Sickness on a Ticking Clock: Mental Illness and Precarity in a Term-Limited Position

Our first LIS Mental Health blog post is an anonymous submission.

“Be willing to relocate, and you’ll probably have to take a term-limited job at first.” It’s practical advice for new LIS grads; that’s the state of the field at the moment. As someone in her 20s from a privileged socioeconomic background without dependents or caring responsibilities, I thought these were conditions I could easily handle. I had a partner who was halfway through a degree program, so I knew a long-distance relationship was probably going to be in the cards for me at first, but I was ready to do what I needed to do for a stable career.

My struggle to find a first LIS job ended up not being a struggle at all, which is a privileged experience; I was offered a great job several months before I graduated from my program at a salary that could support me. It was a 2-year librarian position located about 1200-1500 miles from my partner, friends, and family, but I’ve always been pretty independent, and technology makes it easier than ever before to keep in touch with our support networks over distance.

I lasted a year before I left that job. To be clear, the position itself was a fantastic professional development experience for me. I met great people who do great work, I learned a lot, did work I was excited about, and I was paid well to do it. I don’t blame my former employer for the worst year I’ve ever had, but unfortunately that’s what it turned out to be.

I was diagnosed with mental illness as a teenager. After college, as my life started to stabilize a bit, I was doing better than ever before at managing my illness. I even went off some of my medications for a while, falling prey to a false sense of being “better” that so many mentally ill people are familiar with. But big life changes exacerbate mental illness. Compounded with a sudden loss of support networks, the anxiety of a new career, the further anxiety of knowing I’d be back on the job market in a year, and the feelings of imposter syndrome endemic to the LIS field, I descended into a really bad place. My symptoms were the worst they had ever been. I returned to self-harm behaviors I hadn’t had to deal with in almost a decade. I was constantly worried, on top of everything else, about what was going to happen to me when my contract was up. I remember one experience in particular of being triggered (in the medical sense) and having to ask the nearest coworker for help, and the sense of shame I carried in future discussions with that coworker even though he was compassionate in that moment. I remember many experiences of sitting at my desk, wondering if I should inform my supervisor that I would be out the next day, wondering if today was finally the day I would check myself into a hospital. 

Besides one or two coworker-friends I felt I could be honest with, I always framed my absences and accommodations as simply for being “sick,” because there is still a stigma around mental illness and “professionalism.” I may know that being hours late to work because I couldn’t get out of bed is a physiological result of chemical imbalances in my brain, but it does still read to others as being lazy or uncaring. Dissociation, anxiety, and other symptoms can easily read as lack of focus. Mental illness in general is still viewed as such a private thing, I didn’t feel like I could name my illness without others thinking I was over-sharing my personal business.

It took me around five months to find a therapist in that city who was right for me and could refer me to a doctor for medication changes that I needed. It took months after that of therapy to build a relationship where I was starting to trust my new therapist and feel positive results. I was constantly on new psychiatric medications during my year in that job, which comes with radical behavioral changes, brain fog, and physical symptoms that all affected my ability to work. These things take time, which frankly, term-limited employees just don’t have before it’s time to move again and start all over. It’s been about a year since I moved to yet another city, and I still haven’t been able to get in to see a psychiatrist or a therapist in my new location. The COVID-19 situation has made that nearly impossible right now, as waiting lists are filling up with folks experiencing the negative impacts of quarantine. 

“Be willing to relocate, and you’ll probably have to take a term-limited job at first.” For anyone who lives with mental illness and/or other chronic illness, this is complicated at best and impossible for many, especially when illness is compounded by other factors such as economic hardship, race and racism, and trauma in the workplace. When moving across the country and dealing with the constant anxiety of precarity exacerbates symptoms, we’re constantly putting mentally ill folks in danger with these working conditions. “Wellness” and “wellbeing” initiatives in the workplace, though helpful for many, don’t do a lot to address this side of illness. Our labor model simply has to change.

One thought on “Sickness on a Ticking Clock: Mental Illness and Precarity in a Term-Limited Position

  • Christina

    I’ve been tracking this issue for a long time and would like to pose this question: can precarious labor be truly beneficial when the act of succeeding (processing your collection, etc) is directly tied to the loss of a job?

    In some ways it does allow for entry into the profession, but I wonder, just how many of our colleagues start in limited-term positions and are then retained in the profession to full-time continuous employment? I am increasingly worried that these short-term positions push folks out of the profession or push folks into cycles of stress that negatively impact their health. Thank you for sharing your story.

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