It’s OK to not be OK
So, this is my first blog in a while, and it is so good to be back! This is quite a personal entry but it may hopefully help someone in a similar situation. You see, I suffer with acute anxiety which suddenly raised its ugly head, almost out of nowhere. That is what it does, and it is an expert at it. This time, it was down to a combination of personal and professional factors, which all came to a head, and I crumbled. And the worst thing is, it completely takes over and you have no control. And, most frustratingly, other people do not understand, unless of course they have been there themselves. “Sort it out” or “Pull yourself together” they say…. if only it was that simple. Anxiety has many forms and affects people in different ways, both mentally and physically. Unfortunately for me, I experience both, mentally with panic attacks, extreme nerves and overthinking, and physically with no appetite, lack of sleep, chronic upset stomach and feeling weak and physically drained. It really gets to you, and at its strongest, you cannot ever imagine feeling normal again, whatever ‘normal’ is! At least, that is my experience.
So how do you manage the routines of everyday life and work? The truth is, you don’t, and you need to accept that and seek help and support. Easier said than done, but it is so important. It is an extremely vicious circle, the one thing I needed as a distraction, was to work, but I physically could not do it, I was too ill, and as much as letting people down contributed to my anxiety, I had to give in and accept that I needed time out to rest and get my body back into the essentials of living, like eating and sleeping, to build my strength back up. It was not pleasant, and certainly not easy, but I have now returned to work and am slowly getting back in the swing of things. I have issues every morning, but I get there. I am very lucky to have a supportive colleague who openly admits that she cannot imagine what it feels like, but she is willing to listen and suggest solutions and, most importantly, try to understand.
Staff mental health and well-being is something we hear about but possibly not something taken seriously. At the best of times, there are stresses and strains that can be hard to cope with, but we have also just been through the most unexpected and challenging of times. We have faced a pandemic and the many various issues and demands that came with it. We have had to cope with constant changes (change itself is a difficult one for me), whilst being supportive to parents and families, putting on a happy face for the confused and unsettled little ones in our care. But who has been there for us? We have been resilient and just ploughed on through no choice of our own. We have just done it because we care. That is what we do. But eventually it is bound to catch up on us, it would be a miracle if it didn’t.
So, what to do when a form of mental illness strikes? This is a tricky area as there can be such a stigma and misunderstanding about mental health. If we have a migraine or a stomach bug, we just accept it and explain what is wrong. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to admit an ailment related to mental health, and sadly, it’s not quite as accepted. We need to educate people, which is partly my reason for writing this quite personal blog. From my own experience, I would say the first step is to acknowledge your own illness. Just because it cannot always be seen, does not mean it is not there. I have battled through for years, trying to hide it and cover it up, but eventually it breaks through, probably in a more extreme state than if I had just admitted it in the first place. Seek help, you deserve it, and it does not matter what others may think. It is not a reflection on you as a person, it is an illness. And that is OK. Making that first step and reaching out is the hardest part, but once you do, you will most likely find that people want to help, even if they do not fully understand. I was so lucky to find help from an unlikely source, a stranger who has been there herself, in even darker scenarios, yet her experience made her to be the exact person I needed. At that exact time.
Secondly, and this is also hard, is to almost accept defeat initially. Accept that you are not able to work, and you need to prioritise yourself over your role. At the end of the day, it is a job, and you cannot fulfill that role to its fullest if you are not looking after yourself. I felt so guilty about the extra pressure put upon my colleagues through taking time off, but I simply had to. Once you are up and running again, you can refocus your energies on your role, and probably enjoy it a lot more.
Lastly, maybe you are a colleague of someone going through a difficult time? Maybe you really do not understand or get why they just cannot get on with it? I get that, as I do not fully understand it myself. What I would ask is that you be alert to any slight changes in character or behaviour. Ask if they are OK. Be open and willing to talk. Be sympathetic and approachable even if you do not understand. Be there for them as you hope someone might be there for you. Remind them that the help is out there and together you will find it. They will get through it. It is OK to not be OK. Thank you.