Working with a mental illness

High stress workplaces and overworked employees aren’t anything new when it comes to North America. However, recently The Atlantic reported on a working paper from Harvard and Stanford Business Schools that investigated the impact that job stress had on the health and mortality of American workers.

“The paper found that health problems stemming from job stress, like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and decreased mental health, can lead to fatal conditions that wind up killing about 120,000 people each year – making work-related stressors and the maladies they cause, more deadly than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.”

It’s incredible that 120,000 Americans are dying each year because of workplace stress. It’s not particularly surprising when we think of our climate of work and our glorification of busy. If you’re not busy, you’re worthless! We base our value on how many things we are able to achieve in a day. If we’re not exhausted and exasperated at the end of the day, then our day wasn’t worth anything. If we can’t complain about how tired and busy we are, our lives don’t matter.

Hamster wheelI have been on sick-leave for the past 5 months and have stepped off of that hamster wheel of stress, Only now have I been able to look critically at my work self. I already knew I was a perfectionist workaholic (I take after my dad in that regard). But, I hadn’t realized that I had been conditioned to say yes to everything and respond to additional work with a smile and can-do attitude because I was told that’s what team players do. That’s what hard workers do. That’s what people who get promoted do.

But it’s not.

That’s what doormats do.

That’s what people who cannot establish boundaries do.

Now that I have established distance from work, I recognize that it wasn’t just unmanageable workloads and difficult colleagues that caused my latest relapse (although they were major players). It was my inability to ask for help and not establishing boundaries with colleagues that really made me sick. If I had the strength to tell my boss sooner that I was floundering under the weight of my workload instead of trying to do it all, maybe I wouldn’t have relapsed. Now I can see that the workplace may create stress, but only I have the power to stop these situations from impacting my mental health.

WorkingThis week I will be returning to work. It will be a gradual return that will take about 8 weeks until I return full-time. To say that I’m nervous is an understatement. I am terrified that being thrust back into the pressure cooker will completely destroy me this time around. All of these realizations that I have had about my role in my own sickness are great, but will I actually be able to say no? Will it be possible for me to do my job without making myself sick? I run through hypothetical scenarios with my therapist and in those moments I can say: “No, I have too much to do. If you want me to complete that task then you will need to take something off my plate.” But when it comes down to it, will I actually do it?

I hope so and I’m going to try my hardest.

Whether you have a mental illness or not, boundaries are critical in maintaining good mental health as the Harvard and Stanford paper illustrates. However, as someone with a mental illness, I must recognize my limitations and work around them. I have to understand that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. My ability to say no will not only benefit my health and future, but it will also benefit my employer.

Wish me luck!

Are you better yet? The long road of mental health recovery

Are you better yet?

No one has actually asked me this question because my friends and family are more considerate than that, but I know it’s a question that’s itching in their minds and if they weren’t sensitive to my illness they may actually ask it. I’m extremely lucky to have colleagues who have become good friends and despite my absence from work, we still manage to get together once in a while. When I met with them last week, they asked about my health in a kind and unobtrusive way. They asked how I was feeling, never asking when I would return to work. Still, I felt like the question of, “are you better yet?”, was hanging in the air, just waiting to be given voice.

DSC01266_edited-1_thumb[15]Or maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe I only think other people want to ask that question  because I’m wondering, am I better yet? Could I return to work? And what happens when I eventually do return? Will I be treated any differently than before? Will I be perceived as broken and damaged, or worse, weak?

Despite being absent from work for three months, I’m still feeling embarrassed and guilty that I had to take time off to tend to my mental health. I know I shouldn’t feel this way because it’s just as legitimate as taking a leave because you are physically sick. But reality doesn’t  change the way I feel.

When I met with my friends/colleagues (frolleagues?) I found out that my favourite project has been passed off to someone else. I assume it’s because I’m not there to take care of it, and that is disappointing, but also understandable. It’s a massive undertaking and requires a lot of planning that I’m not there to do. There’s always next year, I guess.

This is the reality of having a mental illness. The world doesn’t, and can’t, stop just because your brain breaks. It doesn’t matter if you’re hospitalized, catatonic with depression, or losing touch with reality because of mania; the world keeps moving without you and I think that’s the hardest part for me to come to grips with. It irks me knowing that someone else is working on this project and that if I could have survived just a little longer it could be me working on it.  Or if I could have just returned to work already, maybe they would have held out a little longer before replacing me. But it’s this type of thinking that got me into this mess in the first place.

Mental healthy recovery is a long journey.

Mental healthy recovery is a long journey.

Of course, I already had the existing condition of bipolar disorder, but it was my inability to disengage with work, share the load, and ask for help when I was floundering that pushed me over the edge. I wanted (and still want) to please everyone and show them (and myself) that I’m strong enough to do it all, despite my mental illness. Except even those without mental health issues can’t do it all without eventually breaking.

Also, if I’m 100 per cent honest with myself I know I couldn’t return to work full-time tomorrow. My body is still getting used to a new medication regimen, which means my moods are still up and down. I still struggle with simple tasks and become easily overwhelmed (writing this blog has been a chore rather than something I enjoy). I cry very easily and can’t manage stress. I wouldn’t last a week at work before I was back at square one, or worse. Now that I have three months distance from where I started, I can recognize that I was skating on thin ice for a long time. As I persevered through the stress, taking on more and more projects, the ice was cracking beneath me as I skated along, pretending that nothing was wrong. I was just lucky that I caught myself before the ice broke and I ended up in the hospital.

So, I guess if anyone is wondering if I’m better yet – no, not yet. But I’m getting there.