Looking back, the soap on my tongue was an important clue. I’d been having a panic attack in the shower and thought I might be able to get it together if I jumped out and washed my face with my Clarisonic. Only professional, together people spend over £100 on a luxury face brush. The soothing pulses would calm me, and I’d be forced to regulate my breathing because, like a mascara brush, there’s something about a Clarisonic that forces your mouth wide open.
None of this happened. Instead I kept weeping, honking like a goose all the while, and got a bitter mouth full of soapy foam, tasting like a macchiato made by a sentient coffee machine that had learned to hate. I was naked, blotchy, wet with tears and tap water, and hyperventilating as though I was trying to win a crap breathing competition.
I took a deep breath, went back to my bedroom, looked at the work clothes I’d laid out and started all over again. ‘I don’t mean to be dramatic,’ I said to my boyfriend. ‘But I really don’t feel as though I can go on.’ I’ve always been a defender of a person’s right to cry at work, or cry over work. I’m a passionate poindexter – I have a nerdy need to people please, and a moral sense that you should always try your best, and go above and beyond what’s expected of you. I’ve grown up thinking leisure time was something that’s all very well for other people, but my ancestors are frowning down at me if I ever stray too far from my scythe, or laptop, unless my hands are clasped in prayer. But when starting a new job coincided with a massive relapse of my anxiety disorder, which made me cry on waking, before bed, on the bus, in the coffee queue and throughout the credits at a screening of Pitch Perfect 2, I was forced the question the virtue of hard graft.
The gig in question was my dream job. But what I didn’t account for was the fact that, as a freelance writer, I’m used to spending day after day living in my own head. It’s very cosy, but it’s full of crumbs and someone really needs to open a window. In an office, you’re forced to engage with the world. Anyone can ask you anything at any time, and you can’t craft your response, as you would on an email – you have to go live. Also, you’re suddenly not responsible for setting your own workload, so you’re always terrified that you’re going to get shouted at for not doing enough. If you don’t have an anxiety disorder you will either fit in immediately, or be able to look at your job from a distance and say ‘Had a think –maybe this isn’t for me’. If you do have an anxiety disorder, you’ll keep turning up, weeping silently at your desk and hiding under it every time someone says your name because you’re expecting them to say ‘We’re letting you go.’
My anxiety attacked me from all angles, as dexterous as an octopus. I wasn’t able to turn on my computer without falling down a rabbit hole of ‘what if’ – when I was expecting a writer to submit copy for first thing in the morning, the thought of checking my emails made me feel sick and panicky, in case it wasn’t there. A celebrity interview would fall through and instead of researching alternatives, I’d sit at my desk frozen with fright, convinced it was all my fault and let everybody down. If I’d have been less anxious, I could have looked up and seen it going on all around me – publishing is about juggling, and about half of the ideas that are discussed and commissioned never make it to the page. But as a freelancer, I hadn’t been used to working with a team, so I was quick to assume that every single thing that went wrong must be my fault. And soon I was feeling sick and stressed every weekend, obsessively thinking about everything that hadn’t yet gone wrong, but might be about to. Psychologists call this Catastrophic Thinking – when you believe that, by imagining the worst, you can prepare for it and protect yourself. However, it really turns you into a nervous wreck who can’t differentiate between a missed deadline and a burning building.
Everything came to a head when I was trying to work out how I could rewire my own brain pathways to make myself feel happier so that, if nothing else, I could dam the tears. Then it hit me that one thing would make me significantly happier – walking out of the building and never coming back. Could I quit? Wouldn’t that make me a coward, and a deserter? Didn’t I have a responsibility to man the sinking ship of my life and go all the way down to the bottom of the ocean, like an old timey naval captain? What would I tell my friends? Or my enemies? Or my parents, who were demonstrably thrilled that I finally had a job that gleaned an actual pay cheque at the end of each month?
Psychologist Cathy Lock told me ‘When you have anxiety, it’s normal to internalise everything, and to see yourself as the problem that needs fixing. However, if something specific in your life is making you especially anxious, it’s usually a sign that it’s just not a good fit for you. It’s not that either element is wrong, you just don’t work together. And recognising that is a sign of strength. It isn’t weak at all.’ When I reached a point where I couldn’t leave my house without weeping, and started fantasising about being knocked down by a bus and spending a few months in a coma, I went to see my doctor, who upped my medication and offered to sign me off work. I realised that I’d sooner quit as soon as I could than spend weeks away, getting more and more frightened as the anxiety built.
The medication meant the fog of anxiety lifted for long enough to reveal that this was definitely still a dream job for somebody - just not for me. It woke me up to the fact that I hadn’t been taking good care of myself mentally since before I started. I’d come to resent and fear my own career. Every new commission seemed like a trick that was designed to catch me out. I judged myself on who I hadn’t written for. Instead of feeling proud that I’d had books published, I felt ashamed that no-one wanted to buy them and scared that everyone thought I was an idiot for trying. There was no-one I couldn’t compare myself to in a negative way. Slowly, I’d become convinced that everyone who ever read what I’d written hated me as much as I hated myself – which simply wasn’t possible. Not even the members of my own family devote that much time to thinking about what I’m doing.
Sitting in my doctor’s office, it hit me that for years I’d thought I was a failure, and finding success would make me happy. But for me, pursuing joy through professional achievement was as effective as trying to cure lactose intolerance with a selection of milkshakes. Suddenly being broke for a bit and having everyone think I was a burned out loser was a price I was happy to pay for a bit of headspace. So I handed in my notice, and my bosses were really nice about it, and did not say, as I predicted ‘Thank God, because you’re SHIT’. I told my friends and they didn’t sneer – they congratulated me.
I got a bit weepy during my last therapy session, but it’s been a while since I burst into tears in the bathroom, or in Pret. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I might run out of money, or medication, or words. But doing what I need order to manage my anxiety is making me feel more successful than any job ever could. If I can work out how to be kind to myself, I think I’m going to be OK.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.
Sign up to Grazia’s mental health campaign to make mental health first aiders compulsory in all workplaces
This week, we went to Downing Street to deliver our petition to Theresa May, calling for mental health first aiders to be made compulsory in the workplace. Joining us were supporters of our Where’s Your Head At? campaign, including writer Bryony Gordon, Labour MP Luciana Berger and Countdown presenter Rachel Riley. The petition has more than 200,000 signatures and support from celebrities and big businesses. We know how important talking about mental health at work is, but we need your help to get the law changed. If you haven’t signed the petition yet, you can still do it online. And don’t forget to email or tweet your local MP and tell them why this law change is so important to you.
For details, visit wheresyourheadat.org
World Mental Health Day is on 10 October. Visit mind.org.uk for information