Holding down a job is extremely difficult when you’re struggling with mental health. It was my third month at the new job and I was hiding in the bathroom.
I had been hired to work as a theatre producer by a mid-level company. Previously my only other experience working as a producer had been putting on shows performed by my friends. The shows were always small time productions, but I had developed a knack for getting us press from larger media institutions and radio. On paper my resume seemed impressive enough and the company decided to take a risk by hiring someone young and enthusiastic. It was my first office job, my first actual position outside of the service industry, and an extremely warm work environment. Despite all this I was struggling. The job required attention to detail and organization. It required meeting deadlines and proofreading. It required a hell of a lot more than the stuff I had been doing with my friends and quickly I found myself overwhelmed. After my first week my anxiety got bad. By a month in I was in a full-blown depressive episode and things were getting worse.
I was hiding in the bathroom because earlier that day the director for one of our plays had told me I was doing a bad job. She said that I hadn’t been promoting the show properly and that it seemed like I didn’t care. She was pissed. I had a lot of respect for the director’s work and was generally really excited about her play. When I tried to defend myself, the director wasn’t hearing it. She said I had better shape up or she’d speak with my bosses.
What I wanted to tell the director was that every night since I took on the job I went home and stared at the ceiling. I lay on my bed barely able to do anything but scroll through my phone. I was overwhelmingly convinced that everyone I knew hated me. I was convinced I was letting people down. I wanted to explain to the director that I really liked her work. I had been trying to do a good job but I didn’t know how. I wanted to tell her that she was great at making theatre and if she was mad at me I got it. I had been mad at me for months. But of course I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything. I let the director think I didn’t care because it was easier than admitting that I was depressed.
According to statistics provided by CAMH in any given year 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem. That means that at your place of work there are probably multiple people who are having difficulties beyond the day to day inconveniences any job. As I can attest to, talking about these things can be extremely difficult. Recently in attempt to tackle this issue I asked friends about their own struggles with mental health in the workplace. You can read their responses below.
I feel that my life has been largely defined by my struggle with mental health. I was very emotional and often violent as a kid. I remember being vocally insecure about my gender. I remember feeling alien among my peers. All through elementary school I was sitting with a child therapist instead of sitting in class. An hour every other day. There were therapists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists. It felt like I had a sports team’s worth of psych people on my case. It was like there was an ugly and corrosive rage-demon inside of me. A wrong human in the wrong body, trapped in a life I couldn’t change. Antisocial behaviour turned into persistent depression as I got older, which I guess is an improvement in a way, but of course is still difficult.
I continue to struggle with mental health issues. It makes work hard. When looking for work, you’re supposed to appear to be perfect at all times. Under no circumstances can you walk in the door carrying any signs of sickness, because sick people are a liability. I shake visibly from anxiety during interviews. I’m so good at putting my foot in my mouth that I could call it a superpower. One time, an interview I had ended on the spot when I told the guy I couldn’t work on Tuesdays because I had therapy.
Low wages and precarious work make self-care and mental health management really tricky. Medications can be expensive. Going to therapy means ponying up a couple hundred bucks a week. That’s a lot. Therapy grounds me, it’s where I develop my coping tools and focus my energy for the coming week. When you’re managing these conditions and making twelve bucks an hour it’s really hard.
I was recently let go from my job. I had been there since the place opened about a year and a half ago. I was washing dishes. I had had a couple incidents at work relating to stress and mental illness. There were panic attacks and I had to take some days off. Because of that I found it necessary to open up as much as possible to the management about my struggles. The people I worked for at first were kind, understanding, and flexible. I was feeling pretty safe at the job and talking about maybe moving to front of house or into the kitchen proper.
Around the beginning of the year there’s a change in management; first a new chef and then a new general manager a few months later. I struggle with this but still keep a policy of openness with regards to my mental illness. I genuinely care about this business and the people I work with. I want to be helpful and do well but sometimes my brain makes that really difficult. The new chef and GM seem amenable, but when I come out as trans my life gets more challenging. I’m a full-timer but there is a discussion about reducing my hours to allow more room for self-care. Everything seems fine, and I think it’s honestly one of the most progressive and friendly hospitality environments I’ve worked in.
It’s June and I’m working much less than I would like to. I have a particularly bad run of days at the end of the month and on the Sunday of the Pride March I am filled with the utter certainty that I am no longer welcome in the universe. In order to make things right I decided I must find a way to end my life. This thought does not stop while I’m on my way to work or during my shift. I inform a co-worker and sit in the washroom for about fifteen minutes. I return to work for a short while before realizing that I have to go to the hospital or I’m going to do something really, really, stupid. I tell the GM I have to go, attempt to explain what’s happening, then enter full-blind panic mode. I apologize and leave straight to Toronto Western’s emergency room. I am in contact with my therapist as soon as I am able to reach them. They assure me I’ve done the right thing.
The next day I come into work an hour before my scheduled shift to speak with the GM. I show them my hospital discharge papers and apologize for putting them in such a tough spot. I tell them that I understand if there will be repercussions. That night I work hard. I try and demonstrate that I’m still capable of working. I am nervous as shit. I can’t afford to be unemployed for even two weeks. I worry about what’s coming, but I know that they can’t fire me for having a medical emergency.
Later I am fired for having a medical emergency. Chef says he sort of understands what I’m going through, but they need somebody who’s going to be stable and reliable. I say that I’ve been working there longer than he has. The GM tells me they want me to have time open to get the proper help I need. I tell GM that I already have help. I say that help costs money. I say this job pays for that help. My knees are quaking at this point. I’m told that my needs are short-term needs and the restaurant’s needs are long-term needs. I’m told this is a business.
I ask them to give me two weeks to prove to them that I am valuable. I literally beg for my crappy minimum-wage job. They say that – if I want – I can work the rest of the weekend and finish on my own terms. I agree. Before I get up from the table, I ask them directly if they are letting me go because of what happened on Sunday. They say yes. Absorbing that I go have a cigarette out front, get a couple numbers from the staff, then grab my shit and leave.
I’m not sure how I would have liked them to handle it. I think I would have liked it if the GM wasn’t using weird patronizing logic to justify firing me. I think it would have been nice if they hadn’t hid behind this is a small business as an excuse to hurt someone who was already hurting. I would have liked it if they hadn’t behaved as if they were doing me a favor. I would have liked it if we could have had an actual conversation.
I feel this intense pressure to pretend like I’m still progressing the way an intelligent, independent person ought to, but I’m not. Or I haven’t been. Right now I struggle with leaving the house on my own, seeing friends, handling crowded indoor places… The list goes on. With the exception of occasional freelance work, I’ve been unemployed for roughly 11 months.
Last year I signed up for a five-day bartending course, eager to add some certifications to my resume and get a decent paying job. On the last day we’d have to make three drinks in five minutes to pass the course. If you didn’t pass, no worries, you could retake the test the following week. But I did worry. Thursday night I was in an unshakable, gut-wrenching panic. I couldn’t attend class on Friday morning. I stayed home, and I overdosed on my antidepressants. I didn’t really think of it as a suicide attempt. I just wanted to kill the feeling of wanting to die. I was exhausted from having to smile while my inner voice continued to let out these blood-curdling screams that only I could hear. I admitted myself to the hospital that afternoon. A few weeks later I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which explained a lot but was definitely a mind-fuck in of itself. I’d had agoraphobic tendencies before as a result of lifelong depression and anxiety, but after that episode it began to consume my life. I was so depressed that I’d only leave the bed if I could no longer hold my bloated, aching bladder, or if my mouth was so dry from dehydration that my lips would split and crack. I felt ashamed, like a dirty rat when leaving the room. I could barely manage eye contact or conversation with my roommates and friends, and would often try to avoid it all together. I’d go days without bathing or fresh air.
I was still expected to get a job throughout all of this. I knew I wasn’t ready yet but the pressure from my parents – who live abroad and have been helping me make rent – was incessant. I genuinely thought things were looking up when last June when I nailed an interview and got hired on the spot. Everyone at work loved me and I even scored a promotion within my first nine days. I was learning the skills I’d been introduced to in therapy so I naively stopped seeing my counsellor. I began to deteriorate again when I realised my new dream job was actually a thinly veiled pyramid scheme with misogynist sadists at the helm, and it only paid commission. The morning pep talks began to feel like verbal abuse. After six weeks I could feel myself starting to burn out, hard. The days were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. I lasted about another month and then resigned. It wasn’t long until I was a reclusive, self-loathing hermit again. I made efforts to find another job but I couldn’t shut the demons out enough to make it to an interview. My partner (who has literally kept me alive for the past two years) joined me one day to hand out resumes, and it was excruciating. I just wanted to sob and hide or vomit. I’d go to the ER when I didn’t feel safe or when things got intense.
I wish people knew how physical, how all consuming and debilitating, the effects of mental illness can be. It takes tremendous courage and energy to accomplish seemingly simple tasks, but sometimes the little things are actually milestone achievements. I have a family doctor now whom I see regularly and I’m on new medication that’s making a huge difference. I’m taking employment on in baby steps with the help of amazing friends who’ve helped me land small gigs and who are aware of my condition. I’m not where I thought I’d be at 25, but fuck it. It feels damn good to finally feel hopeful about the future.
Teachers noticed early that I got bored easily and had trouble paying attention. The first time they brought it up was in grade two. I was tested for academic enrichment classes thinking that might be a solution. I was considered “bright” and gifted classes gave me room to be creative, but I didn’t have the structure I needed. I couldn’t be left alone to do work because it wouldn’t get done. Everyone kept saying if she just applied herself she could do anything, but I didn’t know how to motivate myself. I learned early that it was my fault I wasn’t reaching my potential. It’s a lot of pressure on a kid to think that way – to be told you can do anything but not know how to reach that potential. That idea sits over you. It reminds you how you’ve always failed at things and you learn to not expect better from yourself because you will probably continue to fail at things. Soon failure felt more comfortable than trying to break through the difficulty – but it away at my self-esteem.
Three years ago, I started my masters. Two months in I already recognized I was having issues. I loved my classes but the reading-load was a struggle. I’d read all the material and seriously prepared, but I’d get to class and suddenly not be able to decipher my notes. Leading a seminar class was a meandering mess because I had trouble organizing material. And I’d see the look on people’s faces – so confused because this person they thought was smart is suddenly not making sense. I’d stay up all night to write a 500 word paper. I’d sit at my desk for hours and just keep losing my train of thought. The more I stress I felt, the worse my memory became. I worked all the time but struggled to finish assignments. It made me feel dumb and I felt unreliable since I’d constantly forget regular things like my keys and have to double back and then be late all the time. It made me feel unworthy of the friendship or attention of the people I admired because why would anyone value a person like that? And it made me incredibly indecisive, because it’s really hard to set goals, and plan life when you can’t trust yourself to deliver. When I was younger, pulling all-nighters was often the only way I got work done. But turning 30, the impact on my body and brain was too much. If I had to describe my approach then, I’d say it feels like trying to drive with the parking brake on. Or worse. It feels like one foot is pressing the gas while the other foot is on the break, but you keep going cause you can’t just stop and the next thing you know you’re out of gas.
Despite my issues I was invested in my degree. I knew it was what I wanted to be doing. I realized then that I needed help. I started seeing a counselor through counseling and disabilities services at the university. It took a while to get in after the intake but I started going. It was scary because I was positive they were going to tell me I was broken. After a while of working on the negative thinking patterns I’d developed like devaluing my successes or treating every mistake like a personality flaw, he asked if anyone had ever suggested I might have ADHD. I laughed in his face. I was “bright” remember? There was so much I didn’t understand about ADHD. I really had no idea it could encapsulate my symptoms. My counselor was the reason I got tested and he was wonderful the whole time.
The big thing you read about getting an ADHD diagnosis, is that the confirmation of the experience can help with a lot of the self-doubt that builds up. Like when they told me I read 30% slower than my masters level peers, that explained for the first time why I’d been struggling with the reading load. But I definitely didn’t feel the immediate relief some people talk about. It was a process. Learning about the way my brain works, meant I could try and develop some of the skills that I hadn’t developed as well or build strategies to work around my weaknesses. It’s not at all suddenly different but made it more possible to have empathy for myself. That was a big change. I still wonder which parts will always be this way but in general it’s gotten better. The truth is there are lots of resources out there – just don’t stop looking because the first one you find stinks.
* Name Changed
These responses have been edited for length.
Artwork/Images by Siobhan d’Irelande