Calling in Sick to Save Our Lives

If we don’t give ourselves permission, no one else will

I live in the United States. Here, people try not to miss work. It’s somewhat shameful to do so. (I know this is true in other countries, and also can be true for individuals in any country.)

Last week I was really stressed out about a few things and could not sleep. Every moment that I was awake I was trying to catch up on all the tasks I needed to do for my home and work life, but I was inefficient and could not focus. I was dropping things, breaking things by accident, and my reaction time had shortened to a hair’s width. At work the tasks just kept getting piled on. I wanted to snap at everyone and was bursting into tears and having to suppress them a dozen times a day. I had no peace of mind; literally every second I was obsessing about all the things I was behind on and panicking that I would lose my job or go completely crazy and try to kill myself. I knew that I just needed rest and a break from my heavy responsibilities for a short period, like two or three days. The way I thought about it was that my brain, like a quadricep, was injured and needed to recover before I could be put back into the game. If I were a basketball player this would be a standard response. But being mentally ill or temporarily incapacitated due to stress is not viewed the same as a physical injury or illness like cancer, even though stress and mental illness can kill.

I used to be very bad at advocating for myself effectively or at all. I couldn’t communicate my needs because I was ashamed of having needs. So I tried to kill myself a bunch of times. Every time I was put in the psych ward, I felt better, because people there understood that I was not a robot and could not just keep on meeting other people’s demands without having any of my needs met. They told me that killing myself was not an effective way to meet my needs — haha. But whenever I got released I still couldn’t be free of the peer pressure to pretend I was tough and could meet the expectations that society makes upon the uber-functional. I was in that class of workers and friends — people who work 10-hour days and then go to the gym and sleep only six hours a night and go hiking on the weekend and on trips to Santa Barbara, and never seem to be worse for the wear. Not only are they my friends from childhood and thus my best and oldest friends, but they are interested in the same issues, the same hobbies, share my beliefs, and ambitions. But I do not have their constitutions. They can stay up all night and be tired, but rational the next day. I cannot stay up all night without becoming unbalanced for at least five days and feeling a constant, draining, painful nervous exhaustion that steals all of my concentration.

The first time I ever felt that it was not shameful for me to have needs that were different from these peers (and which conflicted with the work norms of the U.S.) was when I watched “Amy,” the documentary on Amy Winehouse. This is truly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. It is like visiting the rotting interior of a beautiful, sick person and spending two hours there, watching her body die and hearing how people outside react to her. But even though I cried it was a good kind of crying.

We see from that movie that although Amy made a lot of poor choices and her personality and addiction were challenging to deal with, she had so much love and did not try to hurt people, she tried to hurt herself. She cooked for her friends, doted on her boyfriend Blake, shared her wealth with family, did not consider herself above the average pub-goer even though her talent made her a celebrity. She was willing to admit to being mentally ill and talk about it in such an honest way. And what she needed was for the people on her team to understand that she had — HAD — to call in sick from work.

When her best friend and manager, discovering that she had been passed out alone in her house after falling down the stairs, insisted that she go to rehab (like any good friend or manager would), her father said no (n0, no). And we see that when she went, later, for her heroin and cocaine addiction, to rehab, her boyfriend pulled them out of the rehab after two days so he could get high again in London (where he taught Amy to mutilate herself). When they broke up, her father took her to an island to get her off drugs, but then she drank fifty cocktails a day, and, she continued to vomit up her food, because she had been bulimic since she was fifteen. She told her mother she was bulimic as a teen, and the mother did nothing. Interviewed about Amy’s stay on the island, her father said she was doing well and had completely quit drugs, even though her table had 32 empty cocktail glasses on it.

No one is perfect, and I don’t want to vilify this poor family. They surely didn’t mean to harm their daughter. But it is clear that the pressure on Amy — as on all workers and especially rock stars — to keep going, instead of sitting out a few games, was immense.

People would never say to a cancer patient, “Just get out of your wheelchair and work a few weeks for the postal service. We really need you and it shouldn’t do you any harm.” But saying this to an addict, or someone with a severe mental illness, is like digging their grave. The stigma that surrounds addiction and mental illness is very likely to prevent the suffering person from saying, “I can’t do another all-nighter in the maternity ward — I am so exhausted this week from all-nighters that I can’t stop craving meth. If I do meth again I will not be of any use to you; I will lose everything and probably wind up in jail or dead.” A person with PTSD is not going to say, “the topic of this week’s training is triggering memories of being burned with cigarette butts while I was strapped to a chair in eighth grade by my uncle, and I haven’t been able to sleep for a week. Could I please switch with Cindy (so I don’t have to keep visiting the cliff at the edge of town and calculating how long it would take for me to perish if I drove off it)?” The recovered alcoholic is not going to say, “this client keeps taking me out to dinner and plying me with shots, could you put another sales rep on his account so that I don’t relapse?”

But if any of the consequences occurred — addiction relapse, suicide — and the bosses or family members or friends were made aware that it was those mundane pressures (mundane to them, because they don’t suffer from the same vulnerability) that destroyed their employee, friend, or relative, they would throw up their hands and say, “But it wasn’t important! How could he/she have killed her/himself over something so small!? Why didn’t he/she tell me it was an issue? I would have understood.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

I had to call in sick this week and miss two meetings. I was panicking and actually cried a few times in fear that I would get in a huge amount of trouble. I had to explain as convincingly as possible that I was missing work because I was truly unwell and that it would not be in the best interest of my employer for me to avoid resting. I had to tell myself over and over that it was better to meet my needs than to kill myself in shame. I had to think about Amy Winehouse and remember how everyone in the movie — in the world — threw up their hands and cried out that she didn’t have to die, that she shouldn’t have kept performing in such a fragile state, that she needed help. But too few people gave her that impression when she was still alive.