Mr YFG did a post a while ago about depression and working in finance. I thought I would tell my own story, of living with anxiety and doing my job.
As Mr YFG has already said, I’m a corporate lawyer in the City of London. I do lawyer-y things like living on caffeine, working overnight and at weekends and sometimes sleep at my desk. I rarely see Mr YFG before 8pm on a good day and on a bad day I crawl home well after midnight.
I do this for two reasons: first, money and, second, to help others. My job is about advising in difficult scenarios, solving problems and completing complex tasks. My clients rely on me to help them and I find it very rewarding to be able to provide the answer.
Unfortunately I don’t have answers for myself and I have a very poor handle on my own problems, including my own anxiety surrounding my job.
What is anxiety?
We could do a whole article on this, but I ain’t going to do that. I was diagnosed with an anxiety and panic disorder around 5 years ago, but in retrospect I’ve had the symptoms since childhood. I’m going to talk about anxiety in the way that it manifests for me, rather than generalise.
Some people think anxiety is a form of worrying, but it’s not that simple. When I am mentally healthy I worry about things actually going on in my life and my friends’ lives – illness, job loss etc.
Anxious me generally worries about those things as well as things that will never happen or are incredibly unlikely. Your anxious brain literally tells you stories of what woe might befall you next. It makes life pretty difficult as some of the stories are terrifying.
Let me give you an example. I’m standing at a train station.
Regular me: I’ll stand where I know the doors open and a reasonable step away from the edge cause that’s sensible.
Anxious me: I have to stand far enough away from the edge because it’s windy today and the next gust of wind might blow me onto the tracks and I’ll be killed and what if I survive and am stuck in my paralysed body but I can’t go too far back because I might miss getting on the packed train and if I miss it then I will be late for work and someone could be watching and I risk losing my job…..
You can see how things escalate from a simple decision. Many people with severe anxiety find it very difficult to make decisions, because any alternative choice ends in disaster in their brain.
Anxiety and my job
Unfortunately, I’m in an industry which encourages and almost idolises anxious people. Lawyers are paid worriers. We are paid to worry about what could possibly happen in the future (even if unlikely) and to guard against that now.
If an email comes in I look for clues to confirm what (if anything) I’ve done wrong to deserve this email. Either it could be new work coming in, questions or mark-ups of my work (in my mind, criticism of my work or identifying mistakes I’ve made). Some emails make my heart drop out of my stomach. Once something comes in, it gets scanned and I rack my brains to try and work out where I’ve slipped up and where the risk is.
Simple tasks like document storage are difficult if you’re convinced your filing cabinet is going to spontaneously combust at any moment.
Sending an e-mail is awfully complex when you can’t reassure yourself enough that the e-mail address is correct (and the consequences of sending it to the wrong person are catastrophic for you). On a bad day I can sit for half an hour with my finger over the send button, actually paralysed with fear. You can imagine what this does for my productivity and my mental wellbeing.
Leaving the office becomes less possible when you can’t leave your desk for fear of what might go wrong overnight, and even if I do I’m unable to sleep. On the off chance I get some rest I dream about the world falling around my ears and wake up in floods of panic.
Productive (natural) worrying and reasonable forward-planning are completely different to unhealthy anxiety. Anxiety can absorb and be all-consuming, and it’s important to learn the difference and how it feels for you.
Mental illness is a chronic illness just like any other – you may relapse now and again, and you need to act to avoid exacerbating or triggering it. If you had a bad back you wouldn’t sign up for gymnastics. I manage my illness (mostly successfully) to avoid relapse, but it has happened.
What happens if you relapse?
I have had to take time off work on three separate occasions when my mental health has hit rock bottom.
A mental break, for me, is terrifying. There’s no one thing that triggers it, I generally just get more and more unwell and start slipping over time until I crack.
The first time it happened I lost my memory. I could not remember my password for my work computer and I broke down. I had not slept or eaten in three days and was unable to remember getting to work. I was sent to a psychiatrist and left the building and didn’t go back for three months. Those three months were a dark period of my life and I have little memory of them as I was medicated heavily. At the worst of my illness, I hallucinated that I was being followed by a helicopter (thanks Mr YFG for the cover photo) and I destroyed electronic devices I owned as I thought they were listening. I could not leave the house and pulled out my own hair and eyelashes in a nervous fit. I was unable to sleep without antipsychotic medication and sedatives – I was severely unwell.
That was about 5 years ago and I’ve had two more breaks since then. I’ve been medicated since.
I fluctuate between bad and good days. On a good day, I am my regular self, my true self. On a bad day, I can end up sobbing in bed, unable to get up and shower or do simple tasks like making a cup of tea. I will be unable to talk to Mr YFG or leave the house until I’ve dragged myself out of my episode.
So how do you cope?
Not going to lie, it’s difficult. Being in an environment which is pretty much the worst place to be for anxiety (possibly second to emergency services like paramedics!) makes it harder.
As a lawyer, you are taught that mistakes are the worst thing you can do. People pay The Firm money for you to provide a stellar service, and cocking up is just not acceptable. Once you’re in practice for a few years you learn that everyone makes mistakes and there is virtually nothing that can’t be fixed, even the most monumental shitstorms can be resolved.
Therapy (years of it) has helped me try and overcome my fears about making mistakes at work, but I still have to challenge myself every day. I do not deal well with making mistakes (or more commonly the impression or thought that I may have made one).
What has helped is, among other things, trying to register things in a detached way. Rather than “I have found a mistake in my work, I’m an idiot I should be ashamed of myself” it’s “someone has marked up a mistake in my work.” – by stating the actual facts of the situation I.e. what has actually happened you can somewhat calm yourself. It is anxious me who carried on the thread of thought into the abyss.
And thoughts are just that: they pop up in your mind and they aren’t necessarily facts. Just because I’ve thought of a problem does not make that problem materialise. Thoughts are literally figments of your imagination and you can choose to act on them or to acknowledge and then ignore them. Learning this over time has been powerful for me.
Mr YFG has already posted about this, but gratitude is a powerful thing. Not that I’m ungrateful for anything, I just rarely take time out to specifically appreciate good things. For example:
- I’m employed
- In healthy and able-bodied
- I’m in a happy stable relationship
- I own my own home
- My job pays very well. It allows me to save and live comfortably
- I have some degree of flexibility in my hours (I stay late so I might come in a bit later the next day- granted I work until 10-11pm at night and come in half an hour later)
- I can work from home once a week and have decent amounts of holiday days stored up.
- The Firm offers taxis home late at night, free meals when working late and a whole raft of specialist support.
In return, I give my blood, sweat and tears, but I am grateful to be in the position I am in. When I am anxious and down and convinced I am worthless I remind myself of what I have and I get a little warm feeling in my stomach.
A support network
Mr YFG is instrumental in keeping me on the path of sanity. Part of his job is to talk me down and to help me through the tough times. Not just the 20-hour shifts and the physical toll, but the panic attacks, the sobbing in the corner over the day’s events.
I don’t need my friends to monitor me, I just need them to understand if I have to go off the radar and they need to leave me be. Being respectful and accepting of someone’s illness and their limitations is essential (even if you don’t understand it). I’m lucky I have friends who are like that.
One of my anxiety’s favourite stories is the one where I lose my job and have no money and lose my home and Mr YFG.
Saving money not only allows a financial buffer but also a mental one. I know I will be able to leave my job at some point for one where I can maybe improve the odds of being mentally healthy. Having that flexibility and the FI goal helps me align what I want out of my life and focus my efforts.
How do you cope?
I’m always interested to hear how others cope with stressful periods in their life or with illness. I hope that by sharing my own story others may notice their own habits or may feel able to share their own.