Dealing with Bi-Polar disorder, anxiety, and acute stress reaction disorder has been a reality since my teenage years, though only diagnosed at the age of 26. For years I hid it from the world, only a selection of people knew about it. People are judgemental, they have preconceived ideas about how a person with mental health act or behaves. I have always been scared that I’ll be labeled a ‘crazy’, and have everything I say or do because I’m “mental”. I don’t like being treated differently because of it. So, I hid it for years. Sometimes I still do.
One of the hardest places to cover up mental illness is the workplace. Especially when you’re working full-time. You often see these people more than you see your own family and friends. You can’t avoid it; you can’t just walk away. I truly understand why some people with mental health problems don’t want to work. It’s hard, like really hard.
My approach to employment with mental health issues has been as diverse as the jobs that I’ve worked. Some employers have just been awful (mental health doesn’t exist, pull your socks up, cheer up, get on with it), some have been supportive and some I’ve never even told. I enjoy working hard, I enjoy doing the best I can… In whatever I’m doing. I try to always smile and get along with everyone (doesn’t always work). But although companies are working towards being more understanding, and creating an open dialogue about mental illness, it’s still incredibly hard to be comfortable and completely honest about it because I still worry that it will cause problems in the workplace.
Since really trying to understand me, understand mental health, and trying to work on being stable and happy; is that to create change, you have to speak up. An open dialogue is the only way people will understand. So, here are 6 things I wish my employer, past employers, and future employers knew about my mental illness:
This isn’t my choice.
This really shouldn’t even need to be spoken about. But unfortunately, our understanding of mental illness is so shit that when people think of something like ‘depression’ they compare it to someone who has just broken up with their boyfriend and wants to spend the day sitting at home crying, listening to sad music, and looking at old photos. Staying at home when you’re sad is a CHOICE. Staying home when you’re incapacitated by mental health issues is not. Some days when my mental health issues are really bad, I physically can’t get out of bed. My body hurts, my mind hurts, and I have no control. You won’t understand unless you’ve experienced it.
Putting on a brave face.
Though I try ridiculously hard to appear normal; with my bubbly, loud personality. I can’t always do it. Sometimes the sadness and anger will break through. Sometimes I haven’t slept, sometimes I have cried all night, and sometimes I’ve stood at my front door, with my uniform on and had a panic attack about leaving the house and coming to work. But I’ve forced myself to put on my game face, forced myself to catch the bus or walk to work. The energy that goes into doing that is exhausting. I just need a day alone to try and fix whatever is going on.
My colleagues with physical ailments are given time off, they aren’t expected to do certain tasks. Yet I, other people with mental health illnesses are expected to smile and get on with it. Someone who has tonsilitis can get an appointment for antibiotics. Someone with a headache can try pain relief. Trying to get an appointment with a psychiatrist or a therapist is like trying to find a unicorn. When I have eventually prescribed something to try and stabilize me it’s often a sedative. Working while under the influence of a sedative is like trying to swim through mud. It makes me tired; it makes me slow physically and mentally.
Sometimes, I just can’t go on.
It sounds dramatic. Even typing this makes me feel like a drama queen. So, I play it down. I’ll tell you that “I’m struggling” a bit or “I don’t feel great”. But often when I say those things, I feel like my world is ending, or that I’m going to end it. I feel suicidal.
I’m not brave enough to tell my managers that I’m feeling suicidal. The look of fear in people’s eyes, the panic. Or on the flipside that eye-rolling and the “pull your socks up” or “your life isn’t that bad” or the comparisons “X has just lost their dog, and they’re managing” is just too much to bear. When I’m already feeling like shit.
I need more breaks.
If I start going to the toilet, women’s locker room, or outside more often during my shift; I know I’m going through a bad spell. Not because I really need to use the toilet… but because It’s private. I can sit and cry, I can stand and do nothing just for a few minutes. I can feel a panic attack coming on. The toilet, the locker room, and outside are a sanctuary in which I can practice mindfulness, I can try to control my breathing. Just enough to get me through my shift. To stop me from losing my temper, to stop me from crying in front of my colleagues, and customers and embarrassing myself. I’m not just trying to get away with doing my work.
Sometimes, I really don’t care.
Let’s face it, most of my jobs if not all. Haven’t been lifesaving jobs, they don’t make the world go round. Currently, I put cheese on a fucking shelf. But I’m aware that my mood and attitude can affect my colleagues, my employers, and customers. So, I’ll smile and get on with it. This is probably the hardest part of it all. It’s horrible to feel unmotivated, to know I could work faster, the quality of my work could be so much better. Some nights, I just don’t care.
It starts from the top.
I’m aware, that it’s not really my manager’s fault, most of the time. But more often than not employee handbooks mention mental health very briefly. Yet physical illness and childcare issues are exhaustive in comparison. There are often cute little posters making employees aware that they can get help, that you care. I’m sure my managers individually do care. I’m lucky enough to have really great managers, but they are bound by the company’s rhetoric. Please try harder to make mental health more of a focus, not just an add-on. A diverse workforce isn’t just a racial or gender issue. It should also include people living with a disabling condition. It feels like it isn’t. Mental health often feels like more of a pain in the arse to you.