THE QUESTION WE REALLY MUST STOP ASKING
Updated: Jul 28, 2019
If you’ve never had a serious mental or physical illness, you may not realise that a standard question we ask every new person we meet can be really damaging to some people’s self-esteem. This seemingly innocent question usually comes right after introductions:
What do you do?
Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But we define ourselves by this question. “I’m a student.” “I’m a doctor.” “I’m an artist.” “I’m a hairdresser.” When we go out and socialise, we expect to share these details; it gives others a sense of who we are, how we support ourselves, what makes us interesting. When I say “I’m a hypnotist,” it always starts a conversation. People are fascinated by what I do, so although I’m not the most sociable person in the world I always have something to talk about when I’m meeting new people.
In the past, I’ve been able to say I’m a cruise ship photographer, a theatre technician, sound artist, office worker, bartender, waitress, shop assistant, student. But for a period of about four years I didn’t have an answer. Unless you count “I had a complete mental breakdown, got diagnosed with bipolar disorder and medicated until I barely remembered who I was, and now I’m on disability benefit and feel proud of just getting myself showered and dressed in the morning”.
See the problem here?
For a person in this position, part of recovery is finding your way back into the world after a period of relative isolation. When you’ve been unable to work, with no energy to socialise and some pretty nasty medication side effects such as weight gain, lack of energy and motivation, brain fog and drooling, withdrawing from the world can seem like the only option.
Then there’s the shame.
I know, being ill is nothing to be ashamed of; it can happen to anyone. But the shame is there. Especially when you’re on benefits; we’ve all heard of that TV show, “Benefits Street”. When your self-esteem is already in the gutter, words such as “lazy” and “scrounger” start lurking in the back of your mind. The humiliating interviews you have to go through to even get help leave you feeling worthless or a liar. You feel judged. The fear and stress of the process increases anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
The more you withdraw, the less you have to talk about when you do force yourself to go out and mix with other people. You feel dull and boring, and you dread that question: “What do you do?” So you stay home. Or go to support groups, where everyone talks about their symptoms and medication side effects. They get it; you’re naturally drawn to people who understand and don’t judge you. The illness becomes your identity; any friendships you form are with people who are in the same situation, and nobody moves forward.
Coming back from that is hard; so many people never do. The more socially isolated they become, the more impossible it seems to have any kind of future at all. So now imagine that someone in this position is forcing themselves to get “out there” and mix with people who are not ill. People with jobs, hobbies, lives. Confidence is low, self-esteem is rock bottom, but they do it anyway. Then a well-meaning stranger asks the dreaded question: “What do you do?”
The expected answer is what you do for money, and let’s face it, a lot of people are miserable and unfulfilled in their jobs anyway. A person could be an artist or musician, but make a living in a call centre and dread each day; why would anyone want to talk about something as grim as that? A better question would be:
What do you like to do?
What excites you? What are your hobbies? What are you passionate about? What are your goals in life? Even sick and disabled people who can’t currently work have goals and passions. These are questions that anyone, at any stage in life, can answer in the present tense without shame or embarrassment.
And it makes for a much more interesting conversation for everyone.