Working With and Through Mental Illness

Thanks to Sue, Tina, and Mari for kind and useful feedback. This post originally appeared in The Human in the Machine.

Staying productive is incredibly difficult when you’re living with a mental illness, sleep deprived, taking care of a loved one, grieving, or overstimulated from reading the news. Right now, I am struggling with all of the above. I have complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and the past year has pushed my symptoms back up to distracting levels.

This isn’t new. I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression for over 20 years. One thing that keeps me productive is work itself. I realize that work doesn’t solve everything, and it’s not a treatment plan. But it has given me something to focus on when I’ve needed it most: a deadline or a marker in the distance. From school work, food service, and retail, to customer service and design jobs, it is not an exaggeration to say that goals and assignments have kept me alive.

Work has always been my primary coping mechanism. It gives me a sense of purpose when I’m feeling restless or worthless. It helped me through tough adolescent years and a decade of misdiagnoses. It gives me something to identify with beyond illness, like being a writer, for example. And it reminds me that there are plenty of more interesting things to think about than myself—namely, helping other people.

I recently became a manager. I see my job as a mix of leadership and support. Along with reflecting on my own work habits and productivity, I’ve been thinking about how I can support my team’s mental health as their supervisor. How can I make space for people to do their best work? What do writers need to be able to breathe freely, write fearlessly, and think strategically? How can I help people focus in times of uncertainty?

I’m just beginning to explore these questions, but I can already see that I need to take better care of myself before I can do more for my team.

As I look ahead to the coming year, I wanted to share a few things that help me cope with stress and trauma while serving others as best as I can:

Take note of things you want to do. Listen to yourself without judgment. Jot down questions people ask you, and try to find themes within them. Focus on things you can control. If you’re feeling keyed up, empty your heart into an unsendable letter. Read it in the morning. Set goals that you’re excited to work on. Give yourself space to daydream.

Do one thing at a time, and do it slowly. Treat your attention as a valuable resource. Block off the first two hours of your day so you can concentrate. Experiment with structuring your time. If you’re feeling rushed, communicate more. Resist the urge to keep up with everything. Practice saying no. Choose a few things you can actually do today. And then just do them. One at a time. Slowly.

Find quiet or make quiet. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed with interruptions or distractions, step away for a while. Make tea or get a snack. Drink water. Look outside. Better yet, go outside. Move your feet. Listen to one of your favorite albums. Lie down if you need to. Remember your body and your breath.

Be honest when you’re not feeling well. Don’t try to hide it or fake it. You’re not a machine. You’re a person, and your worth is not measured in shareholder value or billable hours. (Capitalism be damned!) You can use work as a way to ignore what’s bothering you, if you have to. But when you’re sick, you’re sick. See what insurance benefits or low-cost services are available to you. Discuss your options with a professional. Check in with a friend or coworker you trust. And when you need a break, take one. Even this can wait.

Don’t try to solve everything today. Change takes time. Give yourself credit for everything you’ve accomplished so far despite the circumstances. Be careful with burnout. Ask for help when you need it, and most importantly, try to get some rest.

Further reading

January 28, 2017