In a mental health liminal zone.
I suspect it can sometimes be difficult to realise that you might have a mental health problem.
If you’d asked me, over the last few years, whether I suffered from anxiety or depression I would have said no. But I’m starting to think again.
That is, while I would have recognised that I’m anxious in lots of scenarios, I’ve essentially worked around those situations such that I can function outwardly normally. I don’t have a diagnosis and haven’t even felt the need to see a doctor (although that said … booking appointments is something which makes me anxious so Doctor, Dentist and Optician appointments are all now years overdue).
I would have admitted to some downsides, but could usually cast them aside with a joke. There was nothing really disrupting my life or causing much distress to the people around me. The crippling fears that acute anxiety induces in its sufferers was something I am very grateful not to experience. I can bring myself to make phone calls — after suitable preparation — if the situation demands it. I can, occasionally, start conversations with people and in some rare cases even something approximating social chit-chat. I can go on trips with only a mediocre amount of planning in terms of exactly how to get there, where to park, and lots of contingency planning.
So, since there has never been anything important that I just couldn’t do at a push, I would have said that no, I don’t have “real” anxiety.
But recently a situation has come along which is starting to make me take it more seriously. Perhaps I do have some kind of more serious, low-level, chronic anxiety. While I say “recently” that in itself is me deflecting and downplaying the situation. It’s an avoidance tactic and I’m using it even while writing about it! If I can talk about something in an offhand way, maybe it’s not serious and maybe I don’t have to deal.
It’s a slightly weird and subtle situation, so takes some explaining.
The company I work for very generously offers sabbaticals to its staff. After five years of employment you can block-book six weeks off. Five years after you’ve take one sabbatical you’re allowed another. It’s pretty amazing. Naturally almost everyone starts planning theirs at around the four-year mark, and with six months to go before their anniversary (earliest opportunity) they book it. It’s the rational thing to do, possibly factoring in a little delay to take it during the summer.
At the time of writing my sabbatical is eighteen months ‘overdue’, still unplanned and unbooked.
(writing this blog has taken over eight weeks, so it’s now closer to twenty one months)
(There, see? “Recently” = “a two year delay”).
Occasionally someone will say “you’ve got a sabbatical, sometime, haven’t you?” and I’ll smile and demure and mutter something about taking it “at some point”. It’s much easier than actually talking or thinking about it.
Thinking about booking some time off work actually frightens and upsets me.
Your first assumption is probably that it’s the idea of not being at work that’s concerning. But that’s not the case at all. It’s the having to think about it. Having to decide what to do. Then to plan that. Then to fit that in around family and work.
There are several things going on, here. Some are to do with planning and thinking through decisions. Those are things I do all day every day as an integral part of my job and being a parent, and somehow those important decisions are fine. But this extraneous stuff? Not so much.
My usual excuse is that I don’t have time to think about it, and there’s surely some truth in that. But it occurs to me as I’m sitting here that I have time to spend several evenings writing a blog about it instead!
It’s also not that I have nothing I’d like to do with the time — far from it, I could easily fill a dozen sabbaticals with projects and things I want to learn. But just choosing what to do feels too exhausting. I keep feeling like if I can just get enough sleep, if I can just feel awake enough then I can think about it, weigh up the options and decide. It feels like an enormous chore I just need to knuckle down and resignedly get on with. Which project should I spend some time on? I don’t know! Just let me sleep on it.
Another important component is the mental picture of myself in that situation. I suspect it’s normal to picture yourself relaxing, having fun, feeling rested, etc. And yet, when I look forward I see myself in the last few days having achieved nothing, feeling exhausted and planning to go back to work with the resignation of knowing that I’ve wasted the time and opportunity. If I can put off planning it, maybe I can delay that disappointment?
I suspect that this is not normal.
That is, the feeling is probably pretty common, but when it lasts for years?
I’ve realised that something very similar applies to holidays. I recently saw some pictures of a friend who’d gone out to Bali. It was great to see them enjoying the beaches and glorious sunshine, relaxing with drinks and balmy evenings on the sand by the ocean. I genuinely enjoy seeing pictures and hearing about other people’s holidays. It makes me feel good to see the people around me excited and happy.
But thinking about the many “jealous!” type comments left underneath that post led me to realise that I wasn’t even slightly jealous. When it comes to thinking about going away myself, there’s nothing I can see but organising the logistics. The picture in my head is of me exhaustedly trying to find somewhere to eat in an unfamiliar town.
Intellectually I think I understand that there could be fun and relaxation, or excitement and productivity … but I don’t feel it. Those seem like things that happen to other people.
This waffle needs some kind of conclusion, but I’m not sure there is one. What am I after in writing this? What would make this blog post a success?
I guess that most important to me is if I can spread a small amount of understanding. If you feel like this, you’re not alone! And if there’s someone near you who seems to be anxious or depressed, maybe their feelings are similar in some ways?
And what am I going to do about booking the sabbatical? Probably fall back on my tried-and-tested coping mechanism: treat it as a failure before it’s even happened and move on. I suspect I’ll book it in resignation that I’ll waste the opportunity and spend the time leading up to it comforting myself with the thought that I might get another one if I’m still here in six years time and be able to use that one properly.