A Day in the Life of lifeinabind
I work on Tuesdays, and as with most work days, the day passed in a blur of activity in which little else had a chance to enter my mind. I am thankful that I am able to come to work and to be someone else when I am there. Someone who appears happy, confident, at ease, in control. While I’m there, I’m even able to fool myself that it’s more than appearance – that I actually am that person. This has been going on for so long – whether at work or at university or school before that – and I am so used to compartmentalising, that it really feels as though there are two versions of me.
There is a phrase I have heard used in relation to those with mental health difficulties who are ‘high functioning’ (though I don’t like that designation) – ‘apparent competence’. There’s no denying that in many ways, it is a blessing. I am able to work, which on balance, is good for my mental health, and I am able to help to support my family. However, apparent competence can feel like a burden and a prison. I feel trapped by it; as if I’m being held to ransom. I can’t let the mask of competence slip, or my whole world might collapse. Work has assumed such overwhelming importance, that I used to firmly believe that one of the greatest threats to my survival was the possibility of work finding out about my mental health difficulties. I have lived two separate lives for so long, that the idea of integrating them in any way, seemed utterly unthinkable. It felt as though my work identity had to be protected at all costs – that it was my only ‘substantive’ identity. Who exactly am I, outside of work?
I think that much of this compartmentalisation is driven by fear of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Stigma feeds my paranoia that my career will be affected if others know about my difficulties. I am afraid that others’ perceptions of me will change; that my ‘apparent competence’ will be seen as just that – apparent, fake. That I will be seen as a ‘liability’, because there is always the risk of the mask slipping. And yet, is that not also the perception I have of myself? I have talked about ‘apparent competence’, but in truth, there is nothing apparent about it. When I was at work on Tuesday 10 February 2015, I did a good job – the feedback I received, tells me so. I may not be believe it, and I may know that I function very differently out of the office; but when I’m there, my performance is not a lie, even if my smiles and my ‘happiness’ may be.
I believe that being able to work can be incredibly beneficial to one’s mental health. It can give a sense of achievement, purpose and control, and that sense is so often are lacking for many with mental health difficulties, particularly if have very low self-esteem. But I know that my attitude towards work in ‘unhealthy’. That I have let it define me, and that I prioritise it far more than I should; and when work is stressful and workloads are heavy, it can push me over the edge into a downward spiral of severe depression.
On a Tuesday evening, when I’m not at work, I’m in therapy. On this particular Tuesday we talked about the fact that I had felt suicidal at the weekend. I find weekends the hardest to get through – with no work to distract me and no contact with my therapist, it’s easy to fall back into depression and very negative patterns of thought about myself. I need therapy; and for me, one of the things that really shows me how much my attitudes are starting to change, is that I think that at this point, I need it more than work. And if I had to tell work about my difficulties in order to continue being able to attend therapy, I might just be able to do it. Perhaps the mask is starting to slip after all – but perhaps it’s not such a bad thing.