This blog post is part of an interview series for mental health awareness week. In this series, different people give their perspective on living with a mental health condition.
In certain cases as with the interview below, people have had the courage to share but were not comfortable revealing their identity. For this reason, the interview is anonymous.
Who are you and why did you decide to share you story?
I am 37 years old, live in Amsterdam and am still trying to find out how to live life to its fullest
I work in sales for a global firm. What I sell doesn’t interest me that much, it’s more the social and intellectual environment from which I get my drive. As a matter of fact, my lack of interest in the topic sometimes leads to me feeling detached from work. On the one hand it gives me a feeling of freedom, and on the other it makes me feel rather down and insecure at times. Who knows, this might have been undermining my mental health for a while…
I have a condition called obsessive compulsive disorder, more widely known by way of its acronym: OCD. For me specifically, it asserts itself in mortal fear of toxic poisoning through my daily surroundings; both in- and outside, wherever, whenever. The effect is that I try to “defend” myself by, for instance, holding my breath, avoiding certain cycling/walking routes, specific locations and washing my hands excessively.
The first time it revealed itself (in a slightly different form) was just before I turned 18. I got professional help at the time and then managed my OCD very well for the next 18 years (with ups and downs of course).
However, the last 18 months my OCD and its effects became progressively worse until it controlled my (emotional) life fully and I hit rock bottom, end of 2018.
In any case, having read Emma’s blogs, I decided to reach out to her on the topic of mental health. This felt like a support and a relief to me.
When was the first time you became aware you were suffering from a mental health issue?
As mentioned above, I first suffered from OCD when I was 18. Most recently, I became aware that for the first time in 18 years my mental health was deteriorating again, before I actually approached my boss to say I was suffering from a mental health problem. During that year, all became progressively worse.
What were you feeling/what did you experience that made you aware of it?
For my most recent experience, the concrete signs that made me aware my mental health was deteriorating included forgetfulness, really loathing the smallest chores, and a total lack of desire to do anything. Also, I just felt more and more frustrated, drained, short-fused and down… This led to an increased sense of estrangement from my surroundings and from myself.
From my surroundings, because my world became confined to my fears, but also because I thought no-one would really understand what was going on inside of me. Furthermore, I felt like a failure for not being able to fully function, neither socially, nor in my job. The sense of estrangement from myself was induced by this total incongruence of what, in my mind, I thought I should be (excellent start) and what I was: a total wreck. The result was that I started feeling very down and so alone.
What was your job at the time?
At the time, I was working in my job as sales leader for a relatively new region. I had to develop a new book of business against a specific set of financial and behavioral KPIs. All in all, this role was a challenge but also meant a lot of autonomy – an aspect which gave me a lot of energy.
What was the relationship of your job to the mental health problems?
My OCD slowly but surely affected my ability to do my job. I lost focus, had much less energy, became very negative and started to cut corners. My productivity and results clearly suffered, which made me feel guilty and useless and in turn, made me more stressed. The increased stress just aggravated my mental health condition: a real vicious circle… In the end I was so usurped by my OCD that I really didn’t care anymore about my job. That may also explain why I finally broke down during a totally unrelated and external event.
Interestingly enough, the deterioration in my mental health coincided with a slight shift in role, which led to less autonomy and more differences in opinion with my boss… However, it is really difficult to say what affected what or which one was the catalyst
What did you do about it?
Only once I broke down did I admit and accept I needed help. My OCD had literally taken over my life and was affecting everything, including my work. I went to my boss to let him know that I needed help and my personal health was now top priority.
I chose to stay at work to continue with a daily routine that also forced me to be sociable. Simultaneously, I set out clear limits and agreed with my boss to drop some parts of the role such as traveling, which caused me anxiety due to my OCD.
I also plucked up the courage (sounds totally ridiculous, but this is what it felt like) to use my vacation time during the most important – and also stressful – period at work. This perhaps wasn’t to the liking of my boss, but certainly necessary for me and my recovery. Of big support in all of this was the fact that I fully opened up to a trusted colleague in the meantime, who showed me support.
The little bit of energy all of the above left me with, gave me the opportunity to focus on organizing professional help outside work.
How do you feel now? How did taking those steps make you feel, and have they helped?
Acknowledging and accepting that I really wasn’t doing well, sharing this with my boss and one other colleague, really helped me along the way. Moreover, accepting that OCD is part of me, that it’s ok to get professional help, and that I really felt a very strong urge to get on top of myself again, led to my recovery.
What are your lessons learned with regards to mental health, and work?
Work can both alleviate and aggravate a mental health condition. I say this is because
The effect work has on me is ambiguous. On the one hand, continuing to work forced me to get up and go out. It created routine, a little bit of distraction, and forced me to be sociable (as I like social environments). On the other hand, the work itself created stressful situations (including traveling for, but also to and from work) which made me more anxious, thereby aggravating my mental health situation. All in all, work for me meant keeping a grip on things.
What are your next steps?
I just “successfully” completed an intensive exposure program for people with OCD. Next steps for me include continuing regular exposure to the specific fears I suffer from. Of course sometimes I really have to push myself, but it really helps to have a goal! I also plan to do more structured physical exercise since a combination of high cardio and walking helps me.
Most importantly I have made it a priority to be very aware of stressful activities or periods which may affect my mental health. I try to manage these by either keeping them to a minimum or at the least mentally prepare for how they may affect my well-being.
What would you like to say to someone who is suffering in silence from a mental health issue?
I have accepted professional help and re-gained energy to overcome my obsessive fear and related compulsions, specifically through “exposure therapy”. I also fully accept that OCD will most likely be a mental health issue all my life and that in the end, I am the only one (with or without help) who can manage this.
I decided to share my story because I really appreciated reading about other people’s (including Emma’s) experience with mental health issues, be it at or outside of work. Of course no one is the same, and there were many small but important thought processes I had to go through, as well as steps I had to take that were specific to my situation. But the fact that some people could possibly relate better to how I felt already made me feel slightly less alone.
Suffering in silence is very lonely. If you know at least one person you think you can share your mental health problem with (even if they might not completely understand), I recommend you do so. For instance, if you feel like reaching out to me sometime, feel free to contact me via Emma.
Otherwise reading books and blogs of others who suffer – not necessarily the same issue – can be a form of support. Most importantly – try to accept your issue and don’t shy away from professional help, however long it might take before you feel better.
I hope my story can be of support to all those who are looking for some.