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When You Feel 'Too Broken' to Be in a Helping Profession

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After weeks like this one, I cannot help but question whether I am in the right field or not. Despite the fact I have never once actually regretted my decision to pursue social work and cannot even slightly imagine doing anything else for a career, I have left the office most days this week wondering to myself, Am I too broken to do this work?

There are tough weeks like this one where it seems like I am just a little too fragile and vulnerable to interact with patients who are incredibly fragile themselves and I sometimes wonder what makes me any more competent and capable to be sitting on the practitioner’s side of the couch or my end of the telephone than the patient. Weeks like this one are ones in which I seem to be triggered by anything and everything and my past comes flooding back to me with a vengeance.

I wonder how I am supposed to reassure a kid that everything wrong in this world is not his fault when there are days when I feel that exact same way. I wonder how I am supposed to tell a young woman that eventually she will be able to think about things beyond her trauma when it is hard for me at times to stop ruminating on painful memories of my own. I wonder how I am supposed to offer hope to patients when there are moments when I cannot even find any within myself. How can I ever be a good social worker if I still have so many personal issues I haven’t quite managed to rid myself of yet?

It is weeks like this one when I need extra reassurance from my supervisor and peers what I am doing is right because my anxiety is off the charts. Most of the time when I voice this need for reassurance, my colleagues and supervisor have not even noticed I am having an extra rough week. They have no idea I’m internally questioning every little choice I make, from the simplest things of how I greet a patient, to the way I type up progress notes.

My inner self-critic is absolutely out of control. It is times like these when I need a little extra space from people too. I need to be able to go into my metaphorical hole, do my work, get through my day and leave. I do not have the energy to engage in small talk or even meaningful conversations because it is at any point I feel vulnerable of breaking down and crying for no reason. It is hard to be around others in general when I am in this funk because the things that are important to you are not as important to me – I am simply trying to survive my day without a flashback or panic attack. Because I care about my job as much as I do, I need to put all energy I have left into working with my patients.

Ideally, I would have enough mental energy to go around, to be able to engage in playful banter with my colleagues and meaningful work with my patients. But during these weeks, I just can’t. We preach in social work that we need to meet our patients where they are and I need the same.

One day, I hope not to have weeks when I am in this funk, but for now, that is where I am. None of this is easy for me to admit. I am a perfectionist and people-pleaser, but I am slowly learning I need to listen to my own needs and this is OK. For it is when I listen to my own needs I can survive. It is when I listen to my needs that I am able to be triggered but still be able to cope in one way or another, so that I don’t have to leave work in the middle of the day.

I have been able to hear stories incredibly similar to mine and not only listen without breaking down in front of the patient, but also professionally and appropriately empathize in a genuine way. When I really stop to think about this, it is amazing progress for me. I’ve realized although the time and energy I put into treatment certainly did pay off in helping me to learn coping skills, I cannot put my life on hold forever to deal with my issues. Eventually I needed to jump back in and work through it all.

My past is always going to be with me and there are unforeseen things that may trigger me for the rest of my life. The closer I can get to accepting this and listening to my needs, the easier it will be for me to live my life with increasing self-compassion and decreasing self-judgment. No doubt there will be more weeks ahead like this one when I feel completely incompetent due to various triggers, but I am slowly understanding what I need to get through these weeks. I am slowly becoming ever so slightly more comfortable in asking for what I need.

So going back to the question of trying to decide whether I am too broken to do this work. Yes, I am broken, but I have decided this doesn’t mean I can’t go after my dream of making a difference in the lives of kids and being an incredible social worker.

Admittedly, I do not feel completely whole right now but I have moved beyond the days of feeling completely unrepairable. I know there will be more days when I have a hard time holding any and all belief in myself and my abilities, but it is in these times I must remember how far I have come and that next week will be better.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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What a Tidal Wave of Anxiety Looks Like

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I kiss my daughter goodnight and pad out of her room to finish switching the laundry over. I bend over to pull the wet clothes out of the dryer, stand up… and a tidal wave of anxiety washes over me. Instant sweating, my heart goes up in my throat, everything tenses up, my stomach churns. “Hello anxiety,” I think. “How nice of you to want to come out and play, but I’m busy.”

But my anxiety is busier.

My hands start to move faster, switching piles of clothes from the washer to the dryer. My head starts spinning, itching for something to occupy the space that the anxiety is currently occupying. Both of my kids are asleep, and my husband is upstairs watching the game. I start moving in fast-forward. The house is quiet but the noise in my head is loud, making my body want to run in circles to try to beat it. I have an unstoppable drive to contact one of my best friends just to tell her, “Hi, I’m anxious right now,” because for some reason telling someone else — someone who understands it — makes it “better.” But, it doesn’t. I itch to call one of my other best friends who has the most soothing voice my ears have ever heard and have her read the dictionary or a cookbook — just something so that she keeps talking — and keep listening to her voice and just maybe that will be enough to quiet the noise, to slow the breathing, to slow the brain. But I don’t; instead I move on, I make lunches for the next day, I literally walk in circles in my kitchen; my brain won’t stop spinning, it’s loud, it’s dizzying, it’s short tempered, it’s everything I wish it wasn’t.

I think about my meds; I think about how this has been going on for an hour. I think about how my therapist assured me that it was OK to take them when I need them. I weigh the pros and cons, I think about how I can barely stand feeling like this for another second. The spinning won’t stop. I go for the meds, and bless those pharmaceutical folks because whatever is in them makes my brain stop firing over and over again. Relief washes over me a mere 15 minutes later.

Anxiety has a way of taking over your brain when you least expect it. In a perfect world I could handle it by myself. I could be with the feelings, soothe them and that would be enough to make the physical symptoms dissipate. But, I’m a work in progress and I have a lot of tools under my belt, some sharper than others. But, let’s be honest — in the moment, I sometimes I forget everything I have learned. In other moments, I remember one thing, and then another, but it’s too slow and the spinning is too fast. I grasp on to what I know. I know that there will be a next time. I will keep my notebook handy, I will reread the steps, I will try with all my might to not resist it — to be with it — no matter how uncomfortable it makes me, because it will pass. It has to.

I am learning — we all are — and with practice comes patience and calmness, steady breathing, living and overcoming. Even if it’s just for one time, keep practicing. We all just keep practicing.

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10 Things You Can Do (or Not Do) to Remind Your Friend With Anxiety You Care

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Speaking frankly, being friends with someone who has anxiety can be hard on both parties. I’m self-aware enough to realize that being my friend can come with extra challenges; there is a constant fear boiling in the pit of my stomach that my friends don’t actually like me. This can be fueled by overhearing them make plans without me, or sometimes literally nothing. Anxiety doesn’t need an impetus.

Regardless of the reason, here is a list of things you can do (or not do) to remind your friend with anxiety that you care.

1. Let them know you think of them.

If you read a story in your English course that you think they’d like, forward the story to them. Even if it’s something small like seeing someone with a nice jacket, text your friend something like, “Saw someone with a really great jacket! Reminded me of your awesome fashion sense.” If they miss a day of school or work, tell them that you miss them. You don’t need a reason to send these messages. Just let them know you’re thinking of them. Telling your friend you think of them only takes a few seconds; it can quiet the voices in your friend’s head that say you don’t care.

2. When you say you’re busy, tell them why.

If possible, even update them. For example, if you couldn’t meet up because you had to take your dog to the vet, send them a picture of your dog in the waiting room. If you can’t text during whatever your plans are, send them a quick message afterward — update them about your life. Not only does it calm the fear that you’re just avoiding your friend, they actually care about your life. Sending random updates isn’t a burden — that’s what friends are for, and it is nice to know that you care about finding time for them.

3. Initiate conversations.

You know that thing about always being the person to text first? Take that out of the sitcom situation and magnify the fear, and that’s what anxiety can be like. It’s a double-edged sword; on one hand, your friend with anxiety doesn’t want to bother you. On the other, they don’t want you to think that they’ve forgotten you.

4. Don’t talk about their anxiety with other people.

While you aren’t bound by doctor-patient confidentiality, you should never talk about it unless you know that they are OK with it. No matter how open they may be with you, anxiety is hard to talk about. The second it is mentioned, it feels like a chasm is growing between one person and everybody else in the room. Unless you are afraid they will hurt themselves or others, don’t bring it up until they do.

5. Give them a heads-up.

If there’s a movie they’ve mentioned or a video circulating that has a jump-scare or something that triggers them, let them know. A quick heads-up can save your friend from a horrible panic attack and lets them know that you care.

6. Don’t let their anxiety define your relationship.

Sometimes anxiety feels like drowning; your friend can feel like that’s the only thing in the world, but they are still a person. Don’t make everything about their anxiety. It is a looming aspect of life, but sometimes they need a distraction. Don’t minimize them to their mental illness; they are stronger than that, even if it doesn’t feel like that. When they are having a good day, you can be proud of them — that’s hard. But don’t make everything about their anxiety. There’s a reason you became friends. Don’t forget what brought you two together in the first place.

7. Invite them to things.

One of the worst things you could say is some variant of, “Oh, I just assumed you wouldn’t want to come.” It reminds your friend that they don’t function as well as other people. It makes them feel guilty that they can’t take part in your life. Invite them to things. It will remind them that you care about them. It reassures that this friendship is fun for you, not an obligation, even if they can’t go.

8. Tell them about what’s wrong.

Their troubles do not negate yours. Friendship is a two-way street. Don’t be afraid to tell them about how your boss made you cry yesterday, or what you think about your aunt’s new boyfriend. Believe it or not, this helps your friend. There is a constant fear that the burden of anxiety is getting transferred over to you; it’s OK to lean on their shoulder. You do the same thing for them; listening can be the best thing either of you can do for each other.

9. Validate what they’re going through.

People with anxiety are constantly bombarded with the idea that their anxiety isn’t real and that they should just get over it. When your friend is jittery for no reason, or when they’re too afraid to leave the house, or when they tell you about a worry that seems ridiculous to you, don’t laugh it away. That doesn’t help. It’s an avalanche of guilt and frustration — “Why won’t my brain let me get over it like anybody else?” Even if you don’t understand what it’s like, support them in their struggles.

10. Make sure they know you are there to help.

These are not commandments; anxiety varies from person to person. The best thing you can do for your friend is to let them know that you’re there. Don’t just tell, show. It’s hard to talk about anxiety with friends; the fear of becoming a burden is debilitating. Send them an occasional article about tips for dealing with anxiety. If they seem uncomfortable, offer to talk. Be open to suggestions on how to help, even if that suggestion is to not talk about anxiety unless prompted.

I know that it’s hard, but we are willing to return the favor — that’s what friendship is. Sometimes it’s just more complex when you have anxiety.

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Thinkstock photo via oneinchpunch

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How Creating Comics Helps Me Manage My 'High- Functioning' Anxiety

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For years, I’ve drowned my anxiety and depression in work. I’ve seen several doctors who have said I have no reason to have anxiety so my symptoms must be temporary.

But anxiety wasn’t temporary.

I worked more so I would never have time to do “nothing.” Because doing nothing means overthinking.

Creating a full comic book in two months in addition to working at my full time job? No problem, I could handle it.

I actually couldn’t. Creating my comic was no longer a pleasure. I burnt out.

Suddenly I couldn’t do anything. I spent days crying in bed without knowing why.

Why couldn’t I just get up? What was the point? 

My comic book felt pointless. I felt pointless.

I then I remembered what Jonny from Hope For The Day said.

It’s OK not to be OK.

Asking for help is being strong. So I went to the doctor again. It took me months to get back to drawing. But this became the best way for me to express the things I couldn’t explain and I shared it with the world on my tumblr.

Today, I would like to share a comic I just made about what a day with “high-functioning” mental illness feels like.

High-Functioning-Comic (1)

High-Functioning-Comic (2)

High-Functioning-Comic (3)

High-Functioning-Comic (4) High-Functioning-Comic (5)

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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The Reality of Emetophobia and How I'm Beating It

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One of my most mortifying memories — one that I am immensely ashamed of — involves abandoning a friend when they needed help.

I’m not sure how old I was — early teens for sure. Having spent the day in the local town with two friends, we had some food and then hopped on a bus to go back home. It was uneventful for the most part until, quite suddenly, one of my friends doubled over and threw up spectacularly down the aisle of the bus. The driver pulled over, my friend stumbled off and proceeded to continue emptying her stomach onto the pavement. Afterwards, she refused to get back on the bus and tearfully asked us to wait with her until her mum showed up. I hurriedly pointed out that they had a small family car and would not be likely to fit all of us in it, so it would be best we meet her back home. As the bus pulled away, I felt a dozen pairs of eyes burning into me; what kind of monster would do this?

It’s not an easy memory to share but it’s an important one, because I feel it truly underlines the severity of a specific phobia, and the shame that comes with masking it. You see, rather than fearing a transport-related conundrum, I simply couldn’t be around anyone, friend or not, that had been or was at risk of vomiting. Now this isn’t your standard “ew, that’s gross” reaction. Since I can remember, any incidence of vomiting has sent me into a blind panic, and I’ve often become so distressed I lose consciousness. As soon as I told my parents about it when I was a pre-teen, they both told me it was normal to dislike throwing up and to stop worrying about it, so I hid the extent of my phobia for years.

It’s called emetophobia, and is specifically the extreme fear of vomiting, or being around people doing so. At its most intense, people who have it are unable to even read the word itself, instead using v* as a shorthand for it. When I think about some of the things I have done to avoid being sick, or to get away from a situation where someone else may be sick, I realize just how real a phobia this is. Once, I got off a train at a station in the middle of nowhere at night, just because I heard someone in the same carriage say they felt like throwing up. I can count the number of times I’ve tried seafood on one hand because I once read it can be notorious for causing food poisoning. I’ve concocted excuses upon excuses to avoid car sharing on long journeys with people who admit to suffering from travel sickness; in cases where it’s unavoidable I’ve pretended I myself get ill and have to listen to music loudly through headphones to counteract it — of course, this is a foil for not having to hear any potential sickness. In reality, I’ve never once been travel sick.

There was a point I just believed I was really strange and nobody could possibly help me, because I was a “freak” that panicked over something so ridiculous. For years it affected my life in a number of ways from my relationships, to my social life, to how I interacted with others. My breaking point came when planning our wedding and we began wondering when would be the right time to start a family. I remembered reading somewhere that how your own mother fared in pregnancy was a good indicator of how you might do yourself. My Mum had already informed me her morning sickness had been fairly graphic for her first trimester, and so I reluctantly went to see my GP. I didn’t know why I was there to be honest; I think I’d deluded myself into believing they’d just hand me a prescription to make sure I didn’t get sick. What happened instead changed my entire life.

My doctor was talking about pregnancy sickness, and how vomiting is completely normal, and so on. I could feel my heart rate beginning to edge into my “danger” zone – this isn’t a Kenny Loggins place of 80s fun, rather when I become so panicked that I risk fainting. Before I could stop myself, I shrieked: “Please! Stop saying vomit!” I then cried, a lot. My doctor gently leaned forward and placed her hand on my arm. She told me it was highly likely that I had emetophobia, a common anxiety disorder that needed treatment. This was a woman with a medical degree, a working general practitioner, not someone in an echo chamber on the internet.

And so, after I was married in 2012, I began cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatment for emetophobia. It began with a 12-week course for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) which had previously just been controlled with medication. In total, I spent 32 weeks with a therapist. The result was quite something; no longer did my husband have to “vet” films or TV shows beforehand for scenes involving vomiting, nor did I have to sit with my hand hovering over the mute button just in case. I no longer felt completely and helplessly panicked if a co-worker complained of a sore tummy.

Unfortunately, I still felt gripped by terror when it came to the idea of dealing with being sick myself, but the mental health team said it’d probably get better in time and upped my medication. I didn’t want to accept this. I’d spent so long thinking I had an imaginary problem, that now it’d been validated and I knew it was treatable, I wanted to find another way. This is how I came to find the Thrive Programme.

One month after I finished a six-week course with a Thrive consultant (yes, just six weeks), I found out that I was pregnant. My husband and I were delighted and I honestly didn’t think twice about what digestive fireworks might be ahead. Ironically, I ended up on medication to control my 24-hour nausea that was so bad I spent hours each day heaving. That’s not an exaggeration, even water would set off my gag reflex – my body had become so used to fighting off the act of vomiting over the years that it had become instinctive.

I finally broke my streak — emetophobics often refer to how long they’ve gone without throwing up as streaks — when my little boy was nine months old and all three of us caught norovirus on my husband’s birthday. That’s a hell of a bug I tell you; no instinct in all the world was holding that back. I wish I could say that it was like a chorus of church bells that heralded a new start, but I honestly just wanted the sweet release of death.

The good news is that my husband felt that way too. I’m not a sadistic wife, I promise. The realization that self-pity in the face of such powerful bodily functions was completely normal was a striking one. It was also a great learning experience; it really is over so quickly, rather than the long drawn-out process I’d imagined it to be.

It is now approaching my son’s second birthday and I am currently working with my Thrive consultant again for a “top-up.” I’ve not gone into full relapse, but the first winter with my toddler in childcare has resulted in him bringing home a fair few nasties and the relentless nature of it has shaken me somewhat. I noticed some old behaviors sneaking their way back into my life and if there’s anything I have learned about handling phobias, it’s that recognizing your own limiting behaviors is something you need to do before you even set off on the journey. I’m confident that I’ll get to a place where I can say “I used to be emetophobic, but I am not anymore,” as I have been before. Maybe I’ll have other bumps in the road through life, but I intend on doing all I can to prevent relapse.

If you are living with this phobia, please know that you are not alone, it is real, and you can beat it. There is a version of you that can go days at a time without spending even a nanosecond thinking about the noises your stomach is making. There will be a time you can choose something from a menu without a second thought – you’ll choose based on what you want.

Emetophobia is apparently very common; according to Anxiety UK around six to seven percent of women have it and around one to three percent of men. Yet I went years without even hearing the word, silenced by the stigma and the cries of “that’s not a real issue, nobody likes being sick!” which would keep me prisoner for most of my adolescence.

Don’t suffer in silence, I promise you that it’s real, it’s taken seriously, and you can beat it.

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How My Anxious Mind Works

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I fear confrontation.

Confrontations give me this overwhelming feeling a huge wave is about to fall on me and I must truly stay quiet. Ever since I was a child, I had problems expressing my discomfort. I always felt people would be so hard on me that I wouldn’t have the strength to keep going. And now in my 30s, I can’t still get over that. When someone needs to clarify something with me, even if it’s a tiny thing, my hands won’t stop shaking and my heart will feel like a hammer. My terrified eyes will betray me all the time and I will feel so disoriented that the guilt for acting poorly won’t leave me alone.

I’m terrified all the time.

“Terrified” is the right word and so is the phrase “all the time.” I am not overreacting, I am always living in terror. If a tiny thing happens, my mind will carefully lead it to become an imminent catastrophe and my mind won’t let me live in peace until I “solve” the problem. I spend my life trying to solve problems I don’t know how to solve. This never stops since a thousand things happen every day and an anxious mind doesn’t need anything special to create a nightmare. I always live as if the worst danger were out of my house and I have no idea how to face it. I am always thinking about it as if a monster is waiting for me. When you have anxiety, you feel like there’s someone chasing you all the time. You just want to hide, but you never find a place.

I fear I will never have the life I want.

I see myself with a family in the future, but how am I supposed to face these challenges and the ones to come if I can’t face them now when I am single? How am I supposed to make a child feel safe and a husband happy if I am always shaking inside?

It’s discouraging. I feel disappointed, resigned, angry, sad and like I’ll never win. I haven’t learned to live with this and even though I try every day, there’s something inside me that whispers “You will never make it.” I try to understand this is part of  anxiety, but I can’t help believing it.

I sometimes feel like a leaf in the wind who goes whatever direction the current takes me, with no power. I’m tired of crying, tired of being terrified and tired of carrying these voices to wherever I go. Sometimes I wish I could turn off my brain and the voices and the terror and feel free for once in my life. But I have to keep fighting. I have to stay grateful for being on the road, able to see sunsets, have books and have friends who are going through the same. Their bravery gives me the power to continue, even if anxiety tries to proclaim itself the winner.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Berdsigns.

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