When I was a kid, my mother used to take ‘mental health days’, as she would call them. On those days, she would call in sick to work, sit on the couch, eat crisps, watch bad TV, and basically treat herself. When I was a kid I never knew quite what she meant, but to me it seemed clear that she was unwell, that she needed those days in order to function as an adult human. I loved those days with my mom, because I really felt like I was experiencing someone recuperate themselves, and this taught me a lot about what mental illness is and what it looks like and how to deal with it. Now that I’m an adult, I feel like I can really see where she was coming from. This article is kind of about that, and kind of about me.
Just to put everything out in the open, I have been sacked recently, so this post may seem a little bitter or angry. But I think that’s good. I am pretty angry, and I’d like to articulate a little bit about why I’m angry, about what I see wrong with the current system of employment in our society and the way we look at, and treat, mental illness. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, this post is going to deal a lot with my serious struggles with depression and anxiety, and if you’re not comfortable with that I would strongly encourage you to read it anyway. You might learn something.
So, a little background on my history of mental illness. I have some pretty severe social anxiety and social phobia (meaning social interactions make me extremely nervous and I’m irrationally uncomfortable in social situations), and I also suffer from a panic disorder (meaning I am often driven to panic attacks, a physical reaction to the panic and anxiety I feel). I also, like many people with anxiety, suffer from depression. This particular cocktail of brain sadness is infuriating, frustrating, sad, and often boring, even for me. I often work myself into a panic, unable to relax, feeling like I must do something or the world will collapse around me; when this happens, however, I am often unable to do anything but lie in bed due to the voice of my depression which says ‘Do nothing. There is nothing worth doing. Just lie around. You might as well just sleep’. This then works me into a greater flurry of anxiety, a strange and bewildering combination of fear-of-missing-out and the nihilistic desire to miss out on everything. I dread situations where I will have to engage others in conversation, because I know that afterwards I will pick apart every single thing both of us has said, beating myself up over every tiny stumble and convincing myself that the other person must hate me. A lot of mornings I wake up feeling good and just the anticipation of this feeling, the knowledge that any second I could feel like the whole world is falling to pieces around me, triggers me to start feeling totally terrible about myself. I’ve struggled with this most of my life, definitely most of it that I can remember. I was a chronic school-skipper, nearly flunking out of my final year of high school because just the thought of getting out of bed and going to a place where someone might talk to me was too much to handle. Even now, when I’ve learned what these feeling are and how to deal with them, some days I still have trouble getting out of bed or even taking care of myself in basic ways (eating, cleaning, bathing, etc.). And on these days, I call in sick.
I have created a complicated web of lies, different illnesses or problems that are suitable excuses to miss work. One week, my cat is sick and needs to go to the vet (I don’t have a cat). Another week, my house has been broken into (hasn’t happened — yet). I once told an employer that I had picked up a rare stomach parasite during my travels in Southeast Asia and had to go in for repeated surgeries to treat it. Yeah, he believed me. Often I just fake a sore throat or a cough and say I have a cold. This has lead to a few different things happening: first, everyone I work with thinks I am the most unfortunate, unlucky, and pitiful human being on the planet. Second, I don’t make a lot of friends in management. Third, and the worst in my mind, I seem really ridiculously unreliable as a person. I often worry that maybe I just am really unreliable and lazy. But that’s probably just my anxiety speaking.
All this, this web of deceit where I have actually written a list of excuses I have used at each place to avoid repeating one, is just to avoid telling them the truth. Which is that I am ill, often very ill, just not physically. Why? Because ‘I just didn’t feel like living that day’ or ‘The distance between my bed and the front door seemed like the distance between the Shire and Mount Doom, including all the obstacles in between, and I didn’t even possess the mental fortitude of a single whiny hobbit’ are just not acceptable excuses. No one cares if your brain is sick. ‘You don’t look sick’. You need to suck it up and soldier on.
Obviously, to anyone familiar with any type of mental illness, you are aware that mental illness is basically the state of being unable to suck it up. You are not capable of sucking anything up. You can’t even stand. Life is an unending hole and you are an ant, a tiny speck in an unthinking, unfeeling universe. Plus, you forgot to shower for three days and you smell like a dirty foot.
To me, this seems like a really exceptionally valid reason to not work. I am ill, chronically so, and I am doing my best to try and keep going despite that. Employers, however, usually do not see it that way. Don’t believe me? Just try it. Just say to your boss tomorrow, ‘I am planning to experience a deep and terrible existential pain for most of tomorrow which will render me unwilling to perform even the basic tasks I need to do in order to do this job’ and see what they say.
What I’m getting at here is that in order to treat mental illness, really treat it, we all need to pitch in. We, as a society, must recognise that a mentally ill person is not crazy, irrational, or exaggerating but is, in fact, ill. Mental illness is no exaggeration and it’s no joke. Ask anyone who’s lost a family member to depression or to a more serious illness like schizophrenia or bipolar, and you’ll see that the emotional burden is a large and heavy one. And that’s just experiencing it by proxy, through someone who witnessed the experience. The English language doesn’t really have words to describe what I feel on my ‘sick days’, the closest I have found being that it is despair and boredom. The despair of being soul-crushingly bored and the boredom of being in a deep, seemingly endless despair. The feeling that everything is just wrong, that you must do something about it, but that you lack the will to move or take action against anything. The panic you feel at wasting your life being sad, and the sadness you feel at being unable to do anything about it. All of this, in my mind, is a really good reason to not go to work that day. Why would anyone want to be around someone who feels that way? Why would anyone tell that person that they simply needed to ‘try harder’ (as I am so often told)?
We need to get serious about this mental illness thing. We all need to pitch in. Because, while my mental illness is manageable, there are other people who aren’t so lucky. There are other people who lose the will to live, who feel hopeless and uncared for. I think that is supremely unfair. I think that person deserves, among many other things, a sick day.