I have always been an anxious person. At school I was flagged up repeatedly as a concern, and as an adult I continue to have chronic struggles with mental health.
When I have bad days I can’t leave the house, and when I have good days I probably just appear a little nervous or quiet.
Staff meetings are a huge stress for me… being in a room with lots of people makes my heart beat fast, my hands sweat, and has me planning an exit strategy in case I feel like I’m going to pass out (if you’re going to pass out at least do it in private, right?)
I still go to all my meetings but I can’t wait for them to be over… I’ll often have to re-read the notes after to make sure I understood all the information given, because I was focusing so hard on trying to remain seated on my chair and fighting the urge to dart out of the room.
One of the other things that I have struggled with over the last couple of years is avoidance… avoidance of people, of stressful social situations, and of communication – both in person, and over email and social media.
I let emails stack up and will go through periods where I don’t log on to social media accounts at all. Other times I’ll read messages but feel unable to reply… I’ll think to myself “I’ll save that for later for when I feel better”.
In between these times I’ll mute notifications or I’ll delete apps off my phone.
I don’t have to deal with things if I don’t see them, right?
Surprise, surprise… wrong!
As days go by, and unread messages pile up, I can feel my anxiety growing worse. I’ll spend hours trying to compose thoughtful replies in my mind, but also thinking about the excuse I’ll have to make for not replying sooner. Truth be told, this often depends on how long I haven’t been able to respond for… if it’s a couple of days maybe I can say that I’ve been busy with work, if it’s been a week then perhaps I can say that I’ve been away or had a deadline, and if it’s been over two weeks then I’ll have to say that it slipped through the net and say how sorry (read: ashamed) I really am.
Sometimes I have to leave messages unread and work undone because all I can face that day is lying down on the sofa with my dog.
On good days I can multi-task, work super efficiently, and stay focused until a big task has been completed.
But even those good days can sometimes offer little respite, and give me, and others, the impression that I can function normally, making me more critical of myself on days when I can’t.
I write this because I have mental health issues, and I always have. They’ve become such an intrinsic part of who I am, that I actually don’t know who I would be without them.
Somedays I think to myself ‘what must it be like to be able to check your emails and respond to them normally (like a regular adult)?”
“Mental health stigma be like “it’s ok not to be ok” but make sure it’s on your time off and it doesn’t affect your productivity and you really make up for the inconvenience it created for others and…” (Tweet by Dr. Mona Masood @ShrinkRapping)
I couldn’t agree more.
I have found it so hard to forge a professional identity when I am constantly worrying about the opinions people must be forming of me when I’m having a tough time. I have to work so hard to recover from the shame and embarrassment that I feel when I’m not able to communicate with them.
Despite growing awareness, and concerted efforts to remove the stigma that surrounds it, I’m not sure we’re always equitable in our thinking and compassion towards others when it comes to mental health. When someone doesn’t respond to us, it’s easy to assume the worst – they’re too busy to deal with it, they don’t think it’s important, they’re being rude. But perhaps that shouldn’t be our first thought. Perhaps we should consider that sometimes, when someone doesn’t reply, it’s because they can’t.
I know that people who feel like this have replied a thousand times in their mind.
There are many people who have a mental health condition that you’ll never know about, because they don’t want you to. There will be colleagues of yours that are struggling, but they will never tell you. They don’t want to be seen as less than and, especially when it comes to work, they don’t want you to think that they can’t cope.
Because most of the time they can… because they have to.
Many workplaces, including schools, wish to appear empathetic and understanding, but at the same time are demanding more output than ever. You can have a mental health problem – as long as you don’t miss deadlines or let the quality of your work be affected!
But for so many of us, the pain we feel over that unread message is real… it causes unbelievable stress, so much so that it can even manifest as physical discomfort.
Such a small thing, right?
If we really mean that it’s ok not to be ok, then we also need to be more accepting of people as they are. We need to consider when being ‘lazy’ might actually be ‘coping’, and when being ‘on holiday’ might actually be ‘struggling’.
In the meantime, please just know that I (read: we) will get back to your email when we can.