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 and to some extent, reveal their identity. This is brave, as it can be difficult and daunting. Congratulations to them!
Who are you?
I’m Katie and I work for a startup in Amsterdam.
When was the first time you became aware you were suffering from a mental health issue?
About 4 years ago I was 4 years into my first “real world” job. The school year had been super stressful and the upcoming school year was not looking any better. Everything came to a head that summer during my vacation. I got super sick halfway through because my body just gave up on me.
With the stress of the school year gone it was like all my defences disappeared and all the germs got to me at once. When It was finally time to head back home I was beyond exhausted. I’d always been a little scared of flying, but this time I could barely get on the plane. I was the woman at the gate crying hysterically (with my in-laws already boarded and my husband patiently holding my hand).
I eventually made it onto the plane but the following weeks I began to have panic attacks. I got uncomfortable going into movie theatres and the market that I went to every Sunday was overwhelming to me. On the very stressful first day of school I ended up needing to go to Urgent Care after falling over due to a vertigo attack.
What were you feeling/what did you experience that made you aware of it?
Besides the panic attacks and the vertigo I was also suffering from insomnia. I couldn’t fall asleep at night despite being tired and would lie awake thinking of all the things I had forgotten to do that day and all the things I needed to do the next day.
I was anxious all the time but felt like I had to keep it together because there was just “so much to do.” I’ve always been a neat and tidy person but my cleaning habits became a little obsessive – needing to make sure that everything was done when and how I wanted it to be done – because it was reassuring to me and made me feel better.
What was your job at the time?
I was working as a Program Director at a Bilingual School. This was my first “real job” and at 23 I was given a lot of responsibility.
What was the relationship of your job to the mental health problems?
I didn’t feel like I got the support I needed from my supervisor. There were a lot of high expectations and factors that were outside of my control, that made the situation a lot more stressful.
What did you do about it?
I made an appointment with my GP to discuss my flight anxiety – I had a trip in October that year to attend a conference on the East Coast and almost cancelled it because I was so worried. She prescribed me some medication but then also referred me to see a psychologist.
Within the first appointment the psychologist suggested to me that my flight anxiety was tied to an underlying General Anxiety – which after a lot of reflection – I realized had been something affecting me almost my whole life.
After learning to cope with the flight anxiety I tackled the Generalized Anxiety with my therapist. One thing that really helped me was to imagine having two buckets.
Bucket #1 was my “resiliency bucket.” This is the bucket that is important to keep filled up because it helps you out when Bucket #2 the “stress bucket” is starting to get full. I learned that I had been ignoring my resiliency bucket, so I started by focusing on the small things I could do on a daily basis like going for a walk or reading a book.
My therapist had me make a list of things I liked to do – things alone, things with other people, things at home, things outside, things that are free, things that cost money, etc. For two weeks I made sure to do at least one of those things every day and write it in my calendar. This seemed like such an easy exercise and for me it really worked to have awareness around taking time out of my day (sometimes only 5 minutes) to do something just for myself.
A huge thing that helped me out was learning to say “no” at work. I am such a people pleaser and want to help in any way I can, but found that I was often over booking myself and my commitments. Then when I couldn’t deliver I felt guilty and was disappointed in myself. Eventually I was able to ask for and get a Program Assistant who helped to lighten my workload (learning how to delegate and let go was another thing!).
How do you feel now? How did taking those steps make you feel, and have they helped?
Starting therapy was the best thing I could have done. Learning to name the feelings I had experienced my whole life was such a freeing thing. I know that I’ll always have some level of anxiety in my life but knowing better how I can cope with it has made it easier.
For example: I now know that it’s important for me to have time alone to recharge. When we take family holidays with my in-laws I make sure to take some time to myself each day alone and even schedule a whole day where I am away from everyone.
What are you doing today, to actively manage your mental health?
Moving to the Netherlands has been a great change that has helped a lot. I have a healthy work-life balance and love my 7 minute bike commute to work (compared to the 40 + minute car commute in bumper to bumper traffic that I had for 6 years). I love the city of Amsterdam and feel very comfortable here.
I try to focus on self care and keeping my resiliency bucket full. There are certain times that I notice my anxiety bubbling up, but now I can just notice it and accept it, instead of letting it take over.
I’ve also learned to be more vocal when it is affecting me – especially with my husband, and I feel comfortable sharing with my team at work which is important because now they know how to support me when I need it. For example, the other day I realized I really wanted to clean the house and really wanted the dishes to be washed the way I wanted. Instead of giving in to the impulse, I took some time to reflect on what could be causing that and found that I’ve been feeling worried about some bad news I received about a friend.
What are your next steps?
I’m happy to say that I am in a job that although is at some times stressful – I am better equipped to handle those stresses and know when I need extra help. I’d love to find a therapist here in the Netherlands to continue working with someone on my anxiety but…I’m anxious about finding the “right one!”
What would you like to say to someone who is suffering in silence from a mental health issue?
Don’t hesitate to talk to someone, anyone! A family member, a friend, a colleague, a professional. Maybe they have felt the same way you have or maybe not. But in any case it is really nice to talk to someone and feel like you’ve been heard.