In the days before the global pandemic (four weeks ago), I took a week to work remotely and left town. I didn’t realize at the time what a luxury getting on a plane would be. I had no idea of the world chaos that would follow. I just knew I needed to get away, and I’m glad I did.
Like millions of others, I’ve struggled off and on over the years with the dual beast of anxiety and depression. One easily feeds into the other. Anxiety about life (real or perceived) has often led to a downward spiral into depression. Similarly, feeling down and depressed has made me anxious about my mental health, and left me wondering whether I would ever feel back to my “old” self again. The feedback loop can be pure hell.
I can’t say that I’ve managed this very well in the past. My m.o. has been to double-down on new medicines, carry on with whatever projects I have, and basically ignore how I feel. My thought was that if I had no physical ailments or illnesses, then whatever emotions were bothering me were simply something in my mind that I could control. This had been my mindset for a number of years. The latest incarnation of the mindset included my separation and ultimate divorce in 2016; being separated from my son and family (all of whom live in other states); and most recently the death of my Grandfather this past August.
What I didn’t realize is that one can only keep the emotions and feelings contained for so long.
It’s fair to say that I hit a wall in mid to late February. The jig was up. Grief unexpectedly snuck up on me after a busy month of work projects. I tried to force myself to work more. I took time to process less. I wasn’t terribly productive and this caused me alarm. I tried new medications (as prescribed by a doctor) that affected me in odd ways. I was sent reeling and didn’t know what to do. Panic attacks were common. I dreaded trying to sleep at night. No matter what I did, my mind simply would not shut off. And more than anything, I felt utterly alone.
In brief, I was scared. I hadn’t reached this point before, so my response was atypical: I asked for help. I contacted my doctor. I contacted my parents and family. I contacted friends. I even contacted my superiors at the office. I requested a week to adjust to new medications while working remotely. I could work but I was in no shape for meetings, virtual or other. My request was granted in short order. I left town for a week at the invitation of amazingly generous friends to work remotely. I took a couple of days off in between to boot. During the days off, my friends and I explored the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Virginia and North Carolina border. I ate deep-fried southern food. I even managed a trip to visit the hometown of a personal hero – a place I had always wanted to visit – the hometown of Andy Griffith, in Mount Airy, NC. At first, I felt so incredibly guilty. Guilt born from a failure to power through. A guilt born of perceived weakness. An inability to man up.
And then I got over it.
The truth is, there was nothing that couldn’t wait. There were no emergencies that I couldn’t handle at a distance. Whether I was in Tucson, my home in Walters, or points beyond, the essentials got done, and I felt a whole lot better. It wasn’t a silver bullet. I still had/have a lot of things to work through. But ignoring them was never a sustainable solution. I just didn’t realize how precarious an alternative it had been. Through the process, I inadvertently followed two important, widely-recommended self-care tips without even realizing what I was doing.
Psychology Today suggests twelve tips for exercising better self-care. Number six and number twelve are most relevant here:
- Number 6: Take a self-care trip.
- Number 12: Schedule your self-care time, and guard that time with everything you have.
It’s old hat to most, but it’s a simple fact that we all need rest from time to time. There is no weakness involved. I desperately needed some time away to recharge. To heal. To allow my body to adjust to the new meds. I needed to be surrounded by people who cared in new environs. Functionally, it was a very selfish thing to do. But if there’s a lesson in the whole ordeal, it’s that being selfish to tend to my emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing is an okay thing to do.
TAKING A TRIP
The self-care trip wasn’t planned. I booked the ticket the day before I left. Some incredibly gracious friends knew how I was feeling and invited me to come to their home to convalesce for a week. The trip was impromptu but essential.
I had been worried about my job and whether it was acceptable to get away for that period of time. But, in the end, my superiors were all incredibly understanding and sympathetic, if not empathetic. I did not consider the point, but nearly everyone has been in need of self care at one time or another. What can seem like an isolating experience is actually quite common. Where I was afraid to reach out and worried about my job performance, my colleagues were concerned about my wellbeing.
I realize that not every job will be as forgiving in taking time away as quickly as mine was. But I think that many will be surprised at how understanding an employer can be. For those who are fortunate, like me, to have understanding colleagues, it’s a good reminder to be there for others down the road. #PayItForward.
GUARDING YOUR TIME
A second lesson I’ve learned from my experience in late February is how important it is to “guard” the time that I need for to take care of myself.
The critical mistake that I made leading up to my very dark time was in not listening to the way that I felt. I tried to force myself to carry on with business as usual despite the fact that the business of my life was far from usual. I let work and other things become my distractions from how I was feeling. I devoted my time to these rather than guard or allocate the time that I needed to take care of myself.
In retrospect, it seems obvious how wrong this was. At the time, it seemed like self preservation. My pride kept me from seeking help and reaching out for years. It became a habit that I didn’t realize I had developed. While this may make me sound too much like a hippy (I promise I’m not), it’s pretty clear that my life was out of balance.
The point of guarding time is not to dwell on a problem indefinitely. It’s not even about coming to any definitive solutions. I didn’t have any lightbulb moments on my trip for example. To me, the purpose of guarding one’s time is to allow the soul the time it needs to rest. The decision to allocate time from hectic schedules must be deliberate. It must then be guarded for the sacred mandate that it is.
If I can be so bold as to offer a few takeaways from my experience, I think the following points sum up matters nicely. Given where I’ve been, I hope that some of these will be helpful to you, if you find yourself in a similar fix.
1. There’s no weakness in seeking help. My pride kept me from seeking help for several years all because I thought that it would demonstrate weakness to not “have it all together.” But having it “all together” is a myth. No one has it all together all of the time. If I had sought help and addressed how I felt head on, I could have saved myself from literally years of pain.
2. You’re not alone. This is a cliché. I don’t love that I have written it. It’s also true. The mountains of anxiety and depression that I perceived in my mind seemed like sui generis demons that I had created and that only I could slay. I did not think that anyone would understand what I had been through and that I would be judged all the more for not handling things on my own. This too is a myth and the reality is quite the opposite. The human experience is far more similar than it is different. As Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun. When I cracked the curtain and let a bit of light from others shine in, I realized that my situation was not unique and that a bit of help from others was not only welcomed but also immensely helpful.
3. Be your own advocate. Of all the lessons, this was by far the most difficult for me to learn. I did not want to admit that I needed help because I thought it projected weakness. I did not want to allow others into my life because I didn’t think they would understand, and that if they did understand, then they would judge me for being weak (how’s that for cyclic thinking). So, being my own advocate and verbalizing what I needed was an extremely difficult challenge. But it had to be done.
When I hit the wall in February, I finally came to a point of realizing that I had done too good a job putting up my facade of invincibility and isolating myself from others. No one asked how I was doing because I always gave the same talking points, deflecting the conversation away, answering the question without answering it: “I’m fine, thanks. How about you? How is x going?” Anything to avoid actually giving an honest answer. I realized that the only way I could get the help I needed was to be honest with myself and to advocate for my own wellbeing. Once I had done this, it seemed so easy and simple.
I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I hadn’t done it many years before.