What It's Like To Work With A Mental Disorder

Last year was the first year I had to disclose my diagnoses to a supervisor who didn't know my story. Previously, my department chair was witness to the "before" me and the "after" me, she knew more about the situation. But this time I was the one to put it out there. Hesitant at first because I didn't want to be seen as less capable or weak or seem like a risk or a bad hire; eventually my secrets would tell themselves. 

Officially, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety disorder and panic disorder. For me, what this looks like varies but I'll list off some of my most common symptoms. Migraines, intense muscle spasms, nausea, irritability, sensitivity to sound and light, sweating, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, IBS, loss of appetite and insomnia. Significant, right? Not to mention that each symptom can often cause or exacerbate the other, when that happens I can be sure a panic attack is coming. And what does a panic attack feel like? Like you're dying AND like you're watching yourself think you're dying with an inability to stop with thought. Even with medication and therapy, I still experience the symptoms, though not as intensely, and have found that without conscious intention my body took to self-soothing with things like scratching. As a result, when my anxiety is bad like it is right now, I have to keep my nails very short lest I wake up with welts and open wounds. I'm not a cutter, but I certainly understand the desire. Grounding doesn't always work as quickly as a hard pinch to bring me back to the present moment and out of my thoughts.

For people who have never been afflicted with mental health issues, it is difficult to explain. How could I possibly tell someone what it feels like to be at war with your mind? To know your thoughts are irrational and maladaptive and sometimes even down-right harmful, but not be able to stop yourself from thinking them? Then, in your inability to stop a panic attack you wonder--as you're sweating, pacing, crying, and feeling like an elephant is sitting on your chest while you sink lower and lower into the ocean--will I ever be normal again? Will I ever completely lose my mind? It's terrifying to consider even once. Imagine thinking it multiple times a day, every single day. 

The last course I taught, I disclosed my illnesses with my students. I told them outright there are days where my energy will be lower, where my temper will be shorter, where my mind will not be as sharp. I promised them I would show up in all the ways that I could, but asked them to understand what it meant for me.  It was a risk. Just like telling my supervisor, I had no idea how they would take it. If they would hold it against me or if it would show up in my teaching evals. Still, knowing that the likelihood of going an entire semester without an attack was slim, I felt it best to disclose. The result was something like a sigh of relief; many of my students had similar issues and I think that day we collectively agreed to show up in the ways that we could. 

With my supervisor, though, I was not the one setting the rules. And I was nervous that even with HR policy to accomodate disabilities, that there would be an unconscious bias that I would be seen as fragile, but not in a good way. However, like I mentioned, my illness told on me. After my third morning being late and showing up scattered and disheveled I had to have an open conversation with my boss. I told her not only my exact diagnoses but what my triggers were, what my "tells" were, and how I managed my symptoms in public. She was wonderful with helping me adjust my schedule--even though I am an early riser, mornings are hardest for me so I adjusted my schedule to come in later--and coming up with different accommodations in the office to help. We frosted the glass on my office windows for a bit more privacy, no one questioned me when I sweat too much and ran my fans on high or when I needed to wrap up tightly in a blanket at my desk and she set the tone for that. 

Now, I'm in a new position at a new institution and again I had the choice...do I tell or do I try to fly under the radar undetected? I decided, once again, to disclose my disorders. As I sit in my office with my door pushed up, blanked wrapped tightly and sweat beads on my brow, I'm glad I did. I don't know if I'll need special accommodations again, but I won't be afraid of asking for them this time. I am also trying not to be afraid of begin vocal about struggling with anxiety particularly in my professional spaces. 

After I moved on from the first job that knew, I was all but convinced that they thought of my differently after my disclosure. That despite my affirming that I could handle my teaching, I was not sure they believed me. I don't blame them, and not really. I had changed. It was an absolute fact that I could not do what I could before. I did not have the same energy, I did not have the same capacity for stress, I did not have the same patience. My therapist helped me to understand I was diverting so much energy to existing that it was hard to keep up with my old pace so my constant work is to have grace with myself. That and to embrace my new way of being, because I will never be who I was before the trauma that brought on my disorders. 

Being in higher education and working with students who are growing and developing, I see it as a platform. When appropriate, I self-disclose and talk to my students about what it is like to manage my mental health while also working. I tell them about how I managed my self care when I was a student and how my health has to take precedence over everything, even and especially my academics. I'm honest about what my bad days look like and I try to show up authentically. I tell them that sometimes good enough is good enough.  My peers and colleagues have made me synonymous with self-care and some even joke that I am never stressed and always so "zen". I always laugh and tell them that it's because I have to be. There is limited space for stress in my life because it sends my whole world into a tailspin, so what I had to learn to do was let the small shit go. For the most part, this works well for me. It only becomes problematic when working with people who think busy or overwhelmed is a good thing and thrive on stress. I try to draw thick boundaries between myself and those people. 

I am a work in progress. But I love what I do and I want to continue doing it well, so I fight through my symptoms every day. And on the days that I can't, I try to tell myself that it is only one day and that tomorrow will be better. I skip social outings when I need to. I keep nice scents and soft linens in my office because they help keep me calm. Most of all though, I make a place for my illness at the table. I don't try to hide it, I couldn't even if I tried, not for long. I tell myself that it is part of me...an important part, but it is not the only part. I tell myself that I am normal because the vast majority of us are battling through something every single day, whether we speak to it or not or whether it's diagnosable. I hope that by continuing to speak up about what I go through, others will do the same and the narrative around mental health will change. That those who suffer will not be seen as less than, and that those in treatment will be seen as the courageous fighters we are. 

Jessica WilliamsComment