“Hi. I’m terrible at my job. I don’t deserve it and have no business doing it. My boss is disappointed in me and I’m going to be fired any day now.”
That’s how I would have introduced myself about 8 years ago. I know now that all of these beliefs were part of an anxiety disorder that I believe I have lived with for some time but was not diagnosed until I was almost totally incapable of functioning at work and at home.
Let’s go back, way back...even as a kid, I was always a bit high-strung, nervous, and perfectionistic. I did well in school, but always felt that I could do better, no matter what I did. There were times when I was really stressed and overwhelmed and I’d isolate myself and work to the point of exhaustion, but I pretty much got by without too much damage being done.
It’s only now that I can look back and pinpoint a number of things that I feel contributed to my major decline 8 years ago, the most significant of which was the loss of a job I enjoyed because of restructuring. Even though it was not my fault, the old thoughts began to drift back – I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t deserve the happiness I’d had, and how would I ever find another job I liked?
So, when I started a new job 8 years ago, I did so full of insecurity. What if it didn’t work out? What if I got let go again? Now, some anxiety would have been very normal in that situation, but what began as niggling doubts became overwhelming fear and anxiety. I took any suggestions and feedback from my boss as criticism and signs that I wasn’t and would never be good enough. I would be on edge any time I sent her something I had done because I was convinced that her response would be negative and just one more nail in my inevitable coffin.
Within this time, my boss actually gave me a promotion for the good work that I had done, but it did nothing to quell my fears – I was convinced that I had her fooled, that she just didn’t know the real incompetent me, and that she eventually would and I would be out of a job again. I remember wishing that I hadn’t gotten that promotion because then it would be less disappointing for everyone when I got fired.
At my anxiety’s worst, my days would consist of forcing myself to get out of bed and go to work, hiding at my desk trying in vain to focus on what I had to do, and retreating to the bathroom several times a day to cry or battle my way through a panic attack. I would cry about the failures of the day for my whole drive home and want to just be left alone when I got home. I would try all the relaxation techniques I knew, but nothing worked, and I just couldn’t accept that things had gotten that bad - I took that as just another sign that I wasn’t good enough.
So I started working through every evening, chained to my laptop and phone, thinking that if I just got enough work done, all of the fear would go away and I would magically be OK.
And I continued going to work, thinking that I was covering all this up and nobody knew my struggles. One day, though, a great friend and co-worker took me aside and said, “Are you OK? Because you look like a deer caught in the headlights right now.” My first thought was that here was my chance to talk to someone about what I was feeling, that opening up might be step in the right direction. But that was quickly taken over by fear – fear that if I opened my mouth, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from talking, I might say something I’d wish I hadn’t, and I would be admitting to someone else what I wasn’t even ready to admit to myself.
So, I made up some excuse about just having a busy day and got out of there as soon as I could. As I was trying to breathe myself out of a full-on panic attack, another co-worker came to me with a simple request: could I help with ordering some direction signs to put in the parking lot at our new office? Sounds simple, but when she showed me the map of the parking lot and asked me to choose locations for the signs, I was completely unable to focus on it. I can still see that map in my memory – hazy, fuzzy, making no sense in my all-encompassing cloud of anxiety.
How would I ever function if I couldn’t even make sense of a parking lot map?
I became resigned that this was how my life was going to be, that I just needed to find a way to muddle through my job and accept things how they were. I was willing to settle for that because I was too paralyzed by fear to do anything else. But one day, after I dragged myself out of bed and went to the office, my office mate asked me how I was, and without warning, it all came out. Tears, sobs, and the first time I had told anybody how I was really feeling.
After we talked, she suggested I talk to a supervisor, and I was at such a loss about what else to do that I did just that. And all of my worst fears were put to rest…I wasn’t fired, criticized, or put down. I was accepted, encouraged, and validated.
The very next day, I started a sick leave that would last 6 weeks and give me the time to do what I needed to do for my own wellness. I slept a lot, I started some treatment, I talked to a counselor, and I spent lots of time with my young son, time that I had missed out on over the past few months. I did the work to recover, and it worked. I started to feel hopeful again and actually excited about my job. And my boss sent me what I needed most…a message that I was supported to take the time I needed and that she hoped I would be back when I was feeling better. That she didn’t want to lose me.
While I was nervous about going back to work, I also knew that going back and proving to myself that I could be successful was going to be a huge step in my recovery, and I was ready for that. So, the day came, and my boss was there waiting for me. She did 3 things that I will never forget: she gave me a hug, she said she was glad I came back, and she asked, “What can we do to help you improve your balance?”
It wasn’t about me just needing to get my life together or about me having an illness – it was about wellness and thinking about what we needed to do as a team so I would be successful. And it was one of the most empowering conversations I have ever had.
What we worked out was a flexible work schedule that could include working from home as needed. We also talked about my role and work and prioritizing the most important ways to spend my time. With a manageable workload and my boss’s trust and reassurance, as well as effective treatment that I was sticking to and still stick to, I could go forward with a confidence and faith in myself that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
In many ways, I think my experience has made me think about mental health differently. I realize that it’s not “us”, the people who provide support, and “them”, the people who need the support. It’s just “us” – everyone has mental health and will likely need support at one time or another. Mental illness isn’t who I am, it’s just a part of who I am. It’s just one of the cards I’ve been dealt, and that’s OK, because I’ve been dealt some amazing cards as well.
I remember one day when I was on leave when my husband and son and I went to a Blue Jays game. It may sound cheesy, but things looked different to me. It was like something out of a movie – the sun felt warmer, the field looked greener, and I felt totally present – I was enjoying the game and not focusing on worries and stress. It dawned on me that it was the first day in a long time that I actually felt well, and I was and continue to be so thankful for that.
Something I saw on Facebook that really stuck with me is “One day, we won’t call it brave for talking about mental illness. We’ll just call it talking”, and I hope we can continue working towards that.