Working with Mental Illness

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When I was nineteen, six years ago, I had to take a year out of university because I was suffering from depression. I had had bouts before and have had bouts since, but nothing has quite matched that one. This depression was an all-encompassing hopelessness, an abyss of “nothing matters”, “what is the point”, and “I don’t deserve to feel happy”. The full shebang, basically.

During my time off, I worked in a pub in the middle of nowhere. The stress of being the only bartender sometimes got to me. Every couple of weeks, I would randomly burst into tears. But this wasn’t the solitary single tear down the cheek kind of crying. This was the-world-has-ended kind of crying, the everything-is-lost kind of crying, the-my-life-has-gone-tits-up kind of crying. The type where I started crying about screwing up an order and ended up crying about crying and then crying about crying about crying. I felt pathetic.

The second time it happened, the assistant manager found me curled up in the staff room upstairs, and asked me what was going on.

“I have depression,” I said.

I can’t remember what she said in response exactly, only that she was going to tell the other managers, which she apparently did, because the next week, my boss said to me, “Why are you depressed? Do you have kids? Do you have a mortgage? Do you have bills?”

He didn’t talk to me with empathy. He didn’t talk to me with sympathy. He sure as hell didn’t talk to me about reasonable adjustments. He just told me I didn’t deserve the unhappiness I felt, kept on saying things like “it’s all in your head,” and in turn, I felt even worse.

The experience taught me to keep schtum about my mental health, or lack thereof, in the workplace.

It wasn’t until about a month ago that I had to disclose my mental health problems to my bosses again. Fortunately, I wasn’t still stuck in that pub. Unfortunately, the diagnoses had since amassed and I now had an overabundance of psychiatric and neurological acronyms.

The reason I had to disclose my mental health issues was the same: I couldn’t stop crying.

This time, though, things were different. I was booked a taxi home and told to take as much time off as I needed. I would still get paid. I would still have a job to go back to. I wouldn’t need to provide a sick note or anything. I just told them my mental health was throwing a wobbly and they didn’t pry any further.

I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised.

But in some ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. Treating someone with a mental illness at work shouldn’t be any different from treating someone with a physical illness at work.

I was unlucky to have an unsupportive employer when I was so young, but lucky to have such a supportive employer so recently. However, my hope is that one day luck won’t play into it. One day, mental health issues will be taken as seriously as they should be, and no one will ever have to be told they don’t deserve the illness they never asked for in the first place.

 

 

I Hate Mindfulness

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The early twentieth century gave us psychoanalysis, the late twentieth century gave us cognitive behavioural therapy, and then came mindfulness. Stemming from the meditative practices of Buddhist monks – a demographic who experience very little depression or anxiety – mindfulness has been lauded as a treatment for myriad conditions, including but not limited to: depression, anxiety, insomnia, ADHD, chronic pain, and yes, Tourette’s.

As someone who’s prone to mental health wobblies, professionals have been advising me to take up mindfulness for years, initially with my depression in mind.

Please believe me when I say I tried. I downloaded the apps and even paid for subscriptions. I put up with Headspace’s Andrew telling me to have a “nice soft gaze” for the umpteenth time. I sat down at the same time every day, trying to be aware as possible of my breathing.

Through it all, my friends, dizzied by their recent mindfulness epiphanies, raved about the benefits to me: mindfulness increases concentration and focus, decreases stress, eliminates anxiety.

And I’m sure they’re right. I sure they did feel more focused, less stressed and less anxious, because there is concrete evidence that mindfulness is the way forward for treating depression, anxiety and its related symptoms.

But whatever it is, mindfulness isn’t a panacea. As someone with Tourette’s, it is so hard it’s basically impossible. After all, a requirement of the practice is sitting still and shutting up: a challenge for someone with a condition that makes you speak and move randomly.

Much to my dismay, when I did try mindfulness, I actually found that meditating actually exacerbated my tics instead of alleviating them. I would writhe, twitch and yell when I was supposed to be quiet and still.

Thankfully, I have found plenty of things which have helped my depression which aren’t mindfulness, and a couple of things which have even helped my Tourette’s too.

Things that have helped my depression which aren’t mindfulness:

  • A gentle jog or leisurely walk
  • Sitting in the sun, even if it’s for five minutes, and even if it’s cold out
  • Cooking a healthy meal and then eating it
  • Having a good old chin wag with a friend and a glass of wine
  • Being creative: writing a little story, blog post, drawing a picture, colouring in
  • Taking a bath
  • Dressing smartly even if I’m not leaving the house
  • Getting a haircut
  • Sleeping well
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Time

Things that have helped my Tourette’s which aren’t mindfulness:

  • Aripiprazole
  • Clonazepam

Of course, none of these things have cured my depression or Tourette’s, but that said, they have helped a bit, which is more than I can say for mindfulness. I think the truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to treating these conditions. After all, each person’s brain is different, and just like some people respond to certain medications but not others, it’s only logical that some people are going to respond to some therapies and not others. And that, I would suggest, is quite alright.

Pros and Cons of Having Tourette’s

Pros:

  • Sometimes, it’s funny.

Cons:

  • It hurts.
  • It’s embarrassing.
  • It’s exhausting to be ticcing all the time.
  • It can be harder to get or keep a job.
  • You probably have another condition like OCD, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, depression, anxiety, or all five. All of these comorbid conditions can make life harder to live.
  • People laugh at people with Tourette’s.
  • People stare at people with Tourette’s.
  • People don’t really know what Tourette’s is, meaning that those with the condition have to constantly explain what it is.
  • People think Tourette’s is just about swearing, so if you’re one of the 75 – 90 percent of people with Tourette’s who don’t swear, people accuse you of not having the condition.
  • Tics which are rude or offensive can put you in danger of angering or offending someone.
  • People think people with Tourette’s are just pretending, that they are just saying what they want to say and then acting as though it was a tic.
  • People with Tourette’s have to put up with being the centre of attention.
  • Tourette’s is an incurable, chronic condition.

OCD Is A Mess

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The other night I was having a drink with a friend when she used one of my favourite phrases: “I’m a bit OCD.”

Of course, the friend didn’t mean she had a mild case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Instead, she was talking about how she organised her handbag, about how particular she was about it, and how thorough she liked to be.

I let the comment slide, because, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. But although the comment didn’t offend me, it did annoy me. My friend is an actual therapist, and she really should have known better.

The term “a bit OCD” is both frustrating and frustratingly familiar. Often, people think it’s OK to use mental health terms in everyday language, and often proclaiming themselves to be “so OCD”, “depressed”, or “having a panic attack”. This shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Especially when terms like “OCD” come to mean something quite different from their medical meanings.

OCD is everyday language has come to mean “perfectionist”, “particular” or “organised”. But OCD in its true sense is a mess. Below is a guide to the difference between OCD and perfectionism:

  • People will OCD can ruminate over the same thing for hours, weeks, months, or years. These thoughts can centre on anything and be immensely frustrating. Perfectionists don’t do this.
  • People with OCD experience excessive vivid, intrusive thoughts often depicting frightening situations which will never happen. Perfectionists don’t have this.
  • People with OCD can sometimes be hoarders. Their homes will be full of things they do not need and yet cannot let go of. Perfectionists don’t have this.
  • OCD can cause those with it to act out pointless, lengthy rituals by which they check that everything is safe (that they didn’t leave the cooker on, that when they hit that bump in the road it wasn’t actually a person, that the taps aren’t still running and the door really is shut). The person with OCD will know that these time-consuming rituals are irrational, however, they have to act upon them even if they cause them distress. Perfectionists, on the other hand, like things to be in straight lines, in the right order, so they are neat and tidy and look nice.
  • OCD can lead to severe depression. Perfectionism can lead to severe tidiness.
  • OCD is a mental illness which can ruin your life. Perfectionism is a personality trait to put on your CV or covering letter.