"If you can't explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough."
- Albert Einstein, physicist
I have found that if I ask for help on a project or carrying that third cup of coffee back to the team, people are generally supportive and not only willing, but happy to help. It's simple, short, measurable help; help that is easily digestible. People respond to cries for help with what they know, and, in the case of mental health, that generally results in not much that is helpful. People's advice can be sensible and their sentiment sincere, but if someone is sliding down the slippery slope toward mental disorder, they are generally unable to interpret any advice or support as being tangible. Oftentimes it happens slowly; it is easy to shrug off as a bad day. But, when a bad day turns into a bad week and then a bad month, maybe even a bad year, the recipient of that advice becomes unable to process it and, in many cases, will even perceive such advice as a threat, worsening the situation. So how do you help someone who is having a mental health crisis? Perhaps understanding it well enough is a first step to being able to explain it simply.
Sliding Down the Slippery Slope
I slid down this slippery slope as far as I could go until I finally put up the surrender flag and have since been climbing back up the slope, closer to the top, where my mens sansa (healthy mind) resides. It is difficult to admit, difficult to talk about. As an attorney, a professional, a native New Yorker, a musician, a mother, a wife, a trusted advisor, a leader, I perceived this slide as a sign of weakness, a failure. I feared it, resisted it, and denied the slow corrosion as I inched my way down the slope, misplacing a piece of me with each slip. I resisted because I am a strong woman, I have grit, and I can handle anything, and all of this is true. But, I also have fears, insecurities, and doubts. We all do, but sometimes a perfect storm develops and we find ourselves lost at sea without adequate navigation to get us safely back to calm waters. And, when we are engulfed in these stormy seas with no relief in sight, and we don't know how to navigate away from the danger, we hope to be rescued. But there is a remote chance of such rescue. You can ask for it, and people can try to give it, but not many know how to actually provide it effectively.
My journey was a long, slow one. It didn't happen overnight; it built up subtly, over time, with each stress creeping in on top of the previous one before it had a chance to vaporize and provide some breathing room. It started while I was working in a high-octane environment, managing my workload well. But in a few short years, the practice's business tripled and our team couldn't keep up with the increased demand. The stresses grew, and relationships became contentious. As time went on, I could feel my brain changing, my social interactions reduced, and my time off becoming non-existent. Critical thinking became a luxury and, after a while, my days became merely a string of rote and reactive decisions, my main hope being to survive the day. The joy of the intellectual challenge had all but disappeared. I had an appendectomy and was responding to emails on the gurney on my way to surgery. My husband had a heart attack, and I worked from his hospital room. Two months later, a young man I mentored, who had moved to France, died in a car accident on his way home from work, leaving his young wife to raise their five-month-old son alone. I flew to Paris, working on the plane and taking calls in between the funeral and the burial. Two months later, I had to put down my chubby, old, long-time companion, Spike the cat. There was no time to grieve for any of this, there was no time to dwell, there was no time to process any of the feelings that accompanied these events.
I asked for help, explained the workload was too much, and while this was acknowledged, time passed and no relief came. I became depressed, withdrawn, hopeless, overwhelmed. I asked for guidance, made suggestions to alleviate some of the stresses for the team and ultimately myself, but nothing changed. I began to feel isolated; how could one go through all of these events and not have any time to process them? But when I returned from France, it was work as usual. No buffer, no words of kindness, no relief in my workload.
I knew something had to change, but I didn't have the energy or the mindset to do anything about it. I thought I was just burnt out from chronically overworking and it would pass if I went on vacation, but it didn't. I thought about resigning, but then needed a plan for next steps, which I was incapable of envisioning. I was actually just hoping someone would come along and save me. Eventually, I was able to transition to another role but it came with a steep learning curve. In normal circumstances, I would have risen to the occasion, but things were not normal. To compound the situation, the transition coincided with a major and unanticipated house renovation that was not going as planned, and I couldn't focus on learning my new responsibilities as I was being called upon to continually make decisions for the contractors.
All these things snowballed over months, years, until I slid down the slope so far I couldn't navigate my way back. I was emotionally paralyzed, and then one day I broke. The holidays were upon us, it was just past the anniversary of the accident in France, and we were preparing for family get togethers, and like a pin in a balloon, I burst. It didn't happen on the day I received the news that I had to schedule a biopsy, as well as being informed of a poor work performance review (not a surprise now). It happened a few days later, when I was told I would not be attending an annual leadership conference, which I always looked forward to as it provided an opportunity to connect with colleagues from across the country. I started crying and couldn't stop for days. Not only was my health, my family and my mind suffering, but I had sacrificed it all for nothing; now my career, the career that I had given so much to, was imploding. I felt completely and utterly rejected, small, deficient, ashamed, not valued. It was at this point, I had no choice but to admit that I can't handle everything, at least not on my own, and I took leave and sought help from professionals whose diagnosis was that I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder.1
As I said earlier, this is hard to admit and it is difficult to discuss, but if I could find myself so far down the slippery slope, incapable of navigating my way back, I had to figure out how I got there, what I could have done to prevent it, and what others could have done to help, or it would all be one awful experience with no bright outcome.
With this in mind, and with a lot of work, I've built skills in recognizing the need for staying present and giving yourself little bits of time every day, as this will actually increase your focus and productivity and is absolutely not a waste of time. Yoga and meditation are great tools for facilitating this. I've learned that valuing yourself, and really believing it, prevents you from discrediting your needs so things don't get overwhelming. And I've learned that helping people understand what mental health issues and burnout are, why they occur, and how they can help, makes it less uncomfortable, less taboo, less shameful. Because the more you understand, the simpler it is to discuss.
People really do want to help, so in order for you, the reader, to know what you can do, it is to simply understand that a person sliding down the slippery slope cannot always recognize where they are. They need candid conversations that are not threatening. They need support and encouragement, not isolation. Try asking what they think they need and help them get it. Don't tell them they are getting in their own way, or that things will pass; this is dismissive and exacerbates their feelings of inadequacy. Recognize that what they are going through is real, and tell them. Maybe it is just time off, maybe it is a new assignment that allows them to shine and boosts their spirits, maybe it's just listening. But making believe it will go away and maintaining the status quo is likely not going to help them, and, if it is a work situation, it will not help the organization either. Morale will sink, and the effects can ripple to other coworkers. After all, the individual is not suddenly a bad employee; they are just stuck in a bad place. Providing real help will be reciprocated with real gratitude, and you won't lose a valuable resource, you'll gain a stronger leader. Educate yourself so the conversation is simpler.
Personally, I am learning there are better ways to "handle" things so that I thrive rather than survive. I am learning what caused me to take the long, slow, painful slide and how to recognize the signs earlier and explain them to myself simply. Because, I now know that the simpler I can explain it, the better I understand it. I am an attorney, a professional, a native New Yorker, a musician, a mother, a wife, a trusted advisor, and a leader, and if I can navigate all of that, I can navigate this too. The seas will never be calm for anyone all the time; education and empathy will better equip us for knowing how to navigate them when things get choppy so we can avoid getting lost at sea.