Measures of Our Worth

Frank G. Sterle, Jr.

Reprinted from "Income" issue of Visions Journal, 2011, 7 (2), p. 13

stock photo“What do you do?”

“What do you mean?” I reply.

“I mean, what do you do for a living—what’s your job?”

Already I can see the conventional mindset about to challenge my value as a member of the community . . .

I’m left to reluctantly respond, “I’m currently unemployed.”

‘Unemployed’ ≠ not working

Yes, I’ve been paid for a small number of the essays and such that I’ve had published since the early 1990s and have done a very small amount of non-literary-based paid work. But since 1996, I’ve mostly volunteered my time and effort as editor, writer and producer for three mental-health-orientated publications—‘free freelancing.’ I’m currently working on one of these publications pro bono (that is, done without pay for the public good).

Because I’ve struggled with ongoing chronic mental illness, I receive a partial provincial disability pension. This is because the federal disability pension dollars I receive get deducted. In 1998, I applied for and received Community Volunteer Supplement (CVS) status; this adds $100 to my provincial disability cheque, as long as I perform a minimum of 10 hours of volunteer work every month. There may, however, be additional perks to volunteering. For example, at my current placement, I’m reimbursed for up to $10 toward lunch on the days I work.

I receive all of the above—minus the much-anxiety-inducing, private-sector employment pressure. From past experience, just knowing that my bosses expect to make a worthwhile profit from every hour’s wage they invest in me causes debilitating job-performance anxiety.

However, be it wage earner or volunteer, I aspire to perform my volunteer editorial tasks with the same ‘professional’ intensity that I would with a private sector newspaper. In my two past volunteer editor positions, I frequently performed four-fold the 10 CVS hours required monthly. I also can be somewhat obsessive about written material submitted to the publications that I edit. Although, this is a typically futile attempt at perfection involving the writing, editing, proofreading, paginating, printing/production and even distribution work I do.

My two most notable accomplishments within the unpaid workforce were the publication of two anthologies of mental health consumers’ literature. The first was a small soft-cover, perfect-bound book, with a print run of 2,048 copies, funded by a mental health grant. The second grant-funded anthology, of which I was one of three equal-status, unpaid co-publishers, had a print run of just 224 copies due to the high costs of just preparing the book for printing.

Regardless, with all that I’ve contributed as an unemployed mental health consumer, I still cannot help feeling like somewhat of a loser and societal burden.

As for ‘public opinion,’ my ‘government handout’ cheques miffed one middle-aged chess club peer with whom I’d spent much social time one year. When I asked him if I “should dig ditches” if my mental illness diminished job prospects that would use my intellectual abilities, he replied with a simple, “Well—yes.” (Mind you, he, not being a mental health consumer, was having difficulty finding paid work at the time, which likely soured his point of view.) But then again, just because a job is of a physical rather than a mental sort doesn’t mean there won’t be just as much performance pressure and anxiety.

Welfare—it ain’t no picnic either

I often consider my welfare-state disability pension as an only-source of income for me because of my intense anxiety-in-the-workplace issues. However, the fact is that a welfare office waiting room can itself provoke overwhelming anxiety.

On one particular occasion, for example, the wait seems endless as I sit, anticipating rejection of my fiscal needs or denial of part of my already extremely low funding. The anxiety makes me feel like my stomach and surrounding organs are trying to break free and fly out of my abdomen, out and into the future toward an unknown fate. The wait is heavy with burdensome emotion . . . until the welfare worker finally calls my name.

I follow the worker down endless corridors—left, right, right, left, straight then right—and eventually into the worker’s office, which feels more like an inquisition chamber. We’re surrounded by paper and electronic client files full of names, social insurance numbers (SINs), employment histories, marital statuses and assets noted. There, the worker checks my papers and information many times to make sure that welfare has no reason (excuse?) to refuse me ‘government monies’—indeed, ‘tax dollars’ . . .

“Oh, I see,” the worker says to me, with feigned sympathy. “You didn’t include your SIN on your last cheque stub. Next cheque-issue date’s in about three weeks.” The worker then stares at me, eyes telling me that I may leave; thus, I get up. “Farewell,” the welfare worker says to me, ending the fruitless, red-tape-entangled meeting. I depart, my misplaced hopes for immediate assistance dashed.

Making the shift to ‘employed’—can be too risky

I would prefer leading a normal, tax-paying, employed lifestyle, contently using my mind (as I’m not physically inclined) to create a product for others to consume. If I were fully employed, I’d likely have less time to focus on my severe depression and hyper-anxiety—not that I typically sit around dwelling on my psyche’s misery. Furthermore, I’d most likely appreciate my days off work, especially holidays—though Mondays and other first days back to work could become another source of anxiety. Nonetheless, I believe I’d prefer that existence over my current subsidized situation.

But besides the difficulty of adapting psychologically to taking a regular-paying job after about two decades of disability status, there’s the reality of potentially losing disability benefits. A job can include the risk of much-valued benefits almost immediately being withheld, with no certainty of regaining them if the employment unexpectedly comes to a sudden end. Also, there’s the dollar-for-dollar deduction from disability benefits when one manages to ‘earn a wage,’ which may defeat much of the purpose of taking up a job if it’s paying only minimum wage.

Regardless of whether a mentally ill person on a disability pension is stable enough to take up a paying job, he or she must deal with an unfair double standard. Unlike a visually noticeable disability (like a heavy limp from a stroke), a mental illness, as serious as it truly can be, is basically unseen. Therefore, in the eyes of some in ‘normal’ society, there is no solid, socially acceptable reason (‘excuse’) for a mentally ill person not be employed and ‘pay taxes like the rest of us!’

About the author

Frank lives in White Rock, BC