This morning I spoke with my line manager to arrange going back to work from the middle of next week. Just mornings, to start, and – only if they go well – then slowly building back to my usual full-time hours.
Phone calls, I find, are particularly challenging when I’m unwell. I think most people my age and younger feel the same way, though this is amplified when my mental health isn’t tip-top. Today it felt especially hard to speak on the phone. I didn’t know what to say.
When you’re mentally unwell, being asked “how are you?” takes on another level of meaning. Even when you’re physically sick, it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint how exactly you feel at any given moment. You can 10X this for someone with a mental health issue. Honestly, it feels like I have to find something positive to tell the well-meaning inquirer at the other end of the line. I find myself saying something that boils down to “Look! I’m getting better!” I can almost feel the forced smiles. Reassuring others that I’m going to be okay, when I don’t actually know this myself, is scary.
It’s over an hour since we spoke. Whilst I know that my planned return is rationally a good decision, I feel anxious about it. Not having felt much of anything in the past few weeks, it’s unsettling to suddenly feel familiarly unpleasant sensations. The tightness in my jaw and my chest. I realise I’m not breathing properly – I’ve been holding my breath – so take a few deep lungfuls of air and relax a touch as the oxygen revitalises my brain.
For the first time in a few weeks, I’m overwhelmed. Plans to walk to the shops slowly disintegrate. It feels too much to put away the washing, to bake pretty pastel-coloured cupcakes for my nieces, even to tackle the washing up. I just don’t want to do anything any more. No, thank you.
I don’t like how this feels. I remember that this is what it’s like to have a mental meltdown. I need to stop; be still and see what comes up for me. Wait for my emotional self to catch up with the rational part. Knowing my back-to-work plan is the right thing to do motivates me to take action. I’ve metaphorically opened my mental first-aid kit, tapping into tried-and-tested tools at hand that I hope will help me become better. I’m here writing to you, for one.
Immediately after hanging up the phone, I went to take a shower (and yes; I’m aware that this is lazy behaviour at 10.30am, but I have been writing for much of the morning). I find this to be a perfect place to tune into what’s happening in my body and brain. With the sounds of the shower drowning out my self-consciousness, I talk to myself aloud, heart-to-heart. Talking myself down from the metaphorical, anxiety-fuelled ledge, so to speak. Like any conversation with someone I love, I literally ask myself questions out loud – and I answer from the heart.
To anyone else, this talking to myself would look like utter madness. It feels that way to me, too. However I’m learning to care less about what others might think. If anything helps me feel better – closer to a healthier, happier version of myself – then I’ll give it a try. Taking the decision to be completely open about being on sick leave for mental health reasons helps. It feels authentic; to be true to myself and my values. And as far as I know, so far, so good.
This week I’ve sought comfort and companionship from Russell Brand’s book, “Recovery”, on Audible. Logically, I know I’m not alone in experiencing common conditions like anxiety, depression, and disordered eating. In practise I find I need to remind myself over and again that I’m not the first to struggle this way – nor will I be the last – and books like this helps. I recognise myself in their stories – and those of others, who also find themselves in a dark place.
More than ever, I find myself drawn towards self-help and recovery stories. Right now, I need to hear tales of people who’ve come through the other side of mental meltdown. Russell is an extreme example of this. I accept I’m a little obsessive about this stuff. C finds the whole genre uncomfortable and would rather I read something else: a bit of sci-fi or fantasy, perhaps? However I find I enjoy spending time technically on my own, but via books and podcasts, simultaneously surrounded by people who’ve walked a similar path.
These “non-experts” – “leading learners”, as described by the Fizzle guys – are especially interesting to me. With experiential – rather than academic – expertise, these people successfully manage their minds. A mental mind-field, they’ve dug themselves out of the proverbial dark hole that bit sooner than the rest of us. We keep scrabbling at the sides of said hole, getting a bit of traction, only to find ourselves sliding back.
Ahead on the road to recovery, these Leading Learners choose to turn back and offer us a hand, sharing said experience and strategies which have worked for them. As I tentatively step forward, I hope to become someone who can, in turn, offer this crucial support to someone else, whether in person or virtually, via this blog. It’s a virtuous circle, I suppose, and one of which I’m striving to be a part.
As a responsible adult, I know it’s important that I return to work. I’ve got a mortgage to pay, a partner to support, and two kitty mouths to feed. Still, I’m scared. Not of the work itself, but of what being in work might do to my fragile state of mind. Taking time out has shown me how imperative it is that I prioritise my mental wellbeing. I’m conscious of not going back too soon and sliding backwards.
Though I’m returning to the same environment – the same job – I don’t want to return to being the same person who left, a shadow of herself a few weeks prior. I’d incrementally become disinterested, despondent, depressed. I recognise this person from previous troubled times and I’m afraid that this version of myself might be back for good.
I still don’t know why I had this mental meltdown. I’m not yet able to pin down exactly what’s not working, other than my mind. It’s a complex knot to unpick, and it’ll take time to unravel. Whilst I’d love to resolve any and all issues immediately – perfectly – first time around, I accept this isn’t how things work. I’m learning to be okay with slowing down, being patient, and creating more balance.
I’m confident that I’ve devised a sensible strategy to get back to some kind of normalcy. As the person who knows me best, I’m taking the lead on my return to work, at a pace I can handle. I know it’s a good plan; I’ve checked with those who love and understand me most. Although I’m trying to cut out reassurance-seeking as part of my recovery, it’s a hard habit to break.
So I’ve made an exception in this case because work matters, not only financially but emotionally, too. It’s an important factor when it comes to self-esteem. I want to feel like I’m contributing; like I’m pulling my weight and making a positive difference. I have to make clear here that paid work isn’t the only way to do this. It’s only one part of the bigger picture when it comes to living a happy, healthy, and emotionally wealthy way of life. Volunteering, creative work (blogging anyone?!), and taking care of those we love are all valuable ways to contribute.
Yet work continues to be an important part, which is why I’m trying so hard to go back to work sooner rather than later. In any case, right now I feel better about my return to work after a liberal application of the Three Ts – hot tea, toast, and telly! Sometimes I find that the best way to take good care of myself is by doing the most simple things.
P.S. I sense that I’m starting to drift off-topic, so if this particular post feels rather disorganised, then that’s most likely because it is. I hope you’ll forgive me – after all, I’m still a bit mental, remember?!