“Maybe you’d be better off somewhere else.” As I type those words that a manager once shared with me, I can feel my chest tightening and my breath grow short again. In just one simple sentence, my manager struck at the heart of my worst fear: being perceived as a poor fit for a company because of the struggles I face living with an anxiety disorder.
It’s taken me years to come to terms with the reality of experiencing the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), described by the Mayo Clinic as “excessive, ongoing anxiety and worry that are difficult to control and interfere with day-to-day activities”.
Initially, I resisted a diagnosis for several reasons. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was different from other people, in a way that may be perceived as inferior to them. I didn’t want to have to deal with a mental health disorder so I downplayed and denied it for as long as I could. Mental health has only recently become part of a larger societal conversation – before this discourse began to grow, I knew that people who didn’t understand it often tended to look down on those who suffered the effects of earlier trauma. I knew that it could threaten my career to identify with a mental health issue, so I rejected this aspect of myself for as long as possible.
There were notable moments in my career where this message of unacceptability was imprinted loud and clear. Like the time when the fellow who sat near me in my office took his own life. He was a quiet guy but we always said hello to each other on the elevator. I didn’t know he was suicidal. On the day after it happened, no one said anything. My manager told us about it, but that was it. His manager appeared a little subdued in the morning but was enjoying some laughs on the phone by mid-afternoon, and headed out early to pick up her kids, without saying another word. There was no grief counseling back then. There were no conversations with team members to see how they were taking the news. I was shocked by the fact that my colleague died, but traumatized by the fact that management didn’t seem to care. To me, the message was clear: keep your mental health issues to yourself, and try not to have any at all.
Then there was the time that I experienced my first panic attack. The thing about your first panic attack is that you truly don’t have any idea what’s going on and so the panic is real (it can feel quite real during subsequent attacks but a tiny voice in your head can sometimes say, “haven’t you had something like this happen before, and you weren’t really dying?”). Mine happened as I was getting off the elevator in the main floor of a large office tower. I started to sway and hyperventilate, and someone called an ambulance. The building receptionist sat me down in the middle of the lobby, with everyone streaming by, gawking at the lady who couldn’t catch her breath. I’ll never forget the angel of an ambulance driver who said to me, “you’re fine, you’re having a panic attack. We treat people like you all day, every day. You don’t need to come to the hospital but I strongly suggest you get in the ambulance anyway, so you can get away from here for a moment.” Getting away was indeed worth the $50 bill I later received for that ambulance ride.
All of that attention was exactly what I didn’t want. The company I worked for at the time actually dealt with it rather well. A leader in the organization said to me, “we all fall of the log from time to time, you just have to learn how to get back on again.” Thank goodness for his compassion, that seemed to come from personal experience. It planted a seed in my mind for the possibility that some workplaces might be better than others when it comes to acceptance around mental health issues.
The trouble with resisting aspects of who you are is that it creates a lot of confusion, internally and for those around you who are trying to understand why you’re acting so strangely. In my case, I can have great surges of anxiety when I get new projects, even if they’re projects I want and have worked to gain. I haven’t always accepted this anxiety in myself and attempted to hide it from myself and others – which is like trying to put a lid on a volcano. Eventually, it’s going to erupt in some way that proves far more distracting for everyone (and causes substantially more self shame) than if you are just able to acknowledge the anxiety in the first place.
When the pandemic hit, I was in the process of separating from my husband, moving away from the city I’d always known, becoming a partner in my business, and losing all three of my animal friends over a short period. My anxiety hit a record high and manifested itself in a myriad of ways, both physical and emotional (a nerve became so compressed in my back that I lost the ability to use my leg for driving – I had to learn how to drive using hand controls and have my car adapted). I no longer had a choice about resisting what was so real for me.
The funny thing about when you stop resisting something is that it allows you to finally start addressing it effectively. I’ve learned so much about GAD following a formal diagnosis through Mt. Sinai’s trauma program. I’ve been working to recognize the habits and thought patterns that accompany it, and I have the support I need to experiment with new behaviors. I know I’ve created confusion and distraction for my colleagues while resistance has still played out, but I’m getting better at normalizing my own experience, for myself and them – and I’m lucky (and intentional) to have found myself in a professional environment that is patient, compassionate and supportive of each of its members.
I’ve only just begun to realize how damaging the stigma around mental health has been in my life and that of others, and particularly with respect to career and leadership opportunities. I believe there is an equity to be righted, that just because some people had the great fortune of experiencing less (or different) trauma in their lives, it doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t deserve to be at the table in some way. Yes, it’s more helpful if we can come to terms with our reality, and get the support we need. In the meantime, I’ll be advocating for the rights of people with mental health issues in the workplace – to be heard, respected, supported, and included.
For more on anxiety disorders and their impact, check out these titles:
- The Generalized Anxiety Disorder Workbook, Melissa Robichaud & Michel J. Dugas
- Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker
- Mindsight, Dan J. Siegel
Maggie DiStasi, PCC, helps people develop their leadership skills and career opportunities through trauma-informed and mindfulness-based coaching and coach training. Please visit www.www.maggiecoultercoaching.com to learn more, or connect with her here to arrange a consultation.