Becoming permanently disabled in my 40s was emotionally stunting. After all, when you retire before 50, what exactly are you supposed to do with the rest of your life? We all imagine that when we finally retire we will travel around the world, or study, or sit in coffee shops maligning scruffy teenagers, or do any number of fun things by choice. But the reality is that when that day finally comes, our bodies and abilities may not be so cooperative. Or worse, like myself, you may find yourself forcefully retired before you even achieve any of the things you may have imagined were important to you.
The other unexpected issue with early retirement (or even regular retirement) is, of course, money. Even if my body were able to accommodate my desire to travel to exotic destinations, a retirement pension isn’t much to live on (and a spotty work history due to years of chronic illness isn’t conducive to saving much money).
Faced with overwhelming feelings of plummeting self-esteem and general aimlessness, how do you go about ‘finding yourself’ again?
I suppose it’s not unlike any mid-life crisis — the halfway point in one’s life is difficult for anyone. The difference in my case was simply that so many options felt cut off from me due to physical and financial limitations. At a certain point, though, creating a new identity for myself became less a matter of choice and more a case of necessity. You either evolve or die. I picked evolve.
Things I Did That Were Free:
- Stopped saying “Nothing” when people asked me what I did for a living. For what it’s worth, that is a supremely crummy question. There are plenty of people who are not wage earners but still have jobs (stay-at-home parents being one example) and the question makes plenty of people super uncomfortable. In my case, though, I started answering with the other things I did in my life (like writing and acting) rather than de-valuing myself.
- Claim my disabled identity. Society really, really wants disabled people to feel like they are lesser-than because they cannot work and/or because they are perceived as broken. By deciding that my disabilities were just part of who I was and that it was society who was disabling me when it did not make basic accommodations, I regained much of the self esteem I had previously lost.
Things I Did That Wasted Money:
- Investing money in my writing. I have always written, but finding time to devote to it was always a challenge when I was in school, and later work. Since I have become permanently disabled, I have had bouts of writing, but I’ve sometimes found it difficult to follow through without a dedicated spot to write. While it was initially difficult to justify spending money (without any guaranteed money coming out of it in return) to finance a work space, I have definitely reaped the benefits of that decision — I have completed two more books (with several more on the go) and a multitude of essays. (Obviously I could not have done this without the privilege of a two-income household — I am very grateful for a partner who recognized that my emotional needs were a priority.)
- Giving change to street people. I have always been a somewhat private person when it comes to discussing charity. I don’t like to telegraph when I give money because I have it in my head that you shouldn’t expect praise for doing something that is simply a decent thing to do. But I acknowledge that there is value in leading by example. My feeling, when it comes to giving money to anyone who asks, is to give some if you can spare some, and not if you can’t. It’s that simple. I’m not that interested in hearing people’s convoluted reasons as to why they don’t give. If you don’t want to, don’t. But I’ve found that having some change in my pocket every day to give when people ask, and acknowledging them by saying “Have a nice day!” makes me feel pretty great. When you feel like you no longer have a purpose and that you cannot possibly make an impact, the act of helping someone else and connecting for a moment is an unbelievable boost to your self-esteem. I’m not talking God complex here — I’m talking about recognizing the connection we all have as human beings. Even when you can’t make a big impact, the small gestures still count.
- Activism. It can sometimes be difficult for disabled bodies to participate in social activism. Not all activist spaces are accessible, nor do we always have the energy to participate in marches or sit-ins. But some of us can make posters, or write online or a variety of other tasks. And it’s vital for disabled persons to be intersectional voices within the feminist and other movements.
- Volunteering. Again, accessibility can be a challenge, but there are many ways to volunteer and be part of organizations that are important to you (while being able to set time and job limits that fit within your abilities). Both activism and volunteering have helped me feel connected to the world and recognize the importance of my role in it.
- Buying lattes. Other lists will tell you that the first thing you need to do to improve your life is to stop drinking coffee. I think that is a fair assessment. But those same lists will likely point out that you need to allow yourself some form of reward or thing that brings you happiness. In my case, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I have to limit my sugar. Basically I have no vices. Buying the occasional latte (with no syrups or whipped cream or toppings) is what makes me happy. It also gives me a destination; a place to go that requires me to be social (if only for a few minutes) and it feels like a splurge. Maybe your splurge is buying a newspaper, or getting your nails done. The point is that sometimes we need an extra reason to get up in the morning or get out of the house. Wasted money, perhaps, but totally worth it.
If we accept the concept that we have to “spend money to make money,” it shouldn’t be so novel that we need to invest in ourselves to find our self-worth.