It is 8 pm, I got home an hour ago, and I am so tired that it might as well be 11:30 pm based on how my eyelids droop and I’m sitting hunched in my chair as even my body feels physically drained. I am often tired after work, but not this shattered. It is that time of year when things are busy in general due to strategic planning for next year, and on top of that, I have a few interesting challenges to tackle at work, things I haven’t yet experienced in my role.
On the personal side of life, things have been quite steady recently (*touch wood*), and I can clearly recognise that the stress and pressure I’m feeling stems from work instead of my personal life. I think that’s a good thing – there is some kind of clearly-identifiable, clean reason for feeling this way. Knowing the reason gives me a sense of control over what I’m experiencing. I hate feeling out of control.
Some years ago, at work...
A few years ago I was promoted at my workplace, and as a result, ended up having a 7-person team to manage – I had only managed a maximum of 2 people prior to that, so the job in itself was challenging and I felt under pressure often due to feeling like I wasn’t quite enough, wasn’t good enough.
I had climbed exceptionally quickly to this position – the bosses had faith in me and I wasn’t sure why. The insecurities mostly stemmed from my poor self-confidence, I think, as everything I did was pretty much crap until someone else noticed and praised my work. I was surprised every time and wondered if they were pretending when they told me I had done well.
While the job was challenging, I did enjoy it. The best part of managing people is to see your team members grow in their roles, experience wins, achievements and learnings, and hopefully eventually end up in a position where they can advance further in their own careers. Back then I didn’t fully get to experience that yet as I was too busy scrambling and trying to appear like I knew what I was doing!
The first challenge
About a year later, in my personal life, some negative things happened and I started feeling deflated. The feeling grew and grew over time, and I found it increasingly difficult to handle my work responsibilities at the same time and enjoyed my work less and less.
Due to having developed a very good poker face in my childhood (a story for another time), I was able to keep up appearances at work pretty well for a while, even though I was not ok at home. At the time I didn’t have the same level of self-awareness as I do now, years later, and it took me a long time to realise back then that I was actually depressed, and needed help.
There’s a lot I could continue writing about depression itself, and might do at a later date. I’m going to jump ahead a bit and just quickly point out that I eventually did feel better due to getting my first ever set of anti-depressants. I managed to get my working days back to normal. I don’t remember exactly in which order things happened, as some bits are hazy, but my bosses eventually did find out about my depression and were supportive.
The second challenge
Sometime later, when I had gotten better and work was going well again, there was another setback in my personal life that ended up having an even bigger impact on work. I started getting flashbacks to my childhood – things I had not thought about in many many years and had mostly forgotten about, some altogether. If you’ve ever had flashbacks too, you probably know how awful and disruptive they can be.
What I mentioned above about having a sense of control over things – that flew completely out the window. I developed anxiety, the depression came back, and I had to go on medication again. At this point, I lost control of my life.
One morning, what felt like no later than 4 am, I woke up to someone frantically knocking, or more like pounding, on my door. I ran downstairs to see what was going on, and I could see police lights through the window and the bright colours of an ambulance. I could hear someone speaking through a police radio in the distance. It was surreal, like something you hear on TV when watching CSI.
I was in my underwear, wrapped up in a blanket. I remember I had a random realisation that lasted about 2 seconds, that I had slept on my sofa instead of my bed, and couldn’t remember why. I opened the door and a group of policemen were there, gathered at my doorstep, asking if I was ok. I said I’m ok, I was sleeping. They asked again and I felt puzzled why I had to repeat myself.
They asked me if I knew what time it was and I said something about early morning. It was actually 2 pm, I had not shown up for work, and my bosses had gotten worried (as they knew my history with depression). They had called the police to check on me at my flat.
The whole thing was surreal and I was very confused and very embarrassed. I went to work, head down, convinced the bosses that I was fine and had just overslept. I guess I managed to do some work, but I don’t remember much.
I have some vague memories of another, similar but different instance of the police at my door, which means this happened not only once, but twice over a short period of time. At some point, the company I work for arranged a meeting with a mental health professional to evaluate me, and I got a diagnosis. It was PTSD.
Recovery and a third challenge
I got time off work so I could get better, go to regular therapy, and start more effective medication. My bosses told me not to think about work, that someone else would cover for my role. That was a relief. What followed was a recovery journey that I would like to write more about in the future. I learned so much about myself.
Time went on and I was still on medication, but functioning and able to work again. The company had assigned me to a role that I used to do before becoming a manager, which was great as I could do what I was familiar with, without pressure.
As I was still on medication, I got to experience (what felt like) all of the listed side effects. Having surprise bouts of not being able to walk properly because one of my legs suddenly didn’t work, falling in my stairs, falling in the bus, getting lost in my own neighbourhood, not being able to see properly, shaking, aches and pains… it was all fine despite interrupting things at work occasionally.
All these side effects were still tons better than the actual illness that the pills were helping me to overcome. There was one side effect in the list though which was worse than the others: insomnia.
It became so bad that I again started performing poorly at work, started being late and zoning out. I went days without any sleep at all. I was so tired, but sleep didn’t come no matter what I did. I think at this point (even though no one said anything) the company I was working for was very close to letting me go. There is only so much they can do, and only so far they can stretch for one employee.
They gave me a chance to improve my performance by letting me adjust my working hours so I could come in later and leave later. This helped a lot as sometimes I would fall asleep 5 minutes before it was time to get out of bed, despite trying all night. This way, I could get a couple of hours at least, to start getting better.
Fourth, positive challenge
Eventually, in desperation, I knew I would need to let go of my medication if I wanted to start sleeping again. Against the doctor’s advice, I stopped taking the meds. You’re not supposed to do that so suddenly, but I didn’t care – all I wanted was to get some sleep. It did not take very long that I started to sleep an hour here, an hour there until it gradually got better and better. The anxiety was still there, but it was manageable. I was again feeling ok, sometime later, and AGAIN in that same company, working in my safe, familiar, low-pressure role.
A couple of years later, my manager left the company. This was April this year, and I was offered to take over her role. I was ready. As I got better and better, I grew more and more bored with the low-pressure role and craved for something more. I accepted the position, and I am now managing a small team of three, overseeing a bigger project.
I feel like I have come full circle, like I’ve arrived home somehow, at my workplace, after taking a long and difficult trip. I feel stronger and more confident in this role, even though it’s on the same level as the one I had in the beginning. Everything seems less chaotic. I am more aware of myself and how I am feeling. I know what to do now if I become stressed. I know the warning signs.
I am determined to stay vigilant in case I spot any warning signs with my team members, so I could help them early on with any issues they might be facing, so none of them would have to go through what I went through before getting the help they need. At the moment I am even enjoying a bit of stress, a bit of pressure – I actually work better under pressure sometimes – I just need to make sure it’s the good kind of stress and not the kind that stems from darker places.
I still occasionally get a piece of a flashback here and here. I say piece of one, as they don’t make me feel like I’m re-living something fully, but I might smell things, hear things, just kind of receive a memory or a feeling I had as a child and somehow forgot. It makes me feel sad as those are not great memories, but I feel relatively in control when it happens because I know why.
I have memory gaps of full years that are just blank. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing there are things in my mind that I cannot access, but I think I will be fine if they start coming again, and I know how to ask for help if I need it. And I hope everyone in our company feels like they can ask for help too if they start struggling with something.
Have you had mental health issues while working? How did you cope and how did your employer react? Were they supportive? I’d love to hear about it. 🙂