Launching Adventures in Anxiety

It was a cold January morning. I was counting down the hours until lunch but I could barely choke down my sandwich once it was in my hands. My palms started clamming up and my heart was racing. Please, not today, I said to myself. I don’t want a panic attack today. Today I want to be strong.

I walked out of the building and made my way across the courtyard. I kept thinking about how many times I had made that walk without worrying about what I was about to say — was about to reveal, really. What was I thinking? Had I made the wrong decision?

The room started to fill up for the discussion. I slid into the high chair, clutching the microphone in my left hand, wiping my sweaty right palm on my skirt. The moderator kicked off the panel and asked each of us to introduce ourselves.

Big breath. “Hi, I’m Sarah. I’ve worked at The Company for 11 years. And I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”

One in four adults in America will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives. We are your colleagues, your friends, your family, your neighbors.

I am one of them.

Some people are born to advocate. I’m not one of those people. Sure, I’ll speak out about causes that matter to me, but I prefer to keep the focus on the cause, not on me.

Yet here I am.

I was first diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in April 2014. I had struggled with my health for months, waking up each day exhausted, confused, and fearing that something was really really wrong with me. Once I was diagnosed and I started to understand more about the condition, it was overwhelming, both personally and professionally.

The first phase of dealing with GAD was simply finding my way back to normal — normal work, normal sleep, normal social interactions, normal health. The funny thing is that I’ve never gone back to how it was because I wasn’t healthy. I’ve spent the past four and half years turning my life upside-down to find the new normal.

I had to rid myself of unhealthy behaviors and of toxic relationships. I had to put more attention into my physical health (eating, sleeping, and exercise). I spent an incredible amount of time in therapy, both the talk-variety and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I read everything I could get my hands on to better understand what was happening and what was ahead.

I also made the difficult decision to use medication. It was not something I wanted or preferred — in fact, at the time I berated myself for being so weak that I’d have to resort to taking pills. But when you’re unable to function the decision is clear. It took more than a year and about twenty different sets of medication before my doctor and I found something that worked. I do not miss going through those withdrawals; that was hell on earth.

But what remained was work, both a source of joy and pride, as well as stress and unhappiness. I am very passionate about working with leaders to solve challenging organizational problems. And I couldn’t keep on at my current pace and maintain my health. This is what drove my decision to switch to working 80% (four days a week instead of five).

Telling my then-manager about my mental illness was the most terrifying work conversation I’ve ever had (and since I’ve changed managers since then, I’ve “had the opportunity” to have the conversation twice more… and it doesn’t feel any better the second or third times…). He responded in a better way than I could have possibly imagined!

You know what happened? Nothing. I was paralyzed with fear that speaking out would pigeonhole me and that my opportunities at The Company would dry up. But they didn’t — not even when I told teammates and, occasionally, some clients. Instead people were supportive or curious or wanted to know how they could support me.

How was it possible, I thought, that we weren’t talking about what I was going through? How is it that so many of us struggle with mental illness yet it had never come up in a professional context?

Something had to change.

My mental illness is not a secret, but I didn’t know how open I wanted to be about it. However, as time went on and I learned to better manage GAD I realized that there could be an opportunity here. If no one was talking about it, how would it get better? How could I contribute to a broader and deeper understanding in the Company about what it meant to be a great leader who also struggled with mental illness?

I leaped into the unknown when I volunteered for that panel discussion and was shocked by what I heard afterwards. “I had no idea,” people said to me. “You seem so… normal.” “Thank you for sharing this — I struggle too.” There was something there — I could feel it. That’s when Anxiety @ The Company — my internal column about what it’s like to have GAD and work at The Company — was born.

I poured myself into my weekly posts, sharing stories and answering common questions. I wanted to reach other people like me who felt like they were hiding a part of themselves to show them that yes, it is possible to be who you are without repercussions. But just as much I was reaching out to the majority of the workplace, people who didn’t have mental illness but were part of a vital support system for the rest of us. From how to interact with family to what to do when someone you love is having a panic attack, I’ve been covering as much ground as I can for the past seven months.

I’ve done a lot of things at The Company in 12 years. This is the accomplishment I’m most proud of. It didn’t create any revenue. It didn’t help a leader turn an organization around or show up better. It didn’t launch a program. But it helped me connect to my community, reduce the stigma around mental illness, and remind that me I need to live out my be bold value every single day.

And now I’m taking that show on the road with my new blog series, Adventures in Anxiety. This series of posts isn’t just for people like me who struggle with mental health, but for anyone who loves or cares for someone like me, or just wants to be a more-informed, better-prepared ally. No topic is off-limits here. I’ll write about working with doctors and therapists, the struggles related to medication, how to ask friends and family and coworkers for support, and practical things that helped me through the toughest times.

One in four adults in America will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives. We are your colleagues, your friends, your family, your neighbors.

I am one of them. And I’m ready to talk to you about it.

xo, Sarah