A year on from stress leave: where I’m at now

I don’t have any great authority in mental health. I’m not a nurse. I’m not a professional. But I did have a pretty terrible time with my anxiety last year – so this week, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned since taking stress leave 12 months ago.

As much as this blog is obviously a personal endeavour, a lot of the time I’m more interested in the wider societal trends happening in the sphere of mental health. Still, whilst I try to avoid talking about myself too much, I do think there’s strength in sharing.

A few of my posts have referenced the time I took off work – and it was only today I realised it was this time last year I was preparing to go back. It took me by surprise because I hadn’t even really thought about it as a milestone of any kind. But when I stopped to think about it, I realised I’ve actually come a long way.

Skip back to 2016…

This time last year, I was pretty certain I’d be leaving my job. I wasn’t sure exactly where I would go, but I felt like perhaps the role, or the industry, didn’t quite fit me.  I planned to do plenty of research into my next steps – whether it’d be a new company, career change, or even back into education.

Of course, in the meantime, I was back at work on reduced hours. No-one said anything about my short-notice two-week absence. No-one commented on my absences on Wednesdays. It all felt rather normal. I slotted right back in.

During the first couple of months or so, I had regular catch-ups with my managers and was very transparent about everything. I outlined the parts of my job I wasn’t comfortable taking on just yet , I told them when I’d likely be starting CBT, and I even shared when I struggled to complete work because anti-depressants were making me drowsy.

They were incredibly supportive – and really, I’m sure this adjustment period was made easier because they were completely in the know. Every catch-up kicked off with a “So how are you feeling?”. Twice a week, I had a slot to talk to them about anything I needed guidance on, or give them a general mental state update (if I wanted to).

Fortunately, my team wasn’t overrun with work – and I started to rethink my decision to jump ship. Suddenly, giving up that support and stability and chasing something new seemed quite the opposite of what I should be doing. Instead of deliverables and progression, my objectives centred on getting my confidence back.

In an industry driven by results, deadlines and reputation, that was quite a relief.

Fast-forward to present day

So what, if anything, has changed?

I’m still the same ball of anxiety. I still hate seeing my phone ring (dammit why can’t I prepare for EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD). I still don’t like things being sprung on me.

The difference is, my team knows this. My boss now has a far more in-depth idea of how I like to work and the support I might need depending on the tasks I’m doing.

To be clear: this isn’t hand-holding, it just makes sense. These days, I’m comfortable doing the stuff I was doing a year ago independently. I’m now being shown how to do things far more advanced to offer my company greater value. I realise that whatever job I’m in, I will likely feel different pressures to other people – and as a result, am better prepared.

I’m not afraid to tell my boss something makes me anxious – but I also tell them what will help me.

The Wednesdays off ended at the end of the year. 2017 was a fresh start and I was back full-time.

My team has gone through significant changes, I’ve presented to clients, and worked with some of the most senior people at my company.

Then, I got told I was being promoted.

A year ago, I didn’t even think I was going to be there, let alone be recognised for being good at my job. And actually, it feels very nice indeed to see that kind of progression in yourself.

Just keep swimming

With more responsibility comes more pressure (not quite the ol’ Spiderman quote soz), so I’m keeping a close eye on how I’m doing and feeling on a day-to-day basis. I’ll be sure to let my boss know if things start feeling overwhelming.

Most of my colleagues had absolutely no idea why I was off, or why I didn’t work Wednesdays. That, in many ways, is quite nice. I thought my frequent bathroom cries and fixed expression of concern was enough to give me away and reveal the turmoil I was experiencing. It was nice to know that my return didn’t stick out as abnormal.

I certainly didn’t want a ginormous fanfare. Still, in the months since, I’ve not shied away from being honest about my time off. Having been through it, I feel some small duty to confront the preconceptions people may have. Why? Am I not what you expected someone with ‘mental health issues’ to look like?

It’s not about parading around as some kind of stress survivor, but gently addressing those “Really? I would never have guessed” comments. You would never have guessed because mental health looks different on everyone. Sure, there are some physical giveaways we can all look out for, but these can be subtle and difficult to spot.

So if you’re going through some stuff, keep going. It feels like a fucking nightmare at the time, but it does get better. My solution was to stick to what was familiar and work on myself – yours could be different. Remember there are a whole load of people and support systems out there that can help you find your feet. Therapy, medication, time off (or do a Viki and try all three), whatever works for you – but rest assured, it will get better.

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