Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia
From Humans of New York
A must read. For everyone. Mentally ill or not.
One of the most difficult aspects of living in the UK is the bizarre mix of box-ticking politeness with genuine emotional reserve.
In other words, while almost everyone will ask, ‘how are you?’, the only acceptable answer is ‘fine thank you, how are you?’
Perhaps we should just invert the meaning of ‘fine’?
On a black dog day, this presents a problem. Either you break social convention and cause widespread panic:
‘Oh, the usual mix of abject misery and thoughts of self-harm, how about you?‘
Or, you lie.
In the short term, lying seems like the obvious option. For one thing, it creates less paperwork. I once made the mistake of being brutally honest with a colleague about my desires to end my life. Within a few hours I was being invited (that’s the British for ‘ordered’) to have a chat with both human resources and occupational health…
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A couple of weeks ago some rare opportunities came up for me to be involved in. I’ve been declining many invitations for some time now, but because these opportunities were rare, I grabbed life by the horns and took the opportunity to gain some new experiences. I enjoyed every minute of those experiences, but I paid for it quite severely with my energy levels last week.
I was really run down. It was similar to where I was last autumn — completely exhausted, unable to do much of anything other than sleep, but all that sleep was restless and didn’t really help relieve my fatigue. I took some annual leave, and a sick day, in order to get through the week. When I was in work I was told they were concerned about my attendance record. Of course, the remark about my attendance record has left me completely anxious and afraid to call in sick if I need to. Sigh.
I reiterated that I am definitely improving. A lot of people have noticed my increased cognitive abilities and physical energy, but I’m still going to have some off days. I put my hand up and said I had definitely over done it, hence taking additional annual leave (though technically I should’ve taken sick leave) and that I am still learning and adjusting to this new ‘lifestyle’ of having to manage my social life down to the hour.
I’m now feeling like I have to drag myself into work no matter what which will potentially make me even more ill again, requiring more long-term time off. I’d rather not get back to that point. I am enjoying work again, enjoying socialising when I can, being able to read a book without re-reading the same page a dozen times and still not understand what I’ve read. I wish I was one of those lucky people who rarely gets ill and therefore rarely has a day off sick. Unfortunately this has never been me, and I have to get past the guilt that goes with the fact that I am get ill more often than many.
But this morning, well, this morning I woke up with a terrible sore throat and a stuffed up nose. The glands in my throat are visibly swollen, and it hurts to swallow. It was actually a massive relief to wake up with these physical symptoms that anyone can relate to. Everyone has had a sore throat and stuffed up nose. They know those symptoms. They know the pain a bad sore throat may cause. And they can relate to the fatigue this physical illness can cause.
When you tell someone you are unwell with fatigue, and really can’t function because of it, they are likely to think you’re just a bit tired and should just suck it up and get on with it like everyone else. I get it. I totally understand the inability to truly relate to someone who is experiencing something you have no experience with, and the concept of something like fatigue being completely disabling seems impossible unless it’s coupled with a serious illness or plainly visible physical disability.
Some time ago I was suffering very severe migraine headaches. These were so debilitating that on a few occasions I had to be taken to A&E and given morphine injections to help ease some of the discomfort. Obviously in this condition I was unfit to work. At the time I had a line manager who never suffered headaches and could not relate, and didn’t try to. This same line manager often suffered debilitating menstrual cramps, something I never suffered, but had seen members of my family suffer. While I couldn’t relate physically, I could be empathetic to her physical discomfort. Unfortunately she couldn’t do the same to me and told me flat out that she felt I was making up my symptoms as she’d never heard of someone having so many headaches of such an extreme nature.
So this morning, sniffling and having trouble swallowing, I’m actually grateful for my ‘normal’ physical symptoms. People are less likely to think I am faking illness and being lazy. It might also be a partial explanation to the complete fatigue I had last week though I know my hectic (tongue in cheek, there) social life is mostly to blame.
So thank you, immune system, for giving me these physical symptoms and making me feel less guilty about being ill. If only my normal illness were so relatable.
Oops! Went a bit quiet there!
I’d been feeling so great the last couple of weeks that I did that thing where you forget that the reason you were feeling so good was because you were practising new habits to get you back on your feet. I’d been sticking to my sleep regime, using my SAD light, eating big plates of veg, getting exercise… all those things I mentioned in my last post about making changes.
These new habits hadn’t been practised long enough for them to become semi-automated habits, and a small change in my current routine really muddled them up. I also think that in some way, I had stored up a bit of energy, used it, felt OK, so kept using it without remembering to top it up essentially leading to me bankrupting that energy store.
Last week I had an absolutely amazing few days of participating in some rare opportunities and social events. I enjoyed every minute I spent doing these things. A couple of them left me with such a natural high that I think I survived on that for a good 48 hours. It made me realise that I need more of these types of events in my life; that natural high was totally addicting*. However, I don’t need three such events in three consecutive days. I am really paying for it now.
I’ve been completely wiped out this week. The fatigue has required me to take additional days off of work that I hadn’t planned to which of course has made me feel a bit stressed out since I’m missing work, work will be piling up, and I’m trying to push myself and not take the easy route.
Creating, and keeping, new habits is incredibly difficult. I guess what’s helping me is that I know that if I get back to the habits I started, I’ll get back to where I was a couple weeks ago and can build up to better levels of energy again. And eventually those habits will not need conscious upkeep, they’ll just be a part of my normal routine and I won’t have to think about it.
* I am not about to take up extreme sports. That’s a different natural high that I’m not particularly interested at my age!
Image from the New York Times article Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?