Occupational Meaning – a Dynamic and Personal Experience

riverYesterday I attended a brilliant seminar by Bex Twinley on ‘The Dark Side of Occupation’. This was perfect timing as I’m currently beginning a dissertation investigating the meaning of self-defeating occupations for people with Borderline Personality Disorder. Bex’s ‘take home’ message was to always remember that the meaning of an occupation is entirely subjective. This was something I’d felt very strongly about when my life was consumed by occupations that were ‘self-defeating’ – to me they were the only option; they allowed survival and gave me purpose – I felt ‘self-maintaining’ was a better label.

The intention of this post was not so much to reflect on subjectivity of meaning of occupation, but more how that subjective experience is not fixed or absolute. For the same person, engaging in the same occupation, it can have entirely different meaning at different points in their life. At the moment I have a stark example of this in my life and that’s the focus of this post.

Four years ago today I set off to go rowing. I never arrived because I dissociated and engaged in some of the most dangerous and reckless self-defeating occupations I’d ever participated in. It happened at a time I was experiencing a high level of depression, I was a fairly new client at a therapeutic community and I was driven by an eating disorder. I was also exhausted. The details of what happened that day are still unclear in my mind but after the crisis had passed, in the process of using a ‘chain analysis’ to understand the event, I recognised that the trigger had been the obligation and expectation to go rowing. I explored what rowing meant to me and identified that it was entirely self-defeating. For me rowing was about punishment – I would put my body through rigorous training without adequate sleep or nutrition to support what I was doing, I also used it as time where my internal narrative could focus on how inadequate I was. I’d spend two hours rowing up and down a river, unmindfully, screaming “You’re useless” inside my head. I also found the obligation of being at the river at set times as part of a crew completely overwhelming – it really didn’t suit someone experiencing such a high level of depression.

So, following the incident I made big changes. That self-harm proved to be my last and, while it wasn’t a fairytale style ‘crisis followed by a happily ever after’ moment (I experienced several months of very deep despair and depression due to the loss of self-defeating occupations), it was certainly the turning point of my recovery. One of the changes that happened at the time was that I gave up rowing. I’d identified that it was a ‘dark’ occupation for me and could see no value in continuing. Over time I identified more health-promoting occupations to engage in and found dance, eventually specifically salsa, as a useful occupation to promote my recovery. When I gave up rowing it felt right. There was no enjoyment in it and I didn’t experience any sadness about not participating in it any more.

So, four years on, how is it that today I’m heading off to race with my crew in my first race for about eight years? The sport is the same, the club is even the same one I was due to arrive at four years ago, I’m the same. Or am I? I’m still me, but I’ve changed an awful lot in that time and I’d propose that my subjective experience of rowing has changed in that time. I no longer have an eating disorder and I do not have a punitive narrative running around my head. I am an awful lot stronger, physically and mentally.

The journey back to rowing actually happened due to dance. When I was performing last year I kept picking up injuries in training so I decided to join a gym to build up some strength. During my time at the gym I started to find I really enjoyed working out. I could feel I was becoming fitter and more powerful, and my well-being improved. After a while I started to get bored of dancing (I often have quite a short period of enjoyment of an occupation) and wondered how I could bring more purpose to my exercise again. I wondered about returning to rowing, as I was fitter, healthier and stronger than I’d ever been when rowing previously, but quickly dismissed it due to all the difficult associations. But, the thought wouldn’t go away, so tentatively I made enquiries about re-joining my local club.

The journey wasn’t easy. Perhaps if I had been living somewhere else and could have joined a new club there would have been fewer memories, however I now feel glad that I’ve worked through those to get to the point of having a different, much more positive experience. Rowing is now the thing that keeps me healthy and well – I use it as a very clear motivation to prioritise good nutrition and rest. I feel included in the club and enjoy spending time with my squad. I love the sense of achievement and agency that I now have when I row. I mostly love how completely different an occupation this is compared to the one I knew four years ago.

So yes, the meaning occupation IS subjective and that subjective meaning is not always permanently defined.