Ah bank holiday, the crack of leather on willow, the sound of birdsong, the laughter at the bbq and the tippy tap of fingers on a keyboard.
I've been working this morning. It's my choice I suppose but my emotional / mental bank account needs some reassurance that I have things at work in hand, that the plan is a good one and that I'm going to deliver it, hence the last 2 hours of tippy tap.
As well as the double trouble of anxiety and depression I suffer from presenteeism as well. Or more accurately because of anxiety and depression (and also having a lot of work to do) I suffer from presenteeism. This means I check my phone a lot when i'm not at work, i log on on a bank holiday and sort things out that can't wait to get ahead of the game and i find it very hard to switch off. This means my brain and body are regularly in flight or flight mode, thinking about what's happened, worrying about what might and struggling to be very present.
When i go back to work I might get asked if I had a nice weekend (I might not of course) and whether it was nice to have a three day break from work. I'll lie and say yes, but the reality is that when you think like I do you don't often get a break, you can come back from time away from work more exhausted.
People will tell you that work can wait but in this instance I don't believe it can. I have a huge deadline in 3 weeks that has to be delivered, it can't move, it needs to be high quality, it is reputationally very important and I have to make sure it's delivered. I have a team to support (who are also struggling) countless internal and external customers to keep happy and am delivering with the sword of damocles of uncertainty hanging over my head of what my job will be in 6 weeks time.
So why am I working all hours, why am I pushing myself?
It's because I am massively passionate about what I do. I want things to be perfect (another curse), I want to please people (another one) and I also want to make sure that anything I am associated with goes well and that I get a job at the end of it doing what I'm good at.
Q. Am i working too much and suffering from presenteeism?
Q. Why's that?
A. Well it's complicated, but uncertainty over future role, massive work pressure and brain wiring all play a part
Q. Am I ok?
A. Just about. But sustained working like this with uncertainty is not healthy.
Q. Am I coping / resilient?
A. Yep. Come and spend a week in my shoes and see how you do. I am amazingly resilient
Q. Why did I do this Q&A
A. Not sure, it seemed like a good idea at the time
Anyway, ramble over. I need to do some more work.....
I was with my team earlier this week and we had a really good constructive meeting.
We start our meetings with check ins, to see how we all are, at work, at home, physically and mentally. This is really important because we probably only see each other once a month at most and whilst a virtual hug is nice, nothing beats the real thing....
Going round the table listening to how people are, hearing a colleague talk about how they'd been wearing a mask quite a bit recently (i assume this is where the expression 'putting on a brave face' really comes from) and admiring the openness with which people are able to and can share is inspiring.
One thing that was evident was that everyone has some chips, some have some cracks, some have been repaired or pieced back together, but i described myself as broken.
I'd never used that word to describe how I felt before. I broke a rib once. I broke my nose on a bouncy castle, but never have I 'felt' broken.
I'm not in pieces, I just feel like who I am has taken a real bashing recently and that relentless pressure combined with not enough time to maintain or build resilience has resulted in this feeling, And the feeling is pretty horrible. On the outside I'm still whole, still working, still delivering, still caring, still dading but on the inside, the inside of my head I'm not really sure who I am.
Challenges to the core of who I am are really hard to take and have affected me a lot. I don't want to feel broken, I'm just not really sure how to fix myself or at least put all the pieces of the jigsaw the right way up so that I can see the picture.
We looked at this picture in the meeting.
A lot of us were on the right hand side.
I'm not really sure where broken fits, maybe it's fuzzy mind. But it's kind of like your own belief in who you are and what you are good at and why you add value has been smashed. And when that gets smashed and is broken it's hard to feel anything apart from confused and empty and alone.
Being yourself, being authentic to who you are is important.
My authentic self means I can be moody, grumpy, sad, snappy and angry / frustrated.
But my authentic self also means I can be playful, fun, innovative, creative and inclusive.
Sometimes parts of your authentic self can upset others, or doesn't fit easily with their authentic selves.
So should you change? And if you do change some parts of your authentic self (if its even possible) how does that affect the other parts of you?
As an example.
Some footballers get a lot of yellow or red cards. Playing a certain way is a big part of their game and what makes them the player they are. It's the reason that they're in the team. That's why they get picked.
Paul Scholes who used to play for Man Utd & England was a player who commonly put in terrible tackles. In 499 premier league appearances he:
But he also:
Bad tackling was part of who he was / is. He has the 3rd highest number of yellow cards in Premier League history. But whilst the way he played the game had its negatives it was coupled with amazing positives which meant he was first on the team sheet.
He played as his authentic self.
My mind, the way I think my ups and downs, my passion, my attention to detail and my impatience to get on with things and take action make me who I am.
They are the things which mean I deliver. Which mean I care so deeply about other people. Which make me sensitive but also prickly (I've been described as a cactus before).
Changing my authentic self is hard because I fear losing the bits which make me great in order to smooth off some of my rough edges.
When you ask someone to change you risk losing the bits you like, because it's all part of the same package.
Accept your authentic self. And accept others. Just don't intentionally hurt anyone and be understanding.
I'm lonely. Even when I'm not alone.
I feel really isolated at the moment. Even when i'm not in isolation.
Isolated means 'far away from other places, building, or people; remote'
You don't have to be far away in a physical sense to feel isolated. You can feel isolated because you're different. Because you think differently, look differently, believe differently or behave differently.
It's not right that people feel isolated, in or out of work, but that isolation is often self imposed because they do not feel understood or accepted and it can be more painful to be in the crowd feeling like that than it can be to be alone.
That's where I am at the moment. Isolated. In pain, but in less pain than I would be in the crowd.
People isolate themselves at times of stress, they withdraw into themselves and away from people.
Often the last thing you want to do if you don't like the way your own mind speaks to you is to spend more time with your own mind.
That's when you need help from your friends and people who care about you to help you take the baby steps out of isolation.
If you see someone isolated reach out and help them make the steps, but I don't mean me, I'm fine.
I heard something about this on the radio today, ‘so what do you do then’ and I thought for a while that I'd say ‘I work trying to help people understand and reduce flood risk, but I’m an engineer by degree’
But that’s not who I am and that’s not what I do. My work life is important to me but it’s a huge simplification to answer the question like that. So I’ve answered it differently. This is a more accurate who I am, who are you?
A Part time lover
A Taxi driver
A Path finder
A Monster scarer
A Maker of lists
A Peace keeper
A Card sender
An Occasional weeper
A Gift giver
A dancer who’s hairy
A Secret keeper
Father Christmas, Easter bunny and the tooth fairy
A Hard worker
A Nature lover
I can be grumpy and sad, crazy and mad
Happy and glad, good and sometimes a little bad
Have days when I feel like I'm flying on wings
Because I am made up on a million things......
Today a guest blog from someone else I work with who I have connected with over mental health and being open about who we are (it's amazing you should try it).
This is part of Lucy's story, I learnt a lot and am grateful to her for sharing.....
I don’t often post something so personal, but as it is Millions Missing week this week and Mental Health awareness week next week it feels important to say something about the reality of life with ME/chronic fatigue syndrome.
I have had ME/chronic fatigue syndrome for 5 years. I felt so well for a while that I thought I had recovered, although I never got back to my previous activity levels. But then last summer I relapsed.
I am so fortunate that my symptoms are mild. But the impact on our family life is still enormous. I can work part time. I can see friends and go for walks. But I miss running, cycling and swimming. Camping and walking weekends with the kids are mostly a memory. I rarely go out in the evenings - to choir, to yoga or just to the pub.
I can do some of this....sometimes. But it all requires planning. I plan every detail of my week to allow me to stay as healthy as possible. To do anything extra means I need to start planning days in advance and plan time afterwards to recover. It means the house will become untidy, we will put off the decorating again and I need to ignore some of the housework or other jobs that feel important. Spontaneity feels impossible.
Over the last year I have also dealt with the emotions and uncertainty of supporting a teenager with mental health problems as well as a mother who was dying of breast cancer. It’s been almost impossible to find the space to plan to make fun things happen.
I am so lucky in so many ways. My husband is great at keeping things going. I have the luxury of working part time for an amazingly supportive employer. My friends listen when I just need to talk. I have a roof over my head and we have enough money. We have the support of CAMHS and the school. My step-dad was there for the day to day care of my mum and the team at the hospice were also wonderful.
But this illness still feels incredibly difficult. Sometimes it is impossible to tell whether the fatigue I feel is as a result of my ME/chronic fatigue syndrome or if it is mental health related due to the amount of stressors in my life. I continually wonder how much I can do to be an active part of my family while not putting my health at risk. There is no science to help me work out what I should do, and while the NHS is great at all sorts of things, I’ve had virtually no support with either diagnosis or treatment.....I’ve just had to figure things out myself.
So I listen to my body to help me decide what I can and can’t do each day. I do everything I can to ensure my body and mind are as healthy as they can be and that my immune system is working as well as possible. I watch what I eat and drink, I make sure I relax and have fun, I get fresh air and I rest. And importantly, I try to avoid pushing myself to carry on when I’m tired as I know this can make things worse.
I try my hardest to stay positive. I try to make myself believe that I am doing enough to stop me getting worse. I even quietly harbour the hope that one day I will recover in full. There are times that I am able to focus on the good things in my life and the choices I am still able to make.
But there are times when it’s hard not to lose hope. When I’m so exhausted that I lose the positive, bubbly part of me. I find myself dragged down by the frustration of all I can’t do. By the sadness over all I am missing out on. And by the uncertainty about whether this can and will get better.
People often ask me what they can do to help. So here goes.....
Please take time to understand, to hear the stories of those who have ME/chronic fatigue syndrome. If you know someone with ME/chronic fatigue syndrome, find a way to spend time with them or to bring some fun in to their life. And share what you’ve learned with others. Help us to break down the misconceptions that are out there.
As our fatigue means that many of us use all our energy in just surviving, it can be hard to advocate for ourselves..... we need you to amplify our voices. Please help us by telling our stories and to joining us in calling for more research into diagnosis and treatment.
Thank you. Lucy
I've dithered about whether to post this or not because I suspect / fear that some people may take it the wrong way and think I am a bad loser, which I'm not. I just don't see the point of writing a blog about my mental health if I can't be honest about it and help people understand how I tick, even if I'm ticking out of time on a day when I 'should' be happy.
Make sense, probably not but you'll have to read on now.......
I’m on my way back from Derby, during the day and I’m feeling blue. I have the derby day blues.
I’ve been at my company's annual awards ceremony, which is an excellent day celebrating a whole host of amazing work by teams and individuals across the country.
I was shortlisted this year for an award because of my work on Mental Health. Great huh. Top 3 out of 74 nominations. Definitely on the podium. So why do I feel so blue…..
Well, like last year (when shortlisted for a different award) I lost. My certificate says I was a runner up but my mind doesn’t do runner up, it does win / succeed or fail.
So today, like last year I failed. I really hoped I would win as it would have given me a much needed boost (other people thinking I’m of value) but now I haven’t won it’s knocked me some more.
Strange isn’t it. I’m not ungrateful, my mind just doesn’t do runner up. We’ve all seen sportspeople at finals not even wear their runners up medal, because in their eyes like mine, they lost.
I’m competitive, but mostly with myself. But the thing that makes my mind focus on the negative and see every non win as therefore a failure is depression.
It means I am naturally self-critical. I started the day feeling a little bit better about myself as the organisation had validated me and now I feel shit because I've got to validate myself now.
Can you imagine how exhausting this is to live with? Perfection is what I naturally strive for, runner up is not perfection so therefore its failure. I’m more inadequate now than I was this morning. I’ll never be good enough to succeed.
I jotted some words down in case I did win, because the old anxiety means I don’t cope well with uncertainty (speaking off the cuff) so having something to read would have helped. I didn’t get a chance to read them out so will share them here....
I'm not a bad loser, genuinely. The person who won did some fantastic work and thoroughly deserved to win. This failure is mine to own, no one else's. I just need to work out how to re-wire my brains flowchart.....
I’m now off home alone to mull over my failure some more. Nothing like a evening with your own thoughts to cheer you up.
So today, pressure.
I've just come off a consultation with our occupational health service coz i'm feeling (and acting) a bit 'stressy' at the moment and people want me to get support. Which is great.
Here's that pressure curve handily coloured with snooker ball colours.
I'm scoring six points at the moment.
We talked a lot about resilience and I'm doing a load of stuff at the moment to improve / maintain that. I got a new book recently, that's it below. It's really good and practical and has lots of little steps you can take to make yourself feel better (and be better). I'm going to read a book at lunchtime (a spy one, I read enough self help books, in fact i have a self help shelf), a small step (but a big shelf), but a good one as it switches my brain off.
Resilience, being healthy, connecting with people etc all help you cope with the pressure.
But we also need to make sure we look at the cause of the pressure and not just try and be more resilient, because as the camel knows it can only take one more straw to break you (paper straws or straw straws, definitely not plastic straws).
We talk at work about stress buckets. Resilience helps your bucket be strong, but sometimes the tap filling it is just flowing a bit too fast and the only thing you can do (apart from your bucket breaking and everything going all over the place) is to slow the flow down, make the bucket bigger or get a bigger tap.
The challenge is that there are times when everyone else's buckets are full so they can't help with yours and / or everything you are doing seems to be a priority and therefore a stressor.
I have too many priorities and stressors at the moment (home and work) - I'm feeling a bit vulnerable so my bucket isn't as big as usual.
It makes me feel like a failure to say i'm struggling to cope, even though i'm working on my 4 pillars.
But with my list of stressors flowing in and my personal capacity it's probably not surprising.
It makes me conclude that the problem is with the amount coming in. But as I'm currently feeling vulnerable, weak and like I'm failing it clouds my judgement even more and makes me feel like mentioning that i'm struggling will reflect badly on me (whether it will or not in reality).
Stress is indeed a bastard, it makes you feel all sorts of horrible things and then to make things even worse makes you lose the confidence, ability and clear thinking to do much about it because you feel like you'll feel even more of a failure, be judged and have a note on your file that says 'not very resilient' as opposed to 'massively resilient but everyone has limits'.
I have spoken to people about this, but the cold reality is that sometimes there are just too many plates and you just have to hope the ones you drop are saucers.......
Mr Paul Wyse