Pursuing a career out of thin air
February 17, 2015 2:04 PM   Subscribe

I am profoundly stuck trying to figure out if there is a career that can fit my needs after a unique medical/existential history. I am in my late 30s, and spent most of my life having surreal dissociative epileptic seizures, but not realizing the cause. The nature of the seizures were such that I assumed the world was not real in any way. So despite a great education, I have not prioritized or conceptualized work or career in any sense, and simply bounced from thing to thing without caring, as long as I could feed and house myself in very basic ways. Now that I know what was up all these years, I have no idea how to move forward. Any potential ideas, dear MeFites?

The complicating factors are 1) I still have occasional breakthrough seizures and some memory loss from them. So my seemingly perfect plan of pursuing web development/programming came to a crashing halt after one seizure basically erased my memory of everything I had learned over the course of a few months of independent study. I don't think I can build my career around discrete skills like that, which can be erased in that manner. 2) I have no convincing work history to speak of, no professional-sounding references, and no demonstrable skills in project management, organizations, team projects, managing others, etc. 3) I write reasonably well and have excellent editing skills, but can't see a way to leverage that without a portfolio, writing samples, etc., and don't think my occasionally scatter-brained state would support high-intensity freelance work where I am hustling for small jobs and trying to create an instant portfolio, or attract clients out of thin air, etc. 4) The years of feeling dissociated all the time have made social interaction problematic. I would say I am charismatic and expressive and engaging, but I also get off-kilter a lot of the time, and veer into extreme social discomfort, I think depending on whether I am occupying a role that already commands respect. When that's the case, I can hold court and be very charming. But when that is not the case, I am a shrinking nervous freak. 5) I love learning and studying, and always thrived in academic environments, but I could never get another student loan, or afford further education out-of-pocket.

A couple of points: I live in a large metropolitan city in the US now, have an undergraduate degree from any Ivy League university, and a Masters in a field related to Political Science. I have never had a job that utilized any of those skills, knowledge, or connections. My school peers, who I was perfectly on par with intellectually, are now executive directors of organizations, high-powered diplomats around the world, etc. I am not one to compare myself to others (especially since I didn't believe anyone or anything was really real for decades!), but it does highlight how odd it is to have no substantive work history or any idea how to pursue anything new without it.

I definitely feel ready to commit myself to some pursuit, however, and would really appreciate any ideas. I know everyone has challenges, and don't think I am unique in this, but I am really struggling, and feeling profound despair and terror over my lack of good ideas or approaches, and feel like I could so easily be stuck without a good way forward and live hand-to-mouth like this for the rest of my life. Any ideas, or perspectives, or frameworks, or approaches would be deeply welcomed.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, you've accomplished a lot for someone with a significant disability.

Since you have the chops, have you thought about working for the government, perhaps CIA or State Department? There are analytical jobs, in offices, that might suit you really well. The beauty of a government job is that the requirements are the requirements, and often, these are simply education.

Also, if you have friends who are in the government, or who work with folks who are, you may be able to get in front of folks who can hire you.

Now, weirdly enough, there are special openings JUST for folks with disabilities. Here's one with the VA in upstate NY.

Here's the web page about Schedule A Hiring.

The Federal Government can be an awesome place to work if you have a disability.

I'm so glad you're where you are right now, it's really hard when your brain doesn't work well, but you have a fantastic education and hopefully, you can find a niche that will let you use it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:35 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Honestly, I can't see how you could do anything beyond basic service work – waiting tables, bar tending, working a cash register – without the ability to retain information and skills. This is assuming that I am understanding your post correctly, that you have frequent memory-erasing seizures. That is a very severe handicap. I think you need to talk to a rehabilitation or memory specialist who has some experience with this.
posted by deathpanels at 3:10 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Could you learn to do something physical (like a craft or typing) that you could commit to muscle memory rather than... brain memory? What is the difference between school and learning to code? The way you describe the coding, I don't understand how you got through that much (high level!) education. Do you need jobs that only utilize skills/info obtained before a certain point? What about stuff like upscale seamstress/tailor, court reporter (typing), drive a delivery truck (on GPS) that sort of thing?

May help others think of suggestions if you can pop by and provide some details.

(Frankly, each restaurant is different and has it's own rules, quirks, etc... Denny's maybe, anything high end that pays remotely well would be a no from your description. Bar tending requires you to have memorized a bunch of drink recipes - hundreds sometimes.)

Could you do in-house editing/proofreading/copywriting for a company? You'd have to abide by house rules, but they could be looked up and/or re-learnt as needed.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:55 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just want to echo what Ruthless Bunny said. State or Federal government, the pay and benefits aren't what they used to be, but once you get in as some kind of a mid-level policy drone you're set. Check the openings where you are and apply for everything that requires a masters degree. I mean everything. I work with people who have the social skills of a sea slug and the memory of a goldfish, but they know or can research their particular area of expertise inside out, and they learned it on the job. If you happen to wake up after an episode with no recollection of that expertise, you have the opportunity to re-educate yourself, and it sounds like you have the social and intellectual skills to pull that off. "Gee, Molly, the subject is so fluid, things change so rapidly I'm going to have to get back to you on that." Read up, then respond. You'd be a great asset in a state or federal agency.
posted by Floydd at 4:33 PM on February 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Talk to the career services people at your alma maters. They may be able to put you in touch with recruiters, or help you network in other ways.
posted by yarntheory at 5:07 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you looked into/gone through qualifying for any legal definition of disability?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:08 PM on February 17, 2015

From the OP:
I want clarify: I actually have a perfectly good (often photographic) memory generally, and don't have huge cognitive challenges. The issue with programming and memory is that, as I said, it is discrete knowledge, basically unconnected with other information, and the way that sits in my brain apparently made it liable to disappear. Most other veins of knowledge and skill connect to other veins, and are less vulnerable to that kind of disappearing act, at least from what I have noticed. I generally have no problem learning and retaining information, and I did complete all my education (easily) while having these same seizures all my life. I definitely don't think I need to be relegated to being a cashier or a waitress as a result. I think my biggest challenge is having no work history or professional experience, and yes, an inability to tackle an entirely new discrete intellectual framework like programming (but I also can't think of many other examples which would present that specific kind of obstacle!) But thanks to all for your suggestions so far.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 5:23 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

One thing that is hard about being non-typical is that it can be hard to parse out what stuff is just regular human stuff and what stuff is due to being non-typical.

For example, something in your question jumped out at me:
I would say I am charismatic and expressive and engaging, but I also get off-kilter a lot of the time, and veer into extreme social discomfort, I think depending on whether I am occupying a role that already commands respect. When that's the case, I can hold court and be very charming. But when that is not the case, I am a shrinking nervous freak.

Hey - me too! This may be a regular being-a-person thing as opposed to a problem related to your seizures. Imposter syndrome is a real thing that lots of people have to work through. I think trying to be really granular about the effects of your seizures and understanding where the boundaries are between $SEIZUREPROBLEM and $REGULARHUMANPROBLEM could help. I bet there's a lot more $REGULARHUMANPROBLEM in the mix than you realize, especially if you earned an undergrad degree in the Ivy League plus a master's degree.

The advice about government jobs is really good. Ignore the advice about low-level service jobs. The fact that you have those degrees indicates that you have project management skills (assignments are projects), that you can work in teams (did you never have to do an assignment with others?), and most importantly, you can communicate like a educated professional (asking for perspectives, approaches, and frameworks indicates a comfort with abstract ideas and an ability to take those abstract ideas and apply them to your situation, not to mention the vocabulary to express yourself in a way that other educated professionals will understand).

FWIW, as someone who has kinda sorta learned to code stuff off and on over a couple of decades now, learning to code is hard. It is hard to retain if you don't need to use it every day to keep your job for years. I use SQL at my job (which is not even a FOR REALZ language) almost every day, and I still have to google stuff all the time that I know I did a month ago.
posted by jeoc at 5:33 PM on February 17, 2015 [11 favorites]

It might be a good idea to look for an internship or temp position that will pay you with experience. If you can land a good internship in a field that interests you, you can get enough hands on experience and skills to make up for dismal (or absent!) pay, and often get close to directors or PI's if you chose an academic route.

If you're at all into biology or animals, the Texas A&M job board has a wealth of these kind of positions, as well as some permanent ones. I got hired on a few of these when I was really building up my research experience, and now my resume is a darn sexy looking PDF.

Oh! And it definitely helps to be friendly with computers in these kinds of gigs. And troubleshooting. And common sense. Field work is basically a series of small disasters, and that's in a good season :)
posted by Drosera at 5:39 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Anon, I wonder if you are seeing a therapist? I mean this gently, because it sounds from your write-ups that you are very capable and self-aware, but your self-doubt may be crippling you.

What I can tease out from your writing is that you seem well-suited to a number of careers. Grant writing, for one, seems like a good fit. Research assistant at a non profit or some type of analyst are other fits that I see.

Learning to code is hard - I've taken several classes and I can't even remember how to do the hello world bit anymore. And I absolutely agree that it takes a different set of thinking than other tasks. So it does not seem like this would affect other branches of employment.

Have you been employed in the past? Any type of employment can be spun to fit a variety of future careers. Volunteer work?

I agree with drosera - could you temp or take part-time jobs that might be more menial to bump up your resume in the meantime?
posted by umwhat at 6:18 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Do a bunch of temp work in fields/skill sets that you want to build on. If it is difficult getting that temp work initially, volunteering (again, think tailored to what you want to build your work skills in) will help as well. Leave your Masters off your resumes for now because it won't be relevant to the roles.

I wouldn't feel as if the programming thing not working out is a setback of some kind - you tried something, it didn't work - keep trying stuff until it does.

But I think volunteering/temping in areas you're interested in and/or skills you want to gain will make things a lot easier.
posted by heyjude at 7:22 PM on February 17, 2015

You're clearly a fluent writer and have an excellent command of English. Here's a ramp-up suggestion.

If you live in a large US city, then there are inevitably international students. You tutor English-language learners, work with them on TOEFL practice, talk them through grammar issues on their papers, help them decode leases and such. You start out as a volunteer, develop confidence in your ability to work within the confines of someone else's schedule.

Eventually, you have great word-of-mouth, and you can ask folks to pay for your services. It won't be "buy a new house this year" money, but it's a start. It's something you can put on your resume, and something to get you out in the world.

Check Virtual CIL to get the contact info for your area's Center for Independent Living. Contact them to put you in touch with employment consultants who specialize in placing people with disabilities. While many such consultants are looking for more bodies in sheltered workshops, there are also those actually trying to find folks high level jobs.
posted by Jesse the K at 7:30 PM on February 17, 2015

My school peers, who I was perfectly on par with intellectually, are now executive directors of organizations, high-powered diplomats around the world, etc.

You might reactivate and use these connections. Sleazy-feeling, I know, but from a practical perspective it's a bit like a long-term resumé. Perhaps more tolerable to use as a booster, after you've built up a bit of a track record in the ways other people are recommending.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:46 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think you are really doing great to have survived so far through what must be a nightmare.
I cannot give you any practical advice, but I think I can encourage you that it is possible to reinvent yourself from crippling circumstances.

I was not physically ill but mentally wrecked when at age 30, I left a cult, after 13 years. I had no work history outside the cult, and the professional training I had pursued before I joined the cult was not only incomplete but by that time totally outdated as the industry had moved on, and computer skills which I lacked then, were an absolute must.
Not only was I without any job experience or valid training, but also wildly confused as to how to make any social contacts or how to fit into a work place at all. My peers from design school had positions as art directors or agency directors and I found I was so far alienated from that whole world I could not even reach out to them.
The employment office wanted me to take up a job in a supermarket filling shelves (not even a cashier), or in a factory, or as a cleaning lady.

However, what brought a turn around, after about a year of floundering, was that I took a 6-month temp job, in an office. Office work was not really something that interested me, and I had no typing skills, etc., but I met the one requirement which was fluent spoken English, in addition to my mother tongue.
Emotionally I was a complete mess, I barely made it out of bed in the morning, knew nothing about office work and the world of employment in general, but I somehow survived the first six months in a job with a good paycheck. And that boosted my self esteem.

Looking back, 20 years on, that first temp job gave me the confidence to continue on the job market. I saw clearer what my marketable strengths were, and I ended up with a permanent job in a field I had previously never considered.
I am successful now, and have a good position despite the dire predictions of my environment that I would never be able to hold a job that was more complex than restocking shelves.

What I am trying to say is - if there is an opportunity opening up, grab it. Even something you might never have considered, and even if it is only for a few weeks or months.
For me it was daunting to think in terms of a long term career ("where do you want to be in 5 years?" was a nightmare to consider, and for me then unanswerable).
But various small temp jobs, where the job interview did not focus on a long term employment, were less threatening, and gave me an opportunity to get my bearings in the professional world.

English tutoring could be a great first step. Where I live, private English lessons for managers, CEOs, politicians, etc, are in high demand. These are one on one, and tailored to the person's need. And an MA could be to your advantage here.

And don't listen to those who think you are only fit to do low income, low threshold jobs.
posted by 15L06 at 5:13 AM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

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