Transitions: when work doesn’t work out…
This piece follows on from part 1 and part 2 of my blogs on autism and depression in the workplace, and how best to manage this. It takes you through the journey of experiencing symptoms of mental illness; how and why this can manifest, as well as being signed off work, staying in touch with your employer and eventually getting well and returning to work. It covers a linear route to wellness, though the reality may be different, but it assumes that all is well and that you will happily return to life as it was before you first became unwell.
But what happens if this isn’t the case?
If experiencing mental illness wasn’t related to a particular event or trauma, the likelihood is that something in your life wasn’t quite right or working out the way you wanted it to be in the first place.
It’s not always obvious how or why it wasn’t working out, as on paper it may have seemed quite idyllic even. But I find that what is ‘ideal’ may be more society’s, or others’ idea of perfection, as opposed to what works for you as an autistic individual. And I appreciate this isn’t always the case, and it may simply be that your job, team or organisation has changed completely upon return: that you no longer recognise it or align with its values… perhaps you never did. Or maybe you were being bullied or struggled with difficult colleagues, or a challenging micro-manager, and since returning to work, these issues seem more pertinent than ever. It may also be the case that since becoming seriously unwell, your tolerance to your job not being as you want it to be, simply doesn’t work for you anymore. And any of these combinations, or others, are all valid. In fact, you don’t even need a reason, but I know our brains quite like to have a narrative to make sense of life scenarios.
I’m writing this blog, because I know from my first-hand experience of having nearly 18-months off work for mental illness, that things don’t always work out as you plan or wish for them to be.
I remember while being unwell, all I wanted was to return to normal: to get back to work, start earning again and resume living my life. I was desperate for this to be the outcome. But things could not have turned out more differently, and my employer didn’t feel that I was cut out for the role and/or organisation. At the time, this was incredibly difficult, and I would never wish for anyone to have my experience of an employer attempting to get rid of them, all the while still not being 100% well. But with the excellent hindsight that I now have: it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. And in my view, you need to keep faith that new opportunities will arise, and that life can, and will, get better. Mental illness is a serious condition and when experiencing this, it can lead to dramatic shifts in your priorities and how you perceive life. It can really shift your perspective and instigate major changes to how you live your life. I know this happened to me and I ended up changing careers, travelling and living abroad for a while, trying out different jobs in various industries (jobs I would never have experienced otherwise), and finally ended up with a portfolio career. The setup that I have right now works around me and my wellbeing, as I’m partly self-employed and work in employed roles that give me autonomy and flexibility. And yes, there are roles out there that enable this. There are also organisations out there that really care about you as a human being and will support you and show authentic kindness. It’s all out there. But how did I get to this point? For me, it was about taking things super slow and just making a small, tiny step forward. This then led me to the next thing, which led to the next idea or role, and then a new career. It didn’t come at once. The pace suited what I needed at the time, as did the opportunities that came about, which reflected this. I also took a lot of stock and really evaluated my life to find out what I thought would work best for me as I went along.
I thought about my life as a whole, and my work as an integral part of this. Not separate. It’s exactly the same way as I see autism – a core part of me, and not a separate entity.
I find that through being autistic and living unconventionally, I am always evaluating my life and making adjustments, depending on what it is that I need at any given stage of my life. And I didn’t always see this as an asset, but it really is. It means that you don’t need to wait for a global pandemic to hit to consider your life and to see what’s working or not. And that’s a plus! And remember that work doesn’t have to be your next step by any means. You may want to go on a holiday to mark this new passage of time, and potentially turn this into a period of travel, or general rest and respite. This can do wonders for the mind and body and really give you the time and space to think up new opportunities and just generally heal from being unwell. You may decide to take up a course or get back to studying in some format. I know that this is what happened to me, as I decided to do some short courses in art and painting. It just so happened that I had returned from a holiday to Nepal, after which the country experienced two horrific earthquakes. As a result, I decided to combine the two (art and Nepal), and I ended up putting on a fundraising exhibition to raise money for the victims of the quakes, and became an artist as a result! I would never have envisaged this for myself, and my point is that you really don’t know what life has in store for you.
And part of this process of evaluating also involves letting go and just being very open to what can happen to you in your life.
I know this can be an incredibly hard concept to grasp, especially as many autistic people (like me) experience a great deal of anxiety, so we tend to seek out control in all aspects of life. But sometimes being able to trust and let go of what we would like to have for ourselves, gives way to far bigger things to come our way. And then keep on going with the small steps forward. I appreciate that this blog may appear a little abstract, but I really can’t be too prescriptive as each of us are on our own path, and it will therefore be so different for each of us. And I get that it’s tough, I really do. I’m currently experiencing mental illness as a I write this, and am really not sure what the outcome will be in terms of my life at large, but I am doing my best to let go and remain open to whatever happens and what routes will appear and how things will pan out. And finally, remember that our time on earth is so incredibly valuable, especially with life expectancy in the autistic population being lower than neurotypicals.
We really owe it to ourselves to be able to prioritise our health and time on this planet, and make it work in whatever way is best for us. Keep on going!
Mahlia Amatina July 2023