During the early phases of my recovery from schizophrenia, two things were important to me that I was unwilling to compromise because of a significant mental health disorder: working and further healing. I was tired, not just from the impact of my symptoms or side effects from medication, but from laying in bed and feeling useless.
My parents, specifically my mother and father, were critical in dispelling the idea that my future was limited because of illness. They reminded me to take outstanding care of myself, and my career would follow. Well, they were right on the money.
With the help of my therapist and a good psychiatrist, all reinforcing the concept of self-care, I went back to graduate school in social work. Within two years, I graduated from SUNY Binghamton with a master’s degree in social work. The same college I had my initial ‘break’ from first-episode psychosis, and ultimately diagnosed as schizophrenia.
As a young licensed social worker, I taught my clients about self-care as well. Later on, I would teach self-care at the level of education. Specifically, I taught social work education to new social work students as an adjunct professor at Fordham University at their Manhattan campus. I had come just about full circle since my initial illness.
When my illness was first blossoming, I was an English major at Binghamton University with dreams of becoming a professor. A decade later, I was teaching young therapists how to be future social workers. In some cases, these future social workers would be future therapists, reinforcing the importance of self-care to their patients, similar to how my therapist did ten years ago.
Today, I am confident, knowledgeable, and polished in my education and skills. But, this wasn’t always the case: schizophrenia had struck me at the most inopportune time, right in the peak of intellectual ability and personality development.
Research indicates schizophrenia often becomes diagnosable at this point in the development of young adults. This fact about schizophrenia is sad and difficult for many people to manage (and understand), but it doesn’t have to be the terminal point in your career or education.
There are few things to keep in mind as you pick up the reigns of your education again, or for the first time. First, you are in charge of how far you take your education, with or without a mental health disorder. Second, the limits of your career and skills are where you set them.
So, when you go back into the classroom, remember that you choose the carer you want. Please, don’t let your symptoms, as tricky as they may be to deal with while going to school or to work, dictate what you want to do in life.
Should work or education prove to be ‘too much’ or triggering, look inward, and ask yourself: are you taking the best possible care of yourself as possible? If you cannot identify the reason or roadblock that is triggering you or activating your symptoms and making it difficult to work or study, consult with a therapist. Troubleshoot with a psychiatrist.
Just don’t give up or throw in the towel because of a label. A mental health disorder is only as disabling as the power you give it to rule over your life. Sure, there will be days when you just can’t make it to work because of your symptoms, but that is OK.
Just like the flu, some signs make it too uncomfortable to go in and do our job correctly. Heck, going to work or school in such cases might even be a bad idea, should you be contagious from the flu or tired from depression to get your work done correctly. But these are blips and moments and should not influence your potential for lifetime achievement.
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.