Sometimes we need to be brave enough to trust that no matter what we put out there, it’ll all be okay. As a leader, I feel acknowledging my imperfections and role-modeling acceptance is a fundamental part of being a good manager – and importantly, self-care.
“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.” – Glenn Close
Yesterday, I was sharing a family tale with a friend. As I recounted how upset one of my siblings was, I realized I could have interchanged the first name for any one of us. I know that in any given year, a member of my family will have a bout of debilitating insomnia, one of us will need time off of work for panic attacks or anxiety, another will go AWOL for weeks on end and another cry themselves to sleep for no apparent reason. And then, all will be well. Sometimes for weeks, other times for months, until the phone rings and it’s someone in pain once more.
An intriguing study by the Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium published in The Lancet carried out analyses to determine whether specific genetic variations were associated with autism, ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. “Researchers found variations in four genetic regions were associated with these disorders when they looked at the DNA of people who had been diagnosed with one of the mental or behavioural conditions.” Research into inherited mental health conditions continues in earnest. In Is Mental Illness Hereditary? by Ashley Davidson in Huffpost (2018), Davidson examines several scholastic papers and interviews Donald Mordecai, MD. Mordecai is the National Leader for Mental and Behavioral Health at Kaiser Permanente and recognized as an authority on psychiatric diseases. His position on this matter is inconclusive. However, it does strike me as more than coincidental that numerous members of the same family manifest similar mental health challenges at different stages of their adolescent and adult lives.
In my twenties, a relationship breakdown triggered a period of severe depression that lasted months. I continued to work but would refuge in my office for hours and spend my ‘spare’ time weeping under the duvet – unable to understand why the despair wouldn’t subside. I felt lost, without purpose, and very alone. In my thirties, I suffered from incredible mood swings that were later thought to be the result of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). Through repeated failed infertility treatments, a near-death traffic accident, the breakdown of my marriage, and the death of my father, I carried on ‘doing life.’ I did a truly spectacular job of “faking it.” I learned to smile, to crack jokes, to clown around. I acquired a sophisticated toolkit of mental health disguises. Fortunately, my stay-at-home periods would never last more than a few days, and I could manage these with holiday time and remote working.
Furthermore, a direct descendent of Stakhanovites, I am known for working 14-hour days – for pleasure. Much to my life partner’s chagrin. I now work remotely and on campus not just because I do a lot of UK volunteering but as a particular safety precaution self-imposed by a lifetime of getting to know myself.
For most of my life, I have walked around my town, my city, my country feeling very much out of place. I can only compare it to knowing you are the last Dodo on earth, and it doesn’t matter where you go, no one will ever understand you or your specific needs. You’re definitely a bird. You’re very similar to chickens, but no matter how hard you try – chickens think you’re weird or don’t want you hanging out in their coup.
Most recently, I have spent the last three years on fluoxetine and the equivalent of about one month in therapy: psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and counseling. Tragically, I get very frustrated with the process or run out of money and don’t give myself the professional support that I know I both need and deserve.
I am a successful professional. I enjoy everything about my work – even the things that most frustrate others. Maybe, we have the little green and white pills to thank for that. Either way, sometimes, I believe I am good at what I do.
I am also a positive psychologist and coach. Hairdressers don’t cut their own hair, do they? – and yet they can work wonders on other people. A profound understanding of brain-functioning and high levels of self-awareness well-equip me to support others on their journey towards personal fulfillment. I am also fortunate that I now benefit from a community of positive psychologists and friends who are aware of the way my brain works. And they’re okay with it.
My inner circle knows that if I do not answer the telephone, it is because I do not feel like speaking to anyone at that moment. My friends know that if I go quiet (off online channels), I am probably in a funk and taking time to sleep and to stay away from triggers. They also know that sometimes, I will use short sentences or say something in a way that is unusually blunt (even for me). They understand I am verbalizing what is happening to my body. This reaction is my physical response to a build-up of to-dos or over-stimulation.
Have you ever seen a toddler after a birthday party sugar overload? Is it whizzing around? Well, my version of that is to “say what I see” or to “talk incessantly” or to “employ excessive sarcasm.” My brain is having a party of its own. It has been over-stimulated and needs to let off steam. I like to believe this is my ‘social camouflaging’ taking a vacation.
I am a high-functioning autistic person with many of the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety: a people pleaser, an overthinker, dwelling on the negative, unable to say no, etc. Most people struggle to understand my diagnosis because they think people on the autistic spectrum behave like Dr. Amy Farrah-Fowler (The Big Bang Theory), Amelie Poulain (Amelie), or Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump). It’s either one extreme or the other. Yet, and much to my relief, more research is being carried out into late diagnosis in adult females and, specifically, into the full range of compensatory behaviors we use to fit into a neurotypical society.
Recently I watched the series Modern Love produced for Amazon by John Carney, Todd Hoffman, & Trish Hoffman. In episode three, starring Anne Hathaway, Hathaway portrays a young professional woman living with bipolar disorder. As I watched, I felt such affinity with her character and an incredible sense of pride – that we have finally arrived at the day when I can watch a successful woman living with and doing her best to manage a long-term mental health condition on a popular tv site.
I have worked for organizations where mental health is a natural part of its leadership rhetoric, and I am immensely satisfied to have worked with Student Hubs – where we made self-care a priority. Now, I work at a dynamic Portuguese higher education institution where I am involved in helping escalate mental health and wellbeing to the top of the organizational agenda, alongside other skilled and committed colleagues. However, a recent work incident reminded me that we don’t talk about it enough. I shared my story with a colleague and was overcome by vulnerability. I felt exposed.
What if they think I am no longer capable of doing my job?
What if they see me as a risky choice for potentially stressful tasks?
What if they start to phase me out?
And so, the spiral continued.
Then I realized that if I allowed myself to think these things, I was conforming to a model I am actively trying to break! I need to show that my mental health is something I am comfortable talking about publicly. I am also very open about being medicated and making sure to monitor my various “signals” daily. I am not any less of a competent and able person because I have a history of high functioning anxiety, PTSD, or depression. I am no less worthy of promotion or opportunities.
There may be moments in the future when I may well need to withdraw a little, to park the emails for an hour or two, to let the many non-urgent calls fall to voicemail and take five – to listen to a guided meditation, do a little yoga, or shuffle about to an uplifting track.
If things get particularly tricky, I have a friends-net of people who are incredibly knowledgeable and will notice those tiny details, the little signs and will (without hesitation) pull me to one side and ask, “are you okay? do you need anything?” I am also comfortable saying, “I am not okay right now.” If you are not yet at the friends-net stage, please reach out to one of the available public mental health resources. They’re amazingly supportive.
You are not alone. You are no less of a person because you are mentally unwell or have experienced mental health problems. You are every bit a survivor, and someone I and many others would love to get to know.