I was brought up to believe good attendance was incredibly important. You only missed school in our house if you were physically incapable of going. Partly this was because both my parents worked and parental leave was even more of a nightmare in the 70s and 80s than it is now, but mainly it was because it was the right thing to do.
You’re supposed to be at school, you make every effort to go. You’re supposed to be at work, you get there. You have obligations, you’ve made a commitment. You do it because you’re better than the layabouts, the slackers, the people who don’t try their best. You get on in life by working hard. You stay busy.
Its a mindset that has stuck with me and it’s not uncommon. Every workplace has its share of people who hardly ever phone in sick as they try to struggle on despite cold, headache, fever etc. Good managers will send these people home, both to give them time to recover and to protect the other staff from the germs, but other workplaces expect staff to work through illness, penalising sick leave and treating those who are unwell with contempt.
I once worked for an organisation where “Staff Health” was used as an intimidation technique by managers, if you didn’t stop disrupting their business by being so selfishly unwell they threatened to get rid of you by sending you to Staff Health. I know people who’ve worked for organisations where the staff health systems were well used and supportive of staff with ongoing medical conditions, as it’s surely designed to be. I think it just shows bad managers will treat people badly with whatever tools are at their disposal.
If I find it really hard to take sick leave when I’m physically sick, it’s even harder when it’s my mental health that’s failing. I saw my GP this morning and was advised not to go back to work just yet. I know I’m struggling, I know I can’t do my job as well as I should just now, and the anxiety about everything would just keep building til I broke if I went to work.
And yet there’s that bullying voice in my head “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfectly fit. If you can get out to walk the dogs you can get out to go to work. Why are you just lounging about doing nothing? The world would grind to a halt if everyone just gave up whenever they felt sad or worried. You useless waste of space.” And so on.
But there is something wrong with me, and just because it’s not visible doesn’t mean it’s not real. My whole pattern of thinking is scewed just now. My reaction to any sort of decision making is a fight or flight panic, heart pounding, head hammering, sweaty, breathless fear. The fact I recognise it’s illogical doesn’t make it stop. I know from past experience that if I try to do things when I’m wobbling like this I will just keep getting worse, until I no longer recognise this scewed thinking as illogical. That is where the real danger lies.
So the break I wrote about last week in Stopping is becoming longer. I will take this time to reset, to ease my mind, get to grips with altered medication, grow my strength. It’s not selfish, it’s necessary. I will try to ignore the voice telling me otherwise. I will try to do things that will fill my spiralling mind without worrying that I should be at home in bed since I’m too ill to work.*
If I’d injured myself I wouldn’t think it was selfish to go to physio or occupational therapy, so why is self care for mental health seen so differently? Why does our society make us feel guilty for being ill, being less than perfect? Why does what’s visible matter most?
I’m trying to be more open about my mental health, to feel less embarrassed and ashamed of my lack of control of it. I have decades of trying to hide it to overcome, but I know talking about these things helps to normalise them, I know I’m not the only one struggling. Its really helped me to know strong people who were open about their mental health challenges. I don’t feel strong yet, but I’m done feeling guilty for something I can’t help.
* I first wrote this section with “I need to” instead of “I will…” but I remembered what I’d written earlier this month about using need too often, and decided I sh/would be more decisive about it!