do this!” No one has to think it is cool, but I want to have an identity like many Americans that I define myself by- that identity that says this is what I do to earn a paycheck. I want to contribute.
After several years of applying for every remote position I thought I would be successful at, the country went into lockdown to help us slow the transmission of COVID-19. A month into the stay-at-home orders, I proposed a couple of online courses to a local art non-profit. Within a week of submitting my ideas for classes, I heard back that they were going to give my ideas a try if enough students signed up. Month after month, and class after class, I have had enough students register to continue to teach and make a regular paycheck.
Teaching from home over Zoom is a perfect solution for me because it allows me the time and space and downtime I need to be successful and productive and function at a job. I am home in my safe space, so all the issues I would typically run into that lead to failures in the workforce, like paranoia or anxiety, don’t keep me from showing up on a video and running a class.
I also enjoy sharing resources with people and encouraging them to reach for their dreams of being a published writer. It is fun and rewarding to watch people get their first article or essay accepted and to feel like I had some small part in that. Giving people the tools they need to succeed would be a boost to my self-esteem even outside of a work environment, but the fact that my dream is also coming true is more than I could have hoped.
I know there isn’t a good thing to say about a virus that has taken almost two hundred thousand lives just in our country, but new remote access that should have always been available to disabled people has given me what I dreamed of having. I can now meet new people, and when they ask me what I do for a living, I can say, “Teacher. I teach,” and I am proud beyond belief to have a way to answer that question and have an identity that I can talk about that has nothing to do with schizophrenia.