Working Full-Time With Mental Illness Is Hard: Here's How I Do It

Unfortunately, mental illness stops for no one, and I had to quickly improvise new ways to feel stable.

On the fifth floor of my downtown office building is a rarely frequented washroom where I go to cry. Whenever I feel a tidal wave of emotion about to wash over me, I take a deep breath, grab my key card, and head for the elevator. When I reach a stall, I sit down and hug myself, folding into my lap and letting out gentle sobs. I spend a few minutes here as my emotions flow through me, feeling safe and secure.

About six months ago, I was going through a particularly rough time mentally and emotionally. I had started a new job in the midst of it and was struggling to keep myself grounded in order to focus on my performance.

Unfortunately, mental illness stops for no one, and I had to quickly improvise new ways to feel stable.

One day, I went to eat lunch in the lounge on the fifth floor when it dawned on me that the washroom nearby would likely not have visitors during most of the day. Outside lunch hours, I would seek refuge in that washroom, knowing I could cry without intervention.

The knowledge alone that a safe space is waiting for me if I feel upset has had a tremendous impact on my mental stability. Creating safeguards like this for myself has allowed me to better navigate the unpredictability of mental illness while working a fulltime job. I’ve asked myself innumerable times if I am too tumultuous of a person to ever succeed in life due to my anxiety and depression. I still struggle with answering this question as I fumble finding ways to keep myself centered and focused.

On an afternoon of back-to-back meetings, I squinted my eyes into happy half moons and scrunched my mouth into a tight smile — all the while biting on my inside bottom lip. I nodded along agreeably even though I wasn’t paying attention because my mind was somewhere else entirely, anxiously agonizing over small details of something someone had said.

Were it not for the small solace of knowing where to go when I feel overwhelmed, I’m not sure how I would have made it through many of the days of my full-time work week.

A colleague noticed my lips had begun to quiver and my eyes had started to well up with tears. They messaged me via Slack to ask if I was okay, a question that immediately caused emotion to erupt. I left the room and did my best not to run straight to the elevator. I made it to a stall just as the choked crying could no longer be held back. I spent ten minutes crying before fixing up my makeup and taking one last big breath. With a toothy grin and big watery eyes, I returned to the meeting room.

Were it not for the small solace of knowing where to go when I feel overwhelmed, I’m not sure how I would have made it through many of the days of my full-time work week. Sometimes, I simply need a quiet space to breathe that feels comfortable and allows me to relax. Often, what I have desperately wanted is privacy and alone time, something that is hard to come by when you work in the downtown core. I’ve tried ten minute walks to cool down, finding a shady spot outside to sit or deep breathing at my desk — but these experiences have not sufficed.

 

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Earlier this year when I was unemployed, I spent several weeks in utter solitude, sleeping for eighteen hours a days and leaving my room only to answer pizza delivery. Daily hygiene rituals and phone calls to my parents expended what little energy I had.

I tried focusing on incremental goals to motivate myself to do a bit more each day. What started as leaving my room lead to grocery shopping and eventually going to job interviews again. While everyone has different coping mechanisms, finding the methods that work well for you can contribute significantly to your ability to manage mental illness regardless of your circumstances.

At work, I like to express my emotions privately and keep them to myself. When I have nowhere to do so, I feel claustrophobic and unsafe. At home, I can hide from the world in my room under my blankets.

Thus far, the privacy and vulnerability of a washroom stall has been the closest to comfort I can find in the office.

I’ve started a new job since my last and the office has a dedicated room to feel comfortable in if you suddenly need space. I was introduced to the room on my first day on the job, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out it exists. I can take a nap, scream, cry, or just be alone in the room if I so choose — and I find having such a space incredibly important.

In many offices, privacy is hard to come by with modern open concept floorplans where desks have no walls and you are seated side-by-side with your colleagues. Without a dedicated space to express your emotions, such an environment can be especially toxic for those with mental illnesses. This was the case in my previous position. In my new position, I have my own cubicle and the comfort of knowing there is a safe place in the office to cry.


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