When I beat myself up – as I tend to do quite often – one of my blunt instruments of choice is that I am rubbish at earning money, absolutely rubbish. I may have written thousands of words, published four books, taught, brought up a child, volunteered, gained several qualifications, helped, listened, visited sick relatives, washed saucepans, cleaned lavatories and recycled cardboard, but the financial gains from all this activity have been paltry. I mean, pathetic. Like many people with mental health problems, I find paid employment, or ‘having a proper job’, very difficult and have been unable to stick with any. I truly believe that if it wasn’t for the support of my family and my husband, I would, like so many other people in the UK, require support from the state – and this, just at the moment, is an increasingly dangerous position to find oneself in.
But I’ll come to that in a moment. Going back to that blunt instrument, I would suggest that, although I am the one wielding it, I’m not its originator. I just found it lying about. Well, of course I did: I live in a culture where ‘What do you do?’ means ‘How do you earn money?’ and ‘doing well’ means ‘earning well’. ‘Productivity’ means producing wealth. ‘Aspirational’ refers to the desire to produce and acquire more of the same.
The consequence of all this is that the work which generates the most wealth for the people who do it is highly valued, highly visible and over-subscribed. Other kinds of work, which are less well-paid – the work of maintenance, the work of care – are undervalued, barely visible, and largely taken up only by those who have no choice. These people we depend on for our life and well-being, who care for small children, for example, or the for the elderly, who maintain our vital infrastructure, or take our waste away, lack not only parity of income with the super wealth-creators, but parity of esteem.
Less visible still are those who work, but earn nothing for it: the great army of unpaid parents, carers and housekeepers, utterly indispensible and virtually unthought-of. This group includes many who are themselves physically – or mentally – unfit for work, and may themselves require care. Of these non-wealth creators, some will – like me – be fortunate enough to have partners or families who are able to support them financially. But many others won’t.
To be chronically ill is bad enough. To be ill and to suffer a financial penalty for it is even worse. To find oneself ill and in want, and then to be judged and persecuted as a consequence - to know oneself unable to work and not to be believed - is quite unspeakably dreadful. This post was inspired by the death of a woman who, for no conceivable fault of her own, was forced to spend the last two years of her life fighting not to be in that dreadful place. Her name was Karen Sherlock, she was a disability rights campaigner, and you can read her story in her own words here: http://bit.ly/LfWIRj
I don’t know if she ever wielded that blunt instrument against herself, as I have – I truly hope she didn’t. That the state should have beaten up on her in this fashion is unbearable.