Professionally Disabled

“So, Kim, what do you do for a living?”

Such a simple question.   Steve, my new acquaintance, isn’t trying to stump me.  He isn’t trying to trick me or make me uncomfortable.  But I do feel uncomfortable, because I just don’t know what to say.

What do I do for a living?

Fuck if I know.

Should I answer literally?

“Well Steve, mostly I spend my time doing as little as possible while doing enough that I don’t go completely crazy from loneliness and lack of meaning in my life.”

or, how about this

“I spend my day doing mundane, easy tasks that you don’t even count as work.  If I have a day where I shower AND make dinner… that’s a busy day.”

or, how about bitter

“I’m that lazy, worthless grifter sucking money out of the system, using your hard-earned tax dollars to pay my rent.  Oh, you didn’t expect me to be well educated and white?  Well, welcome to the real world where shitty things can happen to everyone.”

Thoughts flicker through my mind slowly, at the speed of a plodding workhorse.  In the conversation there is a pause as he waits for my answer.  I’m notably flustered, lost.  My eyes dart around the room, hoping for some inspiration.  My brain flails around trying to find something appropriate to say.  As the seconds tick by, it becomes more and more awkward as my conversation mate waits for me to throw the conversation ball back.

Finally, I just pretend that I am still working where I have been for the last nine years.

“I’m an Environmental Scientist.  I work for the Vermont Army National Guard.  Most people don’t realize it, but the Guard has an amazing recycling program.  We recycle our motor oil, our antifreeze, and have a 50% diversion rate for our trash…”

There.  I’ve answered.  Done.

Steve’s eyes deaden, his smile becomes forced.  He shifts around, clearly he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.  That’s fine.  It’s not because I’m disabled or I’ve stopped passing, it’s just because of my old employer.  At this art opening, with this about 60 year old white man who clearly has hippy roots, the military is the enemy and by extension so am I.  Whatever.  It’s normal, I’ve passed. That’s all I was really worried about.

Sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes, I try to tell the truth.  The whole truth.  And nothing but the truth.  Truth has always been easier for me than any polite lie.  But, yea old brain processing is impaired, and my ability to summarize is impaired too.

“I’m currently disabled.  I hit my head playing roller derby several years ago, and never completely recovered.  I managed to hold on to my job by the skin of my teeth, making myself completely miserable every single day.  I was a shit to be around too.  Unable to regulate.  The littlest decision felt overwhelming.  Well, that actually still happens.  But since I’m not working the pressure isn’t as heavy so it really only happens when I’m tired now.  But I’m tired pretty much all the time.  And sad.  It sucks not being able to do anything…”

You get the picture.  As I talk, people’s eyes glaze over and it starts to feel awkward.  And I don’t know when to stop.  Summarizing and concluding take the ability to hold the intent of my words in mind… and often that just isn’t available.  So I provide waaay too much information.  To strangers. Social fail!

Sometimes, when I know I’m going to meet people and I have the energy think ahead, I prepare a one or two sentence statement that is the condensed truth without getting into my personal business.

“I’ve recently taken a break from work to focus on recovering from a brain injury.”

Bam.  Short, simple, sweet.  And mostly true.  Is eight months really, truly, “recently”?

Or how about something even more generic and blasé.  I mean, do strangers really need to know about my brain injury?  No.

“I’m not working right now while I focus on some medical issues.”

Both of these responses requires a follow up.  Such a quick deflecting sentence means I need to promptly ask about their job and act fascinated by what they do, since that’s the only topic of casual conversation available.  Because I don’t want to talk about my brain injury or my crap-shoot of a life.  No, I’d really prefer not.  It isn’t polite nor neat nor easy, so let’s not try to tackle that as new acquaintances, okay?  Let’s talk about your work.  Explain exactly what you do again?

I find these conversations stressful.  I won’t lie.  I find it frustrating and difficult that people keep asking me over and over again what I do for a living.  It feels like an attack I have no answer for.  What am I suppose to say? I’m professionally disabled?  Cuz, kinda, I am.  Social Security sends me money every month.

Imagine saying that at a mixer.

“So, Kim, what do you do for a living?”

“Oh, I’m professionally disabled.  I’m paid to go to medical appointments and rest and heal. How about you?”

Kinda fun answer, actually.  Unfortunately, that would probably push me into the category of a little socially off and weird.  And then we’d talk about my disability… which I don’t really want to do.


As professionally disabled, I need to dress up for my job.

What do disabled peeps who can’t work say they do for a living?  What solutions have all of you come up with out there?  Let me know in the comments – I’m really curious. I know I am not the only one struggling with this issue.

I’m tired of struggling.  I’m tired of not knowing what to say.  I need to take action.  I need to plan what I’m going to say before this issue pops up again.  There is no reason to be caught flat footed.  I can prepare.  Because, I assure you, this question will be asked again.

Let’s think about this.  What is the purpose of someone asking me what I do for a living?  It’s a conversation starter.  That’s it.  It’s an attempt to find points of shared interest and connection, that can then be talked about further.


Settle on a one or two sentence response that feels honest but not too personal.

Then – here’s the exciting part! – I need to throw the conversation ball back.  I need to plan how I will throw my conversation-mate a bone. Since the purpose of asking what I do for a living is an attempt to find points of shared interest and connection, I need to throw back something personal about myself that we can then talk about.

That has been the missing link.  I’ve just focused on what is being asked.  I’ve floundered with a thousand different answers.  But this whole time, I haven’t addressed the underlying issue, the underlying intent of the person who is asking the question.  They want to get to know me, at least for a minute, superficially.  For them to do that, I have to tell them something about myself.

What do I want to share about myself?  What do I want to tell a friendly stranger about my life?


I don’t know.

Hmmm… okay, what about my life is conversation ready?  What is something someone in the world might relate to.  What am I doing?

I’ve been doing Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT).  That’s been taking up a lot of my time for the past three months.  65 sessions in.


Hanging out in the tube…

But I don’t really want to talk about a medical treatment.  No, not really.

I just learned how to play Mah Jong and I plan to start playing weekly at a nearby library.  I’m excited about that.  There are daytime games, so I’ll have the energy to attend.  Yes, I’ll probably be playing exclusively with people over 60, but they are the best conversationalists.


American Mah Jong

It’s kinda weird to talk about playing a game when asked about my job.  No, that doesn’t seem to be a good fit.

I’m painting the kitchen cabinets.  Or, correction (sorry Mary), I was painting the kitchen cabinets three months ago until I started HBOT.  I’d really like to finish that project.  That’s something important to me.


I will finish this project!

But no.  If I can paint kitchen cabinets, the easy question is why am I not out there working.  Sure, I can only work on the project an hour a few days a week… but I don’t want to emphasize my inability or my limitations.  I’d rather talk about something I can do.

How about this – I write.  I’ve been writing this blog for over two years now.  It’s been one consistent mode of expression and communication.  At first, I wasn’t impressed with trading physical activity and aggressive full-contact gameplay with writing.  But, it’s grown on me.  It’s something I can share, too.  It’s a creative, productive sort of thing to talk about.

So that’s my answer.  Writing is one aspect of my life that other people can relate to – people want to write, have written, have thought about writing.  People understand it as a real “thing” that grownup people do.  A valid productive pastime.  Or not.  But of those who don’t think it’s a valid thing to do, there is that predictable stereotypical response of good-old-boy-do-some-real-work sort of thing I grew up with.  Familiar and easy to deal with.

Let’s put it all together.

“So, Kim, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m currently not working so I can focus on some health issues.  However, for the last two years I’ve been writing a blog.”

Quick response – check.  Deflect from head injury – check.  Throw the conversation ball back – check.

Maybe add in something about what I use to be, because being an environmental scientist has been a big part of my identity

“I’ve worked as an Environmental Scientist for 15 years.  More recently, I have stopped working to focus on some health issues.  On the plus side, that has allowed me to start writing.”

Perfect.  I’ve sandwiched the socially difficult truth between two conversational opportunities.  They can ask me about being an Environmental Scientist, or about writing.

These few sentences, with practice, can flow easily off my tongue, ushering the gears of polite conversation forward.  If I want to be really prepared, I could brainstorm a few responses to further questions or inquiries.  But, I’ll leave that for another day.

This is my new default response.  I feel relieved.  I feel successful.  Thank the Gods.

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14 Responses to Professionally Disabled

  1. Thanks. I’ve never known what to say when asked about my job. Now I have an answer I can give. Now, if I can just figure out what to say when they ask me, am I off work today…..


  2. Anne Ferry says:

    Hi There Kim,

    I’ve been reading your blog since the beginning. I’m impressed with the progress you have made dealing with what life has dealt you.

    Hang in there, the California cousins are keeping you in their thoughts and prayers!

    Anne Ferry

    (530) 646-8002

    P.O. Box 405

    Tehama, CA 96090



  3. Michele Huttenga says:

    I came across your blog as i am now starting my journey. What do I tell people I do? What can my daughter say her mom does? You’ve given me ideas to incorporate my job with the present and my hope for the future. Thank you for being honest about this topic. It creates more stress than it should.


  4. Kim, I’m sorry this is all so frustrating, so hard.

    You came up with a good response. That helps. Me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about people’s opinions of me, so I freely tell folks I’m recovering from a significant brain injury so I changed careers (truth) and let them think what they want.

    I see people frequently who I’m certain I know from B.B.I (before brain injury), I just don’t know their names or how I know them. I’ve gotten really good at just saying, hey there, I think I know you but I had a brain injury two years ago and so much is missing, would you help me remember you? What’s harder is when someone sees me and gets upset because I don’t remember them whatsoever and they think I’m being rude. Again, I tell them what happened to me and ask them to help me remember them. They soften right up at that.

    My gf said to me today, after I told her about an exciting incident, that a year and a half ago it would have taken me 20 minutes to relay the story with many starts and stops and things all out of order. Today, it took three minutes, and all the pieces were in order. And I didn’t stutter. She was so proud. I’ve come a long way.

    It will get better. It just takes so much damned time. If I ever drive up to your neck of the green mountain, it would be nice to sit and talk and compare notes.


    • Shirley Squirrel says:

      Our Acquired Brain Injury group made up buttons up that say “HI, I can’t remember your name either! and on the bottom in small print -most of them say also -“Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association”| We don’t make much on them because we sell them for $2.00 each. They are mainly worn by our group or friends and they really help. If someone starts talking to me like I should know them, I point to my button and it tells them in a nice way that I have a brain injury and have memory problems. Why don’t you try something like this. It saves a lot of questions. I take no credit for this button It was started long before I joined our group. I really like this blog. It has helped me a lot – he is so honest…Shirley


      • kwittorff says:

        Great idea Shirley. It’s great that your group made those buttons! I’m really glad you like my blog – thanks for reading. FYI that I am a woman.


  5. Jeannine Martin says:

    Hi! I’m new to your blog. This article resonances with me, how do you explain to someone that you’ve been home all day and got nothing done. This is not being lazy, just so tired. I do have one question, what do you say to folks that ask “How are you?”, I can’t say fine because that is such a big fat lie. When I say just hanging in there, oh the looks. Please suggest something, anything.


    • kwittorff says:

      That’s a hard one Jeannine. I don’t have the answer. Sometimes I say “fine”, because when people ask “How are you?” it’s almost like shaking hands hello — no real response wanted or needed. Friends, aquaintences, I say “doing okay” or “things are getting better slowly”. How do I explain that yesterday was great because I made it to the paint store and succeeded in having a conversation about paint selections, but the day before I was foggy for no real reason so I couldn’t watch a video in the evening. There is no way to condense the ups and downs and arounds of healing. I’ll think on it for a while and see if I can come up with some ideas. If I do, I’ll do a blog post about it. Best of luck with you.


  6. Bonnie Hetrick says:

    Hi Kim, I just tell people I am on medical leave for a while. Sometime I will add, because of a head injury. And sometimes not. It depends how long I think we will be talking. Because if we will be talking any length of time they may start noticing symptoms and it would give them a heads up as to what is happening. Respectfully, Bonnie


  7. Mary Katherine Studley says:

    Kim, thank you so much for sharing this shitty experience. I appreciate your candor and thoughtfulness in seeking real solutions that will bring some genuine comfort, some normalcy to a situation that’s been so uncomfortable and perhaps felt as if you’ve been shoved into the center of an abnormal light. I like your solution. Mostly, I don’t think people really care about what I do for a living either, not really. I think they care about how to get through the next five minutes at this stupid party, or any other myriad of reasons; slightly indifferent curiosity, networking potential i.e., “how can I benefit from using you and in what way might that be”, or “hey, you’re kinda cute, mind if I bask in the glow of you” (while-I-make-up-a-reason-for-standing-here).
    It’s not that I think people are inherently self centered and uncaring but I do think that you hit the nail
    On the head by asking yourself, ‘what’s the point of this particular social dance’. Good for you for the self inquiry…a practice if ever ending rewards. Kudos.


  8. john says:

    TBI … you only know it if you live it


  9. Victoria Daniels says:

    I so needed this post, after 13 years dealing with TBI, you have given me a way to engage in conversation rather than excusing myself to make a fake phone call🙃 Thank you


  10. Pingback: What Do You Do For Work? (VIDEO) | The Foggy Shore

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