In order to take care of my mental health, I have been out of the workforce for a few months now. This has been a huge challenge for me: I had no idea how hard it would be to sit down, be still, and actually focus on my health with no everyday life noise to distract me. It led me to discover how much I identified with being in the workforce, good at my job, and successful (to a point). It also allowed me to understand how important self-care actually is, and how little of it I have been practicing in my life.
It’s also made for some lonely months, as so many of my connections were in the workplace, and people haven’t exactly been understanding or encouraging of this phase of my life.
Unfortunately this kind of reaction is almost to be expected when we consider what the general attitudes towards mental health issues are. So many people simply don’t understand that mental health problems can be as debilitating as physical diseases, not to mention that often, issues such as anxiety and depression cause physical symptoms (I have a list of symptoms that would make the average 60 year old raise a brow, and they are all caused by stress!)
The bleak reality is that I lost most of my friends and acquaintances after my nervous breakdown, mostly due to embarassed silence. I guess people don’t know what to say, as we are all so badly equipped to discuss mental health. Even as I type this, I realise I am choosing my words carefully, avoiding the word “illness” next to “mental health”, and generally self-censoring, which is actually one of the things that has kept me away from blogging for 4 weeks. If it’s hard for me to talk about mental health, I can only imagine what a confusing topic this must be for people without experience of it.
It’s been a lonely few months, often with only my mum on the phone and my husband at the end of his work day for company. Still, I found some solace in solitude, when I started to realise I needed the silence and the stillness in order to heal.
It also ended up being easier avoiding people then dealing with questions such as: “So what do you do all day?” and comments like: “Ah, must be nice to not do anything all day!”.
I figured this may be a good topic to talk about.
I’ve actually struggled for months with a feeling of worthlessness: the lack of earning a wage, coupled with the lack of deadlines, external goals and a work-based routine, was a lot harder to deal with that I ever imagined during idle fantasies while sitting at my desk in the office. Like everybody, I’ve thought about what life would be like without work, and I imagined a series of fun activities, like learning languages, exploring quirky coffee shops, getting through my reading and watching lists, and generally doing all kinds of cool stuff. Imagine suddenly having all the time in the world to do all the things you always talk about doing “if I had the time”.
Guess what: that didn’t happen. In fact, an alarming portion of my time off has been spent de-compressing from my breakdown, unpacking a lot of my issues in intense therapy sessions, and trying to build a non-work centered routine that would allow me some semblance of normal life while I get better.
Turns out that’s it’s incredibly hard to create, or stick to, a routine when there is no work.
Far from having “all the time in the world”, I have found myself stuck in a pattern of erratic sleep, medication side effects, constantly catching up on housework, and watching re-runs of my favourite shows to avoid being alone with my thoughts. This went on for weeks.
Cue my favourite past-time: bashing myself. In this instance, bashing myself for managing to even waste this time off, instead of using it productively. Yes, you’ve read that correctly: I was making myself feel guilty for not being productive while on leave for a nervous breakdown.
That’s how ingrained the concept of “productivity” was in my head: so much so that I wasn’t even allowing myself time to heal and breathe when I desperately needed to. So much so that it took my therapist’s calm but stern explanation for the facts to sink in: I was in fact working very hard to get better, every day, even when not thinking about it, and on such a deep level that my exhaustion, aside from being a side effect of depression, was surely due to processing trauma and rewiring patterns.
Only after the first couple of months I started seeing the pattern, the construct of “productivity” as something we inflict on ourselves. I felt worthless because I wasn’t making a wage, because I wasn’t returning 100 e-mails a day, because I wasn’t stuck in traffic for 40 minutes each way. I was a cog out of the machine, and I couldn’t reconcile my existence with productivity. It was impossible for me to understand that in order to be really productive in life, I needed to slow the hell down and get better.
So what do I do all day now that I figured that out?
I literally just exist. I wake up, I eat something, I exercise, I take care of the house, I go swimming, I go running, I meditate, I do some yoga, I cook, I bake, I read, I play video games, I write, I go to therapy, I go see my doctor. I no longer try to make a strict schedule, or a play by play of each day, or hour. I am now amused at the fact that I was still doing this 2 months into my post-breakdown phase, failing at the to-do list almost every day, and bashing myself over it. Scheduling my life wasn’t working, but it had worked for so long, and I didn’t know how to give up a schedule. Corporate life can do that to a person.
So am I productive? In the best possible sense of the word, for me, at this point in time, yes. I am rebuilding myself from the ground up. It’s hard work, possibly the hardest work I’ve ever done, and sometimes it seems like there is no end in sight, but brick by brick, I can tell I am building a stronger foundation for my future.
I want to be clear, because if anybody else who is struggling is reading this, I don’t want them to feel bad or inadequate (God knows that happens to me when I read blogs) : I don’t do everything I listed above every day, and I still sometimes don’t have the strength to get up, or to eat, or to get dressed and leave the house. I still watch a lot of tv shows re-runs when I can’t listen to my own head, or when I need to calm down (I can’t fall asleep without the TV on because my thoughts will just wander). I still have anxiety attacks, but not as often as earlier this year, when I would have multiple in a single day, and was quite literally stuck in the house for weeks.
I have a long road ahead of me, but I freed myself of the shackles of what I should be doing, and I packed up and discarded my feelings of worthlessness because I am not currently working. I am finally able to take each day at its own value, and use it as a building block for my health. It feels healthy, and it feels like progress.