I have struggled with an anxiety disorder and OCD for seven years. Anxiety, really, my whole life. I can’t remember a time when my stomach didn’t churn and my hands didn’t sweat, sometimes for no apparent reason.
Having a mental illness in the workplace, especially when it becomes difficult to suppress or hide, makes me feel like a disappointment. It makes me feel unprofessional, like I’m bringing my personal issues to a place where they don’t belong. As if I could just take them off like a backpack when I start my shift, picking them back up again when I clock out.
But it’s not like that.
I carry anxiety with me always.
It’s there, in the pit of my stomach, in the way my hands can’t stay still, the way my eyes glass over when I start to panic. Having a mental illness in the workplace makes me feel like I don’t belong.
I’ve worked in retail for a year now. Only a few of my coworkers, those whom I’m closer to, are aware of my anxiety disorder. For the past year, on the days when I felt like the world was ending, I would call in sick, citing bodily illness. In reality, I was under my covers, unable to set foot outside the door, in fear of something I couldn’t even name.
It’s good to push yourself. Healthy, even. There were plenty of days where I pushed myself to get out of bed, to slap on some makeup and just shove it all down. And usually I am fine, I get to work, I distract myself, and the anxiety of the morning feels silly and unnecessary.
Recently, it was one of those days. I could feel panic filling me up. I pushed it down and left for work. The heat was oppressive, my breath shallow. I felt frustrated with myself. Why couldn’t I just walk to work? Why couldn’t I do such an easy, everyday thing?
All I was doing was folding shirts, yet my heart was pounding. I saw one of the managers that I felt comfortable with and asked if we could talk in private. As soon as we sat down in the back office, I started sobbing. I hated myself. I was so embarrassed. I wasn’t being paid to cry.
She was very kind. She hugged me and told me it was fine, that I could take as much time as I needed to calm down. I went to the staff room and shredded kleenex. A pile of white shreds grew in front of me, a tiny snowy mountain. I wondered what I looked like from the outside, what someone would see if they walked in right now. I immediately scooped the kleenex from the table and threw it out. I focused on my breathing. I did all the tips and tricks that you see on the internet, but today, none of them were working. I knew I needed to go home but I was afraid to ask, afraid to disappoint again.
It took me an hour to work up the nerve to ask if I could go home. I tried to be invisible as I walked out, I held my sweater close to me, hoping no one would notice my red-rimmed eyes and shaking hands.
Having an anxiety attack in the workplace made me feel small. It made me feel like I was a silly child in a grown-up world where I was in over my head. When I went back to work the next day, I was so embarrassed. But my coworkers surprised me: they hugged me and let me know they were there if I needed help They offered to come over if I needed company or someone to help cook dinner. I was overwhelmed with their kindness. I began to realize that I’d underestimated people. I thought that everyone would think I was weird or being dramatic, but they actually understood, or at least wanted to try.
I tell my other friends who struggle with mental illness to be brave, but that it’s okay to take a break and take time for yourself. Yet I hardly ever take my own advice – I push and push and push until I wear myself out, until I break down. You can have a mental illness and be successful in the workplace. But you need to take care of yourself. You are worth more than your productivity.
Not everyone is going to understand. The best thing you can do is try to explain your situation, explain that you are trying your best and that you care about your job. The world is becoming more and more receptive to mental illness. By accepting yourself, you create a place of acceptance for others. You are making your workplace safer for you, and anyone else who also suffers from mental illness.