This is the second post in a series detailing my recent bout with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, insomnia, and the like. You could say that I hit the grand slam of mental illness, if you were inclined to speak in terms of sports. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of sports metaphors. Part 1, Real Life Emotional Trash, can be read here.
It goes without saying that having a mental illness is much different than suffering from a physical ailment. Unlike a broken bone, no doctor can tell you with any certainty how long it’ll take you to recover, and furthermore without a cast, crutches, or a comedic neck brace, no one can tell that there’s anything wrong with you. To the outsider, my battle with anxiety ended on the day I returned to work mid-March. In reality, it’s an ongoing struggle with good days, bad days, and everything in between. One day I’m rockin’ down the highway, windows down, stereo up, ans singing like I’m the only car on the road, ready to put in 8 hours of work. The next, I’m staring down the clock reading 8 in the morning, debating with myself whether I should stay home or head to the office and fight my way through the day.
I was fully aware I wasn’t doing my best work when I was in the office, but to me, that was progress. Some work was better than no work, and the more time I spent in the office, the easier it would be. If I had to distract my mind with the New York Times crossword puzzle for ten minutes because I couldn’t concentrate on my job, then that’s what I had to do. Unfortunately, not everyone shared this opinion. After three weeks back on the job, I could sense something was amiss. I kept fielding questions like, “About how well are you doing now? 50%? 60%? 70%?” I don’t know. I never really thought of my recovery in terms of percentages. I can tell you that last night I hardly slept at all. I’m fighting a cold and against my better judgment I took some cold medicine. It did wonders clearing up my sinuses, but it also did wonders feeding my insomnia.
By the end of that week, after more questions, and more inconsistent sleep, I was running on empty, and I began to think exactly like my superiors. I imagined this scene with Chris Mortensen, the ESPN NFL insider, reporting from my suburban office complex instead of the Cleveland Browns’ training grounds, “According to sources within the office, Bill is only 65-70% healthy for Friday’s day of work. He’s still experiencing bouts of nervousness which makes it difficult for him to concentrate on his job. Additionally, we’re hearing that his energy levels are lower than normal as insomnia remains an issue. At his worst, he zones out or wastes time on the internet. This type of behavior has an averse effect on the performance of the rest of the team. One man slacking off, can encourage the entire department to engage in job shirking activities. Finance is eagerly awaiting the changes to payroll reporting and Bill’s superiors are cautiously optimistic he can get the job done by 5 o’clock.”
The optimism changed to outright concern when my boss caught me watching youtube clips of a David Beckham goal with the Los Angeles Galaxy one Friday morning. Now, we had a situation. There was a 5 o’clock meeting with mixed messages and sports metaphors. I needed to get my head in the game. I didn’t need to be a home run hitter. Singles and doubles can score runs, too. I’m a valuable team member and I’m needed at full strength. And the line that stuck with me the most was this one, “I can’t claim to understand what you’re going through, because I’ve never dealt with a condition like yours, but I can appreciate what you’re going through and I realize it’s not easy.”
I wanted to speak up for myself. I wanted to call bullsh*t on the anxiety appreciation line. I wanted to say a lot of things, but the meeting caught me off guard, and at 5 o’clock, all I wanted to do was go home and sleep. It had been a long week.
Although this is the third time I’ve had to seek treatment for anxiety and panic attacks, I’m still learning about what feeds anxiety and what I can do to change those behaviors. In this aspect, my therapist has been indispensable. The following week would have gone so much better, had I spoken up for myself at that meeting. Instead, I let it trouble me for an entire weekend. Then, as I realized I needed a follow up discussion with my supervisors, I didn’t call for a second meeting, opting to speak about my dissatisfaction with co-workers, but not taking any further action. Thankfully, or maybe not so thankfully, one day of high anxiety where I needed to leave work early, provided me with an opening. A simple message from my supervisor the following day, “How are you doing?” allowed me to give my side of the story. Yes, I was watching videos of David Beckham when I should have been working, but did you know that there was no amount of coffee that could have made me awake enough to be a productive worker that day? Did you know that the medicine I still take for insomnia every night tends to leave me groggy in the morning? Did you know why I was on the internet or working on the New York Times Crossword puzzle? It’s not because I didn’t want to work, it was because the anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t concentrate on work and I needed something to occupy my mind other than anxiety.
Now, I felt much more secure in my job and consequently, much more secure in my recovery. The next time I heard the line, “I can’t understand what you’re going through, but I can appreciate it,” I took it upon myself to help them understand. I sent my supervisor an email with links to information on general anxiety disorder and panic disorder. To me, anxiety and a lack of focus, went together like hot dogs and stadium mustard, but to him, this was news. All of a sudden, he understood why I hadn’t been as productive at work in the weeks following my return. He responded to my openness by assuring me that I had his support and whenever I found myself beset by anxiety, all I had to do was let him know and I’d be able to take an hour or an afternoon, or whatever action I needed to take in order to get things back in order.
It’s been two weeks since I had that talk about sports with my supervisors, and my day to day life continues to improve. For the first time in over two months, I’m getting consistent sleep. Consequently, I’m much more in control of my anxiety, and working an eight hour day is no longer an eight hour struggle. Just as importantly, I’m able to lead a more active life outside of work. Anxiety and fatigue no longer keep me from getting the green machine out on the road for an afternoon bike ride, and they can no longer hide me inside on a Saturday night when there’s a rock and roll show going on cross town. Am I 70%? 80%? 90% back? I don’t know. I’m not a home run hitter nursing an injury on the eve of the big game. I’m a computer programmer by day, a writer in my free time, a son, a brother, a friend, a bike rider, a rock and roller, and someone learning to successfully manage anxiety.