This month marks three years since I began working full time. The news that i had attained my first full-time job was clouded with trepidation. I had never thought that I’d be able to manage full time work because of my mental illness. I was sure that my depression and anxiety disorder would make it impossible for me to bear a full time workload. But here I am, three years on and still doing the full time thing.
Although I manage pretty well, there are some pretty serious bumps in the road. I often struggle to cope, and at times have thought about pumping the brakes and going back to part time work. Today I wanted to share some of the challenges and benefits to working full time when you have a mental illness.
Finding time for self care
For me, managing my depression consists of a carefully-structured routine that centres around self care. Years of trial and error have led me to a series of self-care steps that generally manage to keep my mental health on an even keel. I know that in order to feel my best, I need to eat properly and get enough sleep. My yoga practice keeps me fit and helps calm my monkey mind. Journalling several times a week gets those anxious thoughts out of my head. All these steps are choreographed into a daily dance that helps keep my head above water.
When I was working part time, it was much easier to find the balance between working and self care. Now, when eight-and-a-half hours of each day are spent at the office, that leaves another eight for sleeping and then a further eight for eating, household responsibilities and self care. That doesn’t leave a lot of spare time for socialising or family time. And I’m often jammed between choosing to spend time with friends at the detriment of my self-care regime. If I spend too much time with my family, or my boyfriend, or my mates, then my mental health begins to slide because I’m not able to keep up with those vital self care activities. But it’s not always easy to leave a family dinner early because you need to do your yoga or because you just need to be alone for a while. It’s difficult for people to understand why you’re piking out early, or declining invitations. And after a while, they stop inviting you altogether if you bail too often.
Working full time has made it a lot more challenging to fit in those ever-important self care rituals. And sometimes I’m overwhelmed with frustration because it feels like all I do is go to work, come home and run through the motions of keeping myself sane. It’s maddening when it feels like there isn’t time for anything else in the day, and when you feel like so much more is expected of you and you aren’t able to achieve it.
To tell, or not to tell?
I’ve grappled with the decision of whether or not to tell the people I work with that I have depression and anxiety. I’ve had mixed responses in the past, and when I begin a new job I’m always a bit gun-shy about disclosing my illness.
There’s the risk that the people you work with will treat you differently when they find out you have a mental illness. There is still so much stigma surrounding mental illness, and it can be hard to work when you feel like people are walking on eggshells around you. There’s also the unpleasant feeling of knowing that a workmate is internally rolling their eyes at you and wondering why you can’t just toughen up and manage your life like everyone else does.
On the other hand, many employers and workmates will be exceedingly supportive if they find out that you have a mental illness. So it’s always a delicate balancing act of deciding whether you should mention it, and if so, when you should disclose your illness.
The perils of an invisible illness in the workplace
I went through a period last year where I was going through a really bad patch with my depression. I was struggling to get out of bed each morning, and I just felt despondent all the time. But I felt as though I had to force myself through the motions of everyday life anyway. One morning about three weeks into this hellish patch I woke up with a fever and a sore throat. I nearly cried with relief. Why on earth was I so pleased that I was sick? Well, because I felt like now that I had outward physical symptoms, I could take a sick day. Even though I’d been terribly unwell for weeks, it was only when my illness became physical that I felt like I was justified in staying home.
Invisible illnesses come with tricky pitfalls. There’s always the worry that people will think you’re faking it. That you’re making it up to get out of work or to avoid responsibility. When you have no physical symptoms to “prove” that you’re unwell, it’s difficult to justify taking time off. This is particularly true when you’re depressed or anxious and you simply don’t have the emotional fortitude to assert your needs or argue with workmates who don’t understand that mental illness can be as debilitating as physical illnesses. For me, I’ve never been brave enough to call in sick when I’ve needed a ‘mental health day”. Even though I think it would be justified, I still haven’t ever been able to bring myself to do it.
The mental load of engaging with others
I am a self-confessed introvert. I much prefer my own company to the company of others. I find being around other people (with the exception of a few of my nearest and dearest) mentally taxing. And when those interactions take place in a professional environment, that makes it just a little more difficult for me. On my good days, I can manage the daily office banter perfectly well. I can smile at staff meetings, make small talk at the copier and pick up my intercom without breaking into a cold sweat. But when my anxiety is kicking in or I’m on the verge of a crash, managing those polite, simple interactions becomes a monumental task. Just answering a question from a colleague about the stationery order can leave me on the verge of tears. Each time my intercom buzzes I feel a sharp pang in my chest and my breath comes in bursts. For me, the mere task of being around other people is taxing and takes a huge mental load. It’s extremely difficult to keep my professional mask in place and do my job like I’m supposed to.
Financial security and the money buffer
One really positive thing that my full time job has brought to my life is the feeling of financial security. When I was working part time, I was making enough to pay my bills and not much extra. I would often fall into a panic about what would happen if I had a sudden emergency and needed extra cash. I wasn’t in a position to cover unforeseen costs, and the idea that I might suddenly require hospital care or need to pay for repairs on my flat was terrifying to me.
Now I feel much more secure about my financial position. I know that my bills are covered and I have enough to put food on the table. I can switch the heater on or take an extra shower without panicking about the spike in my bills. And I now have enough that I can save towards some financial goals and stuff a bit of cash away for the future. For all the stress that full time work brings, that financial security and knowing that I’m looking after myself is really reassuring.
A reason and a purpose
Although I’ve mentioned a lot of the struggles I have with my depression and work, taking on a full time job has helped my depression and anxiety as well. I’ve gained confidence as I’ve learned new skills and managed challenges at work. I’ve come to see that I’m quite capable of dealing with difficult problems and working with other people in my office as a team. Additionally, there are days when it’s difficult to get up, to shower and to drag myself through the day. But I do it because I have to. Because I know I have a job and I can’t afford to lose it. Because I care about the work I do and I don’t want to let my workmates down. While that could be a lot of pressure for some folks, for me it works well as a motivator and helps me to move forward.
Do you have a mental illness and a full time job? How do you manage it? What are some of the challenges and benefits you’ve experienced?