Another afternoon in the office. I’m sitting at my desk, a Word document open in front of me on my computer. The lines blur, and the words don’t make sense. My brain feels like treacle as I try to process the task in front of me. My heart pounds as I look at this simple paragraph which no longer has any meaning. I feel the palms of my hand get sweaty on the mouse. With my other hand, I grip the edge of my desk, digging my fingernails into the wood. The familiar wave of nausea washes over me as I battle to swallow the growing lump in my throat. My breath catches as I try to slow my breathing.
Suddenly the phone rings and knocks me out of my bubble. I answer, my voice high-pitched and strained. It’s my boss.
“How are you?”
My voice sticks in my throat. Eventually I un-glue my tongue and manage to speak.
“Fine, thank you. Yourself?”
It’s an all-too-familiar ritual. The panic, the mind-blanks, the lapse in concentration. The phone call, the “how are you?” question, and the age-old lie: “I’m fine.”
I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened now. How often colleagues glance at me as I scratch my fingernails across the desk, as I fidget uncontrollably in my chair, as I chew my lip and frown at my computer in an attempt to concentrate. The look on their faces says it all: We don’t want to ask. We don’t want to know.
My boss feigns interest – but I feel like a burden to him. We are all working flat-out, and my mental health issues are just another thing for him to deal with in our busy working life. I’ve tried to explain to him how it feels to be me, how I cannot control what goes on in my head, but he can’t – or won’t – understand. He deals in facts, not feelings. And the fact of the matter is that I am under-performing because of my lack of concentration and mental blocks. I procrastinate too. The tasks facing me feel overwhelming and huge, so I put them off as long as I can. Deadlines get missed, mistakes get made, my boss gets annoyed. And all this contributes to my already increasing anxiety.
The workplace battle is often a silent one. I am lucky enough to have an employer that has been prepared to listen and support me. Our HR team are fantastic and have been open to discussions with me and I hope have also helped managers understand a bit more about how my depression and anxiety affect me. But I still struggle day-in, day-out, in silence. I don’t feel able to grab a colleague when my anxiety is overwhelming and tell them I need grounding. If I admit I’m struggling, I feel like I’m admitting defeat – and admitting defeat makes you vulnerable.
When your condition is invisible, people cannot understand the impact it has on your life. Mental illness is horrible – it sneaks up on you, it follows you around and whispers in your ear – you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve this. It never ceases to amaze me how much you start to listen to those nagging, negative thoughts when you’re in a bout of illness. I wake up every day to these thoughts, and no one but me can see and hear them. Just for one day, I would love to have a little TV screen above my head which shows the outside world what goes on in my head. It would be messy, but it might make people understand a bit more.
In the workplace, any weakness is sniffed as easily as rotting fish. You become an unintentional target of additional monitoring, of micro-management as your boss makes sure you’re constantly on form. That in itself is exhausting. Not being able to express your mental health at work is even more exhausting. I hide it in shame every day. I try to form a wall around me so people can’t see it. But that invisible illness suddenly becomes visible as the cracks start to show. The cracks constitute missed deadlines and obvious errors being made in work. The cracks shine bright and any positives quickly slide into the background. And as you become more aware of these cracks appearing, the wider and larger these cracks get – until you either burn out from stress or admit you cannot cope.
And that’s where I’m at right now. I’m currently signed off work because I reached breaking point. I am acutely aware of workloads piling up and the effect this will have on the rest of the team, and this does nothing to ease my anxiety. I’m supposed to be resting, but all I can think about is how my boss must be perceiving my mental health, how my absence is causing emails to pile up and workloads to increase. I am supposed to be back in on Monday if my GP agrees, but I fear returning to work because I worry about the repercussions.
So I have a choice. I either carry on burying my head in the sand and accept that I struggle in silence or take the brave but difficult route and speak out. And right now neither one looks particularly attractive.
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Thinkstock photo by millann