I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in my career pondering what it must be like to have to apply for disability, particularly total disability. During my time at Unum I applied for STD once, and of course, my claim was denied, sending me back to work in the shortest amount of time.
It’s not easy to leave the job you’ve studied for, planned for, and paid for. Based on my experience, the hardest occupations to leave are medicine, the law, executive CEO positions, and other highly paid professions on which you’ve based your quality of life and standard of living. I personally think that regardless of what your jobs were disabled individuals mourn their jobs in ways that are just as painful, physically and emotionally, as the death of a loved one.
Immediately upon leaving work it doesn’t take very long to realize that everything in your life has changed. There is no dress preparation the night before, it’s not necessary to set the alarm, day care preparations are not necessary, and there is no urgency about having to be somewhere on time. While all of those things are suddenly absent from your life there is also a sense of mournfulness at not having to drive to work the next morning, ready and willing to put all efforts into doing a good job. The familiar routine has been lost, but not yet unlearned.
Then, reality sets in….”No paycheck”. “But, wait a minute, I have disability benefits that will pull me though.” Well, maybe, and certainly not right away. And while it’s nerve wrecking to worry about money and bills, the emotional trauma of disability is not unlike the stages people go through when a death occurs – non-acceptance, depression, anger, sadness, disbelief, and finally acceptance. Everything in your life changes and, you are immediately asked to adjust, all the while filing out disability forms, attending physician consultations, and managing the pain and suffering that disability so often brings.
I probably don’t have to tell you that involuntarily leaving the job you loved for medical reasons traumatizes you. Some people describe it to me as a “feeling of failure”, or “guilt” for letting the family down. Or, a painful sense of bewilderment caused by not knowing who you are, or what your purpose in life really is.
The cultural culprit of these feelings is the American tendency to define who we are by what we do for a living. Think about it. Usually, as soon as we turn 16, we start looking for part-time jobs. Guidance counselors begin discussing college or vocational training in the 10th grade. And, believe it or not, when asked at a cocktail party “Who are you?” most people will answer, “I’m a secretary”, or, I’m a doctor etc.” Americans identify who they ARE as people through their occupations, and it’s difficult not to be suddenly defined as a title anymore.
Losing the sense of one’s self during a period of disability is a normal manifestation of losing one’s job. It is emotionally painful, and for many people it takes some time to adjust to the new status of “disabled”. This is why nearly every person who contacts me politely explains, “I want to go back to work as soon as I can”, even when they know they probably can’t.
While only a small percentage of people actually return to work, the thought of going back to work keeps people eternally on LinkedIn, even though having such a site “to keep the door open” is averse to disability claims. The hope and possibility of returning to the status quo when you defined yourself in a way you were proud of, (the looking glass self), remains ever present even with total disability cases.
I wish more people would take the time to think about the amount of emotional strength it takes to give up an occupational life due to medical disability. Everything in a life changes, and it takes time to adjust to a new quality of life that the disabled gradually define as they move forward with new goals and new opportunities.
Understandably, it takes time to mourn the occupation or job you’ve had to leave behind. But, as you become more secure in “the new you”, you may find that it really is true that “as one door closes many other doors open.” The door you choose may not be the same door, but it will be interesting, probably more so than the opened door you had before.
On your journey, try to remember that “disability” is NOT a state of perpetual being, but rather a cultural definition resulting from a medical or mental impairment. “Disability” will only stay with you until you can figure out what the new YOU is going to look, and act like.