Coerced unemployment has drastic consequences. Sadly, people do not realize this until they try to find a job after an absence from working. Statistically, one in 200 who were put on long-term disability ever make it off disability. The Ticket-to-Work program and other initiatives have had no positive influence on this grim statistic as more and more sign up for the lucrative disability benefits. The very fact that these payments are called “benefits” makes me shake my head in disbelief!

There are many complex reasons for the permanence of disability. I believe the reason we stay hooked on it has to do with the original reasons for accepting one’s fate as “disabled” in the first place. For me, as a woman composer back in the 1980s I didn’t have much in the way of job possibilities in a field that was at the time overwhelmingly male-dominated. I had no clue what I could possibly do for work as graduation approached. If I recall correctly, my college did not offer readily visible career coaching for music students. I was literally going to be thrown to the wolves, left to figure out the career maze on my own. Some students opted for grad school. One student I knew was going to work for the family business. Several were taking up jobs in fields other than music, knowing that the money wasn’t going to be there if they chose to stay in the creative arts. I was at a total loss. The one thing I didn’t want for myself, the thing I feared the most, was that I would end up waiting on tables.

Calling myself disabled was an easy out for me, an easy excuse for not having to go through with the job search. I could avoid the inevitable sexual harassment on the job that I had experienced in the past. It was so easy to say, “I can’t do that anyway. I don’t qualify,” and then, I was suddenly off the hook entirely.

Calling myself mentally ill made me feel special, an exception to the rule, because, somehow, I was an artist who didn’t fit in, and that felt okay to me for a long, long time. I avoided facing the fact that this was an illogical and therefore, incorrect conclusion.

I wasn’t “special.” I wasn’t “entitled.” The payments weren’t “benefits” either, nor some kind of scholarship or award that I had won for being odd or unique, even though some therapists would have wanted me to believe this (to keep me coming back!).

In fact, we are all quite ordinary, facing ordinary concerns that others have to face as well. If only we knew we were not alone, we wouldn’t have felt like freaks to begin with.

How do people deal with living without jobs? Some people end up dependent on their spouses, whether they are aware of this or not. They become the stay-at-home partner, the kept wife or husband who stays and home and tinkers a bit, or watches television. Days are drab until the working spouse comes home and provides affection and doting entertainment. Such relationships are somehow handy for both, that is, both benefit from this arrangement, the hidden, mentally ill partner, and the active, working, caregiver spouse. True to form, the working spouse gets due relief when the hospital takes the mentally ill partner off his hands for a week or two, while he feigns concern and deep caring for her. This arrangement benefits the hospital, too, as such institutions continue to get their a steady stream of incoming clientele.

Others become dependent on their parents, resorting to childish neediness. Their parents may drive them to appointments or to day treatment. Parents are happy that they still have someone in the nest to control, as letting the kids go was perhaps unbearable for them to begin with. They cling to the mentally ill child as tightly as the child clings to the disabled role. Children sense the parents’ grieving or anticipated grief and will act childish as adults to relieve their parents of distress.

Any of these dependency cycles I have mentioned are only examples. These cycles, and more, are often inadvertently upheld by psychiatry and even by therapy, as therapy also thrives on continued neediness, creates it, milks it, and encourages it. The patient is assured of continued “benefits,” assured that he or she is still disabled, too disabled to possibly work. “Maybe sometime in the future” gets pushed back indefinitely, much to the relief of all involved, that is, the patient, the family, and the therapist, though no one truly wants to admit it.

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