I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion about my experiences of mental health in the workplace. It prompted me to fully write down my story and the role that mental ill-health has played in my life. It was a really valuable exercise, and the results are below…
Looking back, I have probably experienced mental health symptoms since at least my early teens. I had a tumultuous home life. It often made me sad and anxious, and I sought solace in the pleasure I got from food, and the oblivion I got from alcohol.
I think the first time I realised something was wrong was when I experienced depression at university. In second year, I pushed myself to breaking point and on the verge of suicide, I reached out for support. After taking a break, and getting a good deal of support, I was feeling better again. Those ‘first’ experiences of depression changed me though – my confidence was knocked. I completed my degree and I moved to Australia. When I moved, I hopefully though that my mental health issues were a symptom of my university lifestyle, and a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Mental health conditions are now a part of my story.
I’ve experienced depression – for me, depression is a sense of extreme emptiness. It’s not even that I feel sad, I just don’t think or feel much at all. I struggle to hold conversations, I feel tired all the time, I lack the motivation to do basic tasks. This feeds into the nagging voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough.
In more recent years, I’ve developed symptoms of anxiety. When it comes to my anxiety, ‘mental’ health is a bit of a misnomer. I know when I’m anxious because I can feel it in my body – my jaw clenches until I develop a headache, my shoulders hunch until my back aches, my hands grip each other tightly until my knuckles are white. My chest thunders and my breathing is shallow. And my mind won’t become quiet – every thought races. I rarely experience anxiety about a particular issue – it’s how I can tell my anxiety is different from ‘every day’ nerves before something a bit scary – but many days I experience an all-pervading fear. I’ve come to learn now that I do have triggers that help explain why I feel a certain way.
I have an eating disorder. It causes me to binge eat. One of my favourite words is ‘kummerspeck’ – one of those untranslatable German words that literally means ‘grief bacon’ but really means so much more. I like it because my eating is something I have so often struggled to find the words to explain. I have an emotional compulsion to eat and can consume a day’s worth of food in a matter of minutes. I also experience several other impulsive behaviours – when I’m unwell, I drink too much, I spend too much, I get angry, I throw myself into unhealthy relationships. It’s technically called ‘hypomania’ – which is the jargon for an elevated mood. One of the difficult things about when I am hypomanic is that it can feel so good. Especially when compared to the lowest of lows, feeling happy and uninhibited gives me the enthusiasm and motivation to pursue new projects and friendships. But it is ultimately unsustainable.
So this is the context for the time I’d particularly like to discuss, the autumn of 2017. This is the period where my mental health had been its worst in a decade, but it’s also the time that has made me the committed mental health advocate I am today.
Around about March, I started to notice that everything got a little bit harder. I was tired, and lacked my usual motivation for work, friendships and exercise. I had retreated from the world a little, and was seeing people less and contributing at work less.
Even when I am not ‘unwell’, I regularly see a psychologist. I think that talking through your emotions with someone skilled and unbiased can be a really helpful tool for anyone, whatever you’re feeling, whatever decisions you’re trying to take. I raised my low mood with him. When I first started seeing him, I was a bit skeptical about some of the approaches we use. I am a natural cynic, so when people start throwing the words ‘gratitude’ and ‘mindfulness’ around, I start picturing some awful lifestyle guru. But I do now practice mindfulness and gratitude. I’ve learnt that all it really means is thinking about how I’m feeling, and reflecting on all the good things in my life. He helped me to put into place many of the strategies that help me to look after myself.
Working with my psychologist helped, but I could still feel my mood slipping and for various reasons, I wasn’t able to see him as much as I would have liked. Two things changed that for me.
Firstly, I knew I had to get serious about the support I was seeking. I was regularly experiencing suicidal thoughts and that scared me. I decided to see my psychologist more, but also spoke with my GP about other health options. She was amazing and referred me to a psychiatrist (I have been taking medication for years, but there was a chance that the psychiatrist could help better tailor my medication to my current needs). While I was waiting for my appointment, I also reached out to the beyondblue support service for online approaches I could use and when times were really tough, I spoke with Lifeline.
My friends and family were also invaluable. One night, my sister and her partner picked me up from a street corner from which I was unable to move and her dog licked the salty tears off my face. Another night when I was too unwell to move or talk and my own thoughts terrified me, my friend came over and just sat next to me on the sofa for hours without saying anything. Knowing there was someone there for me was enough.
A few days later I was able to see the psychiatrist, we changed my medication and it helped.
The second thing that changed was my work life. I had gradually disclosed my mental health condition over the three years I had been at my then-employer. Little by little, they had learnt more about me and I had learnt to trust them.
One day I went to a conference on behalf of my team. I hid at the back of the room and during afternoon tea, I had an overwhelming feeling to hide under one of the tea tables. I stood at the back of the room and fiddled with my phone, and when it was acceptable to leave, I got a tram back to work sobbing the whole way and thinking of suicide.
The next day, I spoke to my manager. There was a moment when he said something like “I understand that you have depression, but I don’t really know what that means for you, and I want to support you how you need it.” I listed off what my symptoms mean – I struggled to concentrate, I hated talking to people, but I didn’t want to be alone. He then reeled off a huge list of things we could do to support me. I could work from home; I could work from a quiet office; I could come in and blankly stare at my screen and then make up the time when my mood was slightly better. More than that, he let me know that he, and the rest of my team, had my back and wanted to support me to get better.
That conversation, and the months that followed, made me realise how invaluable a workplace that understands mental health is. Yes, I could see my psychologist, I could use the workplace EAP, but what I really needed was open and understanding colleagues.
I’ve always been a fiercely ambitious person, but I’ve realised that doesn’t need to come at the cost of my health. I am taking much longer than I expected to finish my Masters. I started working part time. I have reduced the number of things I am committed to outside of work. This means I have more time to do the things that keep me well – going to the gym, getting to bed on time, cooking healthy meals, and seeing my friends and family.
My experiences have also made me realise how committed I am to supporting the mental health of others. After four very happy years at my previous employer, I recently started working in the mental health sector – doing a similar role, but at an organisation with my shared purpose. I bring my experiences to everything I do, and one of my central goals is making sure that other people with mental health conditions can have a workplace that is as supportive of their recovery as mine.