I don’t know about you, but working while struggling with any mental illness is absolutely exhausting.
Just two weeks ago, I had an amazing week at work because my anxiety was managed and my depression was in remission. I was even able to engage in my interests and various social activities outside of work. This week, things aren’t going so well even though I am performing the same regimen. I feel like I am barely functioning at work, as I am often consumed with the symptoms of my mental illnesses. Outside of work, I have little interest in engaging in any activities or socializing with anyone, so I go straight to bed when I get home. It’s incredible to observe the drastic differences in my work performance and personal life when I’m feeling mentally well as opposed to mentally ill.
The interesting thing is when I disclose to my boss that I am struggling this way, she says
“I didn’t even notice. You mask it well.”
I think that’s what is so exhausting: wearing the mask. Let’s see how differently I function at work based on whether I am feeling mentally well or mentally ill:
- Mentally Well: I love counseling my teen clients, whether they are discussing meaningless peer drama or their experience with complex trauma. I can easily formulate the right questions to ask or the right information to give so that the clients gain insight and move towards healing. When I am mentally well, I look forward to meeting with my clients. I can’t wait to hear how their week was, what they have accomplished, or just show them a meme I saw earlier that week that I thought they would get a good laugh from. Mentally Ill: Even thinking about having to talk to a client puts me on the verge of a panic attack. When I do meet with them, I have less energy and have difficulty relating to them. I have difficulty thinking about what questions to ask or what to say in order to help them therapeutically. I can generally pass as competent because I have my “mask” on. I’m great at displaying body language that conveys I’m empathizing and attentive, even when I am not truly present in the moment. I feel guilty because when clients do not show up for their visits, I feel a sense of relief.
- Mentally Well: I confidently and effectively work with foster parents. I help them understand their foster children’s behaviors by teaching them about whatever presenting issues those children have (e.g., trauma history, attachment issues, mental illnesses, etc.). I can think more clearly and explain things more effectively, meaning I can typically have the foster parent reach an “ah-ha moment.” When they seek support by calling me, I am fully present and effective in making them feel understood. I actually look forward to supporting them and giving them a sense of relief. Mentally Ill: I avoid phone calls from foster parent unless absolutely necessary. When the phone rings, it sends me in a panic. When it comes to talking with them and educating them, I am much more timid and have difficulty explaining things as clearly as I want to. I stumble over my words and have difficulty finding the right way to say things. I easily lose patience with them and with myself, although I am great at masking that. I may even have difficulty extending my focus for those few hours of conversation. Afterwards, I sometimes cry in my car because I held in panic and feelings of despair for so long. I get obsessive thoughts about how incompetent I was in that situation and over-analyze everything I said.
- Mentally Well: I manage foster home documentation, meaning I call foster parents to retrieve necessary documents and use an online database to organize it all. I look forward to calling the foster parents, particularly the kind and talkative ones, because we have delightful conversations. I feel productive because I am taking a step towards achieving the goal of obtaining all overdue documents from a long list. I am personable and able to effectively handle foster parents who become angry (I would like to thank my experience working in customer service). When it comes to organizing it all, I am focused and can complete the task efficiently. Mentally Ill: I dread having to call foster parents, especially with the fear that they will become angry and I will have to help deescalate them, which I just don’t have the energy to do. When they become angry, I may discretely cry because I am feeling very sensitive. I stammer and have difficulty saying the things I want to say. When the phone is ringing, I pray that the foster parents won’t answer their phones and I can leave voicemails instead. I have trouble focusing, and therefore am less organized and unable to upload documents efficiently. I will frequently take a walk around the building because sitting in front of the computer becomes too overwhelming. When I become very overwhelmed by these simple tasks, I may have a panic attack in the bathroom.
These are just a few examples of how mental illness hinders my job performance, specifically in regards to my job responsibilities. There are many more examples that pertain to work performance, such as the amount of hours I work. For example, when I am mentally well, I typically get to work by 9am and can stay until 4 or 5pm without feeling totally depleted. When we have foster parent trainings in the evening, I may even stay until 9pm and I enjoy it. When I am mentally ill, I typically have difficulty waking up and will panic in the morning. I can’t even complete the simple task of picking out an outfit that I don’t feel absolutely disgusting in. On these mornings, there is a battle occurring inside my head as I try to decide if I should go to work or call out. I just want to go back to bed and I don’t want anyone to see me. Sometimes I give in to calling out, other times I compromise by allowing myself to go in late so that I have time to get myself together. When I am mentally ill, I scoot out of work an hour or two early so that I can go home. When I get home, I usually sleep or just lay in bed.
As explained in a previous post, having mental illness makes me great at my job. It also makes me bad at my job, even if not directly observable. At this point in my life, I don’t know how I could ever work full-time.