One work afternoon in October 2017, I thought I was dying. My world was despair and fear. I found myself in an emergency room, unable to intelligibly communicate, disoriented, and my entire body fuzzy and tingling.
I was wheeled back to a room faster than I ever have been at the ER and learned I was experiencing my first-ever panic attack. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, and if you have ever suffered one I am so sorry for you. It was frustrating and embarrassing. It was the first full panic attack I’d ever had, though I was diagnosed with ADHD, depression, and anxiety several years ago. I thought I was in tune with my mental health and had developed a toolkit to work through those issues. I was wrong.
This panic episode would lead to an intense, horrible journey that cost me my job, but in the end taught me invaluable lessons about myself and work-life balance. It has also given me the opportunity to try help others.
You Are Not Alone
I am writing this to take a stand to end the stigma around mental illness. We must acknowledge that mental health challenges are common – they lie along a broad spectrum – and while they can certainly be difficult, they are not usually insurmountable.
While I am grateful to be able to self-reflect now on my journey, it is still an ongoing challenge for me professionally as I try to find new work to use my experience and education for public service – my true passion.
But here’s what I am begging you to know: If you suffer from a mental health issue, you have an opportunity to focus on self-care, ask for help both personally and professionally, and know that you are not at all alone. The stigma surrounding mental illness causes amazing people to lock themselves into a prison of secrecy that only makes them suffer further. But about 18 percent of U.S. workers report having a mental health condition in any given month. You are not alone.
We are public servants, passionate about local government and service to our community members. We spend a lot of time striving to be helpful to residents. How can we ensure we are doing our best for our community members if we aren’t willing to help ourselves?
Hard Life Lessons
When I suffered that first panic attack in 2017, I worked hard with medical professionals to find the best solutions to this issue. That included both discussions with a psychologist and working with doctors on medications should it happen again. And it did.
It was 19 degrees outside on that day in February. As I prepared to rid our garage of a mouse infestation, 24-mile-per-hour winds whipped at my face, but I was determined. I slipped on the icy driveway as I was getting supplies out of my vehicle, injuring my knee. The pain triggered an attack, and in my state of panic and fear I was too impatient to let the medicine do its job. I took more, because in my illogical position of panic, my head said it would help. Of course, it didn’t. I blacked out, and I don’t remember the next 12 hours. What do I remember? Waking up having been arrested for Driving Under the Influence. I simply wasn’t even there anymore. I have no memory of any of the events that occurred.
I’m told officers confirmed my impairment through standard impairment tests, and I said stupid things to the cops. I will forever be embarrassed and sorry for that. Lawyers suggested I might be able to argue that my mental illnesses were the initial cause of the incident. I told them that I felt it was more important to be accountable and take responsibility for taking too much medication, and I would accept the outcome.
I resigned from my position a few days after the incident. The severance I received will run out at the end of June.
I call it “the best worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” While I still have no employment and must figure out a way to provide for our four children and save our home, I’ve learned some valuable lessons as I’ve taken time away. Each of us has our own reasons for mental health challenges, but maybe sharing some of those things that triggered my stressors might help you consider yours and will help with addressing them.
- From the age of 26 I have been non-stop working as a public servant. Even as we welcomed more beautiful children into this world, I was constantly “on.” Wake up at 5 a.m.? Start working. It’s 1 a.m.? I’m still working. At one point the mayor of one community I worked for jokingly (I think) threatened to fire me if I didn’t stop working while on a family vacation in England. He was a good mayor.
- I never shut off the public service faucet dripping in my head. Regardless of what I was doing, I was thinking about work – worrying about a project, anxious about not returning a community member’s phone call or responding to resident inquiries on social media fast enough. I never simply said “enough, it’s time for a break and it will all be there when I get back.”
- Personal and professional stressors piled up. In 2017 my wife went through a challenging pregnancy – having to drive to a hospital an hour away every Tuesday at 5:30 a.m. to receive treatments to protect our baby girl. When Piper finally came, she spent the first month of her life in intensive care for another issue anyway. My mother nearly died and also spent a month in the ICU. I volunteered for every single project I possibly could at work, because I have a habit of wanting to be helpful and see quick results for residents. I had a challenging time with an elected official, something that can be common for many of us in leadership, and it certainly wasn’t the first time for me, either. This time, though, it felt like my mental health was causing some different treatment from the official, and that impacted me.
- While I was working with medical professionals to find solutions, I do not believe I worked hard enough to really understand what could happen if I didn’t focus on their recommendations for treatment – more exercise, meditation, time away … literally even just letting a panic attack happen, getting through it and realizing I didn’t die.
I never slowed down and took the time to process and address any of these stressors as they occurred, instead letting each of them build one by one into a tower that would eventually topple. Self-care is so crucial. I didn’t realize it then, and I had a personal responsibility to perhaps stop focusing so much on work, take a step back, and understand where I was with my own mind. It took basically losing my entire professional identity to realize it. What a life lesson.
Help Is Out There
Every person’s mental health issues are different. My story may be horrifying to some and a drop in the bucket for others. But I think one important thing to remember is that the earlier you seek help, the better chance you have for success.
Here are a few ways you can work toward solutions for your own mental health:
- Visit Mental Health America, take a free screening and get information on a variety of resources, including where to get help, learn about mental health conditions and treatments, and finding a therapist.
- Tap into employer-provided resources. Do they offer an Employee Assistance Program? They’re often free, and ALWAYS confidential. If your city has a Wellness Committee, pay attention to those communications about the programs and events provided. Participate in those. Fitness and diet (and sleep, for the love of all that’s holy get SLEEEEEP) play large roles in our brains also being strong.
- Review your health insurance plan for mental health coverage and seek out professional guidance and support. Make sure you learn along the way, ask a lot of questions, and understand nothing is a quick fix. Just be willing to try and keep trying.
- ELGL has a raft of articles on work-life balance. They are a great way to find ideas and tools to reduce those stressors that could lead to mental health challenges. Don’t treat work-life balance just as a buzzword or fad – treat it like something important to your internal success.
- A support network is crucial. Find those family members, friends, professional acquaintances and mentors you trust to speak with. Not sure how to find those people? Consider reading this guide on how to disclose your story from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Each mental health journey is an individual one. I continue to learn each day about my personal story and I’m extremely proud of the progress I’ve made. I’ve learned more about my own brain in almost the last four months than my entire life prior. I have made mistakes. I have had successes. And I will keep working to ensure I’m mindful of my own self-care.
A Word on Sharing
I have shared my experience and discussed my mental illness openly with friends and family, and I also spoke about it to some colleagues at work. The positive support was wonderful, and I learned of many others around me that also have had mental health challenges. It was amazing to see people encouraged to share their personal stories, too.
As I write this, I know it is going to be on the Internet and searchable forever. I know that Google searches will help potential employers learn about this very personal story. Some of them may pass me over for sharing this. I know that there is still stigma around mental illness. But I truly believe that we must be willing to share our experiences not only for ourselves, but so that others don’t feel they have to hide it away and suffer until it potentially is too much to bear.
I’ve used my personal experiences to connect with employees when I see them struggle. I want them to know that I understand – as much as I can through my own head and not theirs – and I am here to help. I want them to know they don’t need to be ashamed and they deserve a cheerleader. As a servant leader, there is nothing more paramount than ensuring the team I’m a part of knows I’m always there for them, regardless of the situation.
Does asking for help mean you absolutely have to tell everyone your story? Absolutely not. This is a personal choice and there are pros and cons. Understanding your own challenges and taking those first steps to seek support that you deserve is important. I hope you’ll give it a try.
The Most Important Reason
Last October was a new experience for me. My mental illnesses are a part of me. Yours are a part of you, too. Know that it’s not your fault. As the sage Lady Gaga would say: I was born this way. But I have, and you have, opportunities to embrace ways to overcome those obstacles. Don’t let them be excuses, and remember you have the capacity and capability to find solutions and opportunities to be your best self.
The rewards of working on your mental health are abundant, but one is more important than all others. Sure, you may want to do it because you want to continue to be an amazing professional, and you want to be there for your family. Those are fantastic reasons for self-care. But most importantly? You should do it for yourself.
I’m rooting for you. We all are. And know that there are many people out there who share similar experiences.