My Own Worst Enemy is the Heckler in My Mind

Samantha in front of the Mixpanel logo.

Describe your day-to-day experience of managing a mental illness at work.

I have a long history with depression and anxiety, with many ups and downs throughout. Some days are better than others, but even on the best day my mental illness informs my actions and decisions. It’s like a voice in the back of my head, a heckler in the crowd telling me I’m not good enough, smart enough, productive enough.

Hell, right now the heckler is telling me:

You have no business thinking you have something useful to contribute to this project. You’re average, you’re boring, you’re not a good writer.

I try to push through, get out of bed in the morning, catch the bus, go to work, write the article, do the work. Some days, just moving is like breathing underwater. Some days I’m fine. But sometimes I lose the fight and have to stay home.

Once I’ve reached the decision to stay home, the heckler speaks up again:

You can’t call in sick, you’re not really sick. You’re just lazy and pathetic. They’ll fire you if they find out you’re lying.

But I am sick. This has been one of the hardest things for me to learn. Mental illness is an illness like a cold is an illness. It may not be contagious and it may be invisible most of the time, but it’s still an illness that needs to be treated with rest and medication.

What strategies do you use to manage your mental illness during the workday?

If I am working on a bad mental health day, there are a variety of ways I can manage my health while still being productive.

  1. Music is a must. Every morning I put my music library on shuffle and listen throughout my commute and workday. It’s a lot harder to hear the heckler when I’m listening to something that makes me happy. Music helps me focus on my work and connect with my feelings in a healthy way.
  2. Space to myself. If I am having a particularly challenging day, I will find a comfortable, quiet place to sit by myself, preferably with natural light. This helps me feel more relaxed; with fewer external distractions I feel more rested and less easily overwhelmed.
  3. Pacing myself and knowing my limits. When I’m feeling up to it, I may spend most of my day on a single large project at work. To break up the day into manageable chunks, I always make time to read an article or watch a funny video on YouTube. If I’m having a bad mental health day, it’s easier to work on several lighter projects. When I feel stressed or overwhelmed, I take a break or walk around the block to get out of a negative headspace.

What has been your experience with disclosing your mental illness at work?

Until recently, I chose not to disclose my mental illness to professional contacts (especially managers) for fear of being judged. Publishing this article is a big step for me in becoming more comfortable sharing my disability with others.

I feared that if I disclosed I would be treated like a child — an experience I had throughout school — or simply fired. One of the heckler’s constant refrains is that if people knew what I was really like inside, they would think I was crazy, incapable, weak, unproductive, and more.

At my last job, when I disclosed my mental illness to my manager after taking a couple of sick days, she started treating me differently — and not in a good way. My requests to take sick days or to work from home were met with disdain and eye rolls. I was talked down to and berated in front of my coworkers when I didn’t meet unspoken expectations.

I am happy to say that I have had a different experience with my current company. When I disclosed my mental illness to my manager a couple of months after starting, he responded with sympathy and understanding. He even encouraged me to use sick time for bad mental health days instead of wasting vacation time. He recognizes that mental illness is an illness and treats it as such. I am grateful to have the opportunity to work from home or take a sick day when I know that I will be unable to be productive in the workplace.

In an ideal world, anyone would be able to disclose a disability or illness when starting a new job in order to set and manage expectations. And in an ideal world, that conversation would always be met with understanding. This isn’t always the case today, but as we work to curb the social stigma of disability, hopefully one day it will be.

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Samantha Huntington is a technical writer at Mixpanel in San Francisco. She has struggled with debilitating anxiety and depression since childhood. She is happy to say that with therapy and medication, she is feeling better than ever before. When not at work, she can be found binge-watching TV with her cat or out at a concert with friends.

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