Mental Illness Awareness In The Work Place
I have something to say and I sincerely hope you will listen. It is time to break the stigma against people who have suffered trauma and live with wounds still bleeding and scars not yet fully healed. Invisible wounds that no one can see unless they watch very closely.
Just the other day I spoke with a thirteen-year-old who suffers from fear and anxiety so bad she gets facial and leg ticks. She goes to school every day because that is what is expected of her. The people around her say that she is not suffering and she is making it all up.
She has to force herself to ‘suck it up’. So she does exactly what I did when I was her age. She pushes it down and every day she puts on her ‘normal’ face. I bet you are wondering what this has to do with business. Do not worry, I am getting there.
I am a survivor of childhood trauma and abuse. I have PTSD, CPTSD, and MDD. That means that I am struggling to heal while holding my life together. The Thirteen-year-old is a true story that is the representation of what the next generation is dealing with and will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
When we go untreated, some of us have to push everything down into a box so we can function. Some are successfully holding their trauma back, some are not. Most have no idea how complicated and difficult it is to go to work as an adult survivor and pretend that everything is okay, while inside they are dying.
For the last 20 or so years I had been living in a bubble of simple survival. I would go to work, do the bare minimum, and then go home and sit in the dark watching TV while eating bad food, slowly killing myself while I pretended as best as I could that I was ‘normal’. I worked and started a career in a field I love and loved back then.
I always thought that I was so fortunate to be adopted as an older child. I had been in the foster care system since I was three years old. Before that I was taken from my mother while she was being treated for her mental illness and put with family or friends and then given back to my mother after her treatment.
My abuse and neglect started at birth. It was all I knew. As a result of moving over thirty times before the age of eleven, I felt like I never belonged. I moved so often that I never received an actual grade school or middle school education.
I was not given tutors and my teachers always said that if I would only apply myself I would be able to get straight A’s. Rage soon became my shelter and I became a troubled child. The throwaway kid since birth. A foster kid was who was considered dirty and outside of the ‘norm’ so I was bullied everywhere I went.
I was an anomaly in every school and rage pulled me through, because I would show them all that I was more than they thought. When I was adopted I was completely damaged. I had no trust in anyone other than myself. After being orphaned I completed the wall. I was alone and I had to take care of myself.
My mother took her own life and my case worker, a woman I had known since I was three years old and first put in the system, died in her sleep. To be truly alone in the world made me stronger because the rage continued to grow. Every foster home, every abusive act, and every look that said I was trash made the rage grow and my commitment to show them all I was more than they thought grew.
For some insane reason, my mother (the woman who adopted me) picked me out of a book, and even after being warned that I was a mess, that I was not really worth the trouble she choose me. Every day after she continued to choose me. I kept expecting her to (hey, it’s okay, I am getting to the point, just taking the scenic route.) throw me away like everyone else.
For some reason she loved me and it took a long time for me to love her back and call her mom. She became my rock and the one person who gave me something I had never had before, unconditional love. She is why I was able to complete middle school and high school and college and then more college.
Yet all that time when I thought I was improving, I was becoming better, I was in fact pushing my past traumas down so deep so I could get through every day. I pretended to be okay so in college I made friends. I partied and learned and I was able to function.
After 9/11 I struggled until one day I was no longer able to ride the subway. After a while, I was unable to ride the bus so I would walk an hour to school. I was unable to ride in elevators because all I could hear were screams while in them. I took the stairs, and I kid you not, eventually I could no longer take the stairs because I could see them crumbling around me and I could hear the screams of the people that went to work and never came home.
After college, I moved to Madison WI so I could try to heal. I had planned to go back to New York City, yet life had a different plan. I worked my way up from the first job I was able to get, selling cell phones, to an actual career, working in Web Development, SEO, Graphic Design, and of course Writing and Photography, all of the things that I did in my spare time.
This was happening as I was beginning to fall into a very deep depression. See I am starting to get to the bloody point! 😎 During this depression I had to work. Not just work, but work in a corporate environment. My personality was rather, well, New York Cityish (add a little ‘messed up kid’ there too). It did not go well with Wisconsin corporate environments.
One of the biggest issues I had was the dreaded REVIEW. It was not until the last few years that I understood the reason why. For every review, I would have panic attacks beforehand and while I was in the review my heart would pound and I would force myself to sit as calmly as I could.
Yet inevitably there would have to be one bad thing in the review, it was corporate policy after all. I would end up crying. Always. I would be a mess because the corporate policy was for managers to add a bad thing even if there wasn’t one. Being an adult survivor of childhood trauma and abuse, I was more sensitive to negative feedback than most.
This looooong post was prompted by a meme I saw on LinkedIn. It reminded me of how difficult it was when I was forced to work in a corporate environment. The reason it was so difficult was more than the fact that I was from NYC and I was used to a completely different environment, one where you could be yourself without fear of repercussions.
Now, the point here is very simple and I know I could have said it so easily. The reason I did not, was because I want to remind people that you never know what battle someone is fighting while they are putting on a face for the sake of the ‘normal’ people.
I was somewhat successful at doing this myself. I started to get better jobs and then they were making new positions so they could promote me. I eventually became a web developer. All this time I was doing the bare minimum because I was fighting my own battles.
To my surprise, I fell into this career. I never expected this. The last position I held was the longest and the best. The company was owned by the nicest guy I have ever known. He became and still is my mentor. He is one of the reasons I am still here.
He kept me on while I struggled with my Pandora’s Box. It was starting to crack. He tried so to help, and he tried to understand, but how could he when even I did not understand? I tried so hard to hold it together while I worked. Look at my recommendations on LinkedIn. I did not force those people to write the recommendations. I was fortunate that they did.
I was somewhat successful, yet the cracks were starting to rip apart and Pandora’s Box was breaking. One day it was too much and the box exploded. Shards of it were thrown into my body, into my organs, into the blood that flowed through me. I could no longer hold up a front. As bad as my ability to do this was, I reached a point where I could no longer function.
I had what I called a semi-breakdown. I walked into his office one day and said that I could no longer do what I had been doing. My old boss is one of the reasons I have my own business. Which may not be super successful yet, but I believe in myself as he did. He is now one of my clients and I am living my life the way I want to.
I am focusing on my mental health, on building true relationships, and on being an advocate for people like myself and my own business. It is amazing and wonderful and I do not have to worry about anyone telling me to ‘suck it up’ or ‘get over it or my favorite, Leave your personal life at home and just focus on your work.
See that is not how this works. The brain of a survivor of childhood trauma is grown differently than those who were not neglected and abused before the age of five. This means that for the rest of their lives, they will have to struggle to heal and struggle to find a way to get the brain to function properly or as close as they can get.
What I am saying here is that the issue is not a choice we make, it is made for us because our brains function differently. It takes a lot of work to heal. Many never get the chance because they have to pay bills and they have responsibilities. They have to work.
I was fortunate to have support which allowed me to start my own business and start the journey to ‘healing’ something that for now is indefinable for me. I have come a long way in the last three years. So what’s the point? Why is this relevant? Dude, just get over it, and stop talking about it, you are weak and you are a liar…so on.
Well when I said you never know what people are going through, that means that the people you work with are fighting battles you know nothing about. There should be knowledge of mental health awareness and employers should be able to help accommodate their employees who need help.
The common workforce is changing now. Evolving I believe. I doubt that the majority are dealing with a past quite like mine, yet that thirteen-year-old who is right now struggling with depression and severe anxiety will someday be in the workforce.
She will be doing something amazing because she is amazing, yet she may still suffer from anxiety and depression. So why is it so difficult for people to stand up and say enough? Life is too precious to struggle so hard just to get through the day.
I had to create my own world because I could not handle the struggle of trying to be ‘normal’ while doing what society expected me to do, become a part of the workforce and make money just so I could live. I was miserable and I was fracturing. I started talking about this, about my story three years ago, when I started my own journey towards healing.
I found out that there are so many miserable people out there and it is because they feel ashamed of themselves and their mental health. They act like they are supposed to act and they function while inside they are dying a little bit.
Mental health awareness in the workplace should be mandatory. It should not be looked upon with scorn, ignorance, fear, or anger. People with mental health issues are struggling to live in a ‘normal’ society where they do not quite fit in. They have to be able to create their own world in order to function and support themselves.
They should not have to do this. Their trauma is unseen, but it is powerful and it is valid. Would you tell someone with a broken leg to just walk it off? Children are struggling with depression and other mental health disorders at an alarming rate. The very generation that will take over and hopefully rebuild the world.
Now is the time to continue to fight against the stigma associated with mental illness, trauma, or disorders. Everyone disserves to have a chance in life. We need to look out for one another and we need to remember that work does not define us and that just because we are struggling to heal, it does not mean that we should be ashamed. The workplace needs to become more accommodating to the individual needs of its employees.