‘I am writing to inform you that a decision has been made today to terminate your contract. This is due to the non-disclosure of personal issues you have coping with your anxiety, which is unfortunately affecting your ability to meet our expectations within your role.’
I had only worked there for two weeks, and from their point of view, I can see the logic; it takes time out of work, it affects your mood, your relationships with people. I know they only wanted to start someone there who could get their head down and do the job.
On my interview I made sure I was the ‘best’ version of myself. I was on form, dedicated, with bags of enthusiasm and lots to offer. I was told by the Manager that the reason they hired me was due to my upbeat and bubbly personality, and that they had seen real potential. This was me, being a good version of me, on a good day. A day where I felt like nothing could stop me and life was great, no worries.
So over the course of the following two weeks, there were bad days, which I may have come to expect, but which my new employers may not have bargained for.
The first came in the form of an anxiety attack, not as bad as I have had in the past, but enough to waver concentration and make me upset enough to step out of the office. I was greeted with concern from my Manager and co-worker, asking ‘are you OK’?, ‘shall I make you a cup of tea?’ and ‘it’s OK, take your time and have a minute, have a cigarette break if you need’. It passed fairly quickly and I was able to go back in and get on with my day. Not a bad one on all accounts. I explained to them that anxiety was something I was dealing with, and that I would never want it to affect my work. I reassured my Manager that it was being discussed with my GP and medicated for about a year now. I felt being honest was the best explanation, but maybe I’m too honest for my own good. Always have been, always will be. Their reaction was hesitant but not judging. In fact nothing was really said to it at all.
The next (most traumatic) happened the week after; I’d had a really productive week and had even sent an email to my Manager and co-worker to say thank you for being so understanding, and it was really appreciated and that I was enjoying the job etc etc. Thursday came: Full Blown Panic Attack. The worst one yet by far. I had been lucky in a way that most of the time I’d had to deal with them I had been at home more often than in a public place. But a busy open plan office building with your colleagues, Managers and your Director sitting nearby I was not banking on.
I stepped outside and could not breathe. Couldn’t speak. It felt like everything was heavy, like I was being pulled down or that some giant force had just sat itself on my chest and shoulders. I was catching my breath so hard that with each intake I could only stutter a word at a time, no matter how hard I tried to focus on breathing slowly I felt like it wasn’t getting any better; making me more anxious. I felt physically sick, and the pain and aches I always have rushing up and down my arms were at my legs as well this time, making them like jelly.
When my Manager came to join me outside I was still in this state. She fired a lot of comments, obviously hoping for some sort of rational, logical response. I could only answer her in my head, still not being able to form words coherently.
‘What’s wrong? It must be something to do with work?’
No it’s not. Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes it’s nothing and there is no explanation.
‘Right, well you need to just breathe and shake it off’.
If you only KNEW how much I wished I could just do that. You just don’t understand how argumentative and stubborn anxiety is, how weak it makes you feel, and how much strength you need to fight it.
‘Do you want to go home?’
No. I want to turn back the clock so that this never happened. I’m not doing this to make a scene, or for attention, and I really don’t want anyone looking at me or whispering about me behind my back.
‘I can let you go home, but I don’t think we will be able to continue working together’.
That’s not a choice.
Go back into the office whilst having a panic attack or be sacked. That’s not a choice.
‘I mean, if it’s something that affects you so much then maybe you shouldn’t be working?’
I have always worked a full time job. Who are you to say I should admit defeat and just give it all up? I don’t want to be ruled by anxiety, it’s a part of me I will battle with but I’ll fight to the end even if I come out of it black and blue.
‘Right, well you’ve had enough time now so you’re going to have to come back into the office with me. The Director is asking questions, and it looks bad’.
How? How can I go back in there? Everyone will be watching. Judging.
I was still making those hiccupy-breath-catching sounds loud enough to be noticed. Blotchy-eyed.
I can only describe the feeling of walking back in there as being like I was stripped completely naked and made to sit in an office full of people wearing clothes. I felt exposed. It wasn’t like those dreams people have where everyone is pointing and laughing, not at all. It was just that I knew I was naked, and they knew it too.
My co-worker was very supportive. She came and sat next to me even putting an arm around me; which I didn’t know whether to be happy or anxious about at the time, but I know now was sweet. Her brother had gone through similar she had said. She had seen him at his best and his worst, so she knew. She could take the knowledge she had and make me feel at ease and at least try to understand.
I didn’t blame my Manager for the way she reacted. I knew it was just unfamiliarity and ignorance. I knew she just wanted me to be a good employee and get on with my work and not have an ‘episode’. But that’s all I wanted too.
It made me feel guilty, because I know that on first impressions and interview compared to now that my Manager might feel short changed…like she ordered a top of the range Apple Mac laptop, and what was delivered was an old clunky one with several keys missing and no internet access.
We have to break this stigma of talking about Mental Health, and we are getting there slowly but there’s still a way to go. When I started my new job I was never asked to fill out a health form of any sort, and being my on-form bubbly self no one would have ever known. That’s the difficult part of mental illness: ‘being invisible’.
Awareness is key. Times are changing, people are speaking up about their struggles and as a society I believe we can and are moving forward. But this needs to start early: in schools, on the curriculum, so we can help kids know and be aware- for themselves and for others. Let’s educate so that people do know how to react, and we can banish any kind of discrimination that still goes on.
As I sit hear and write this, I feel the best I have felt for a good few weeks. I count my blessings that I have an amazingly strong support network around me, who I can talk to at any time about anything. I have a creative outlet for music and writing which are the things I love to do the most, which I would encourage anyone to grab hold of. If you play an instrument- do it, regularly when you can. If you paint or draw- time to dust off those supplies and create something amazing. If you are gifted in sport- play! Get those endorphins going, and adrenalin pumping. Let’s use all the energy we can to be helpful, raise awareness and get talking.
If it doesn’t affect you, all I would ask is that you keep an open mind and a willingness to listen. I suppose that’s all we can hope for from someone that hasn’t been through it personally: be understanding, be empathetic and be patient. But most of all, just be kind.