Becky was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder one year after graduating University. But addressing the stigma helped her flourish in a challenging career and reclaim her confidence once and for all.
I had rehearsed my reasons for staying at home while studying Drama & Performance at the University of Worcester: “to save money, to continue hobbies I had outside of University, and to stay close to my family”. But the truth was, albeit unknown to me at the time, I had Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and the prospect of leaving my family at this time in my life was just terrifyingly impossible. I avoided the thought at all costs.
Anxiety Disorders are mysterious, in as much as you wouldn’t normally assume that someone who opted for a performance-based degree would be inherently anxious. But the thing is, Anxiety, like all mental health conditions, depends very much on the individual. Some people experience Anxiety across all areas of their day-to-day lives. Others compartmentalise, only experiencing it after being triggered by particular circumstances. My Anxiety takes the form of the latter.
My own Anxiety revolves around the subject of ‘responsibility’. My ‘Anxiety-Head’ doesn’t want to get the blame if something goes wrong. And if something in my care does go wrong, I might punish myself with hateful self-talk, which can drag me down into a perpetual funk, or at its worst, Depression.
So why didn’t I pick up on my Disorder at uni?
Well, I wasn’t often triggered, because the majority of assessments in my degree were group-based. The responsibility, to an extent, was shared, and the work was great fun too!
Secondly, it’s generally accepted that nerves are part and parcel of life on stage, so the disorderly thinking went unnoticed.
Thirdly, student life allowed everyone to let go of their worries during the regular ‘socials’. The ‘#YOLO’ motto was essentially code for “er… let’s not think about that impending assignment until tomorrow”.
And finally, I was supported. The University of Worcester’s academic tutors are exceptionally helpful, getting to know each of their students on a personal level. I was fortunate enough to be guided by two brilliant academics during my final year dissertation, and thanks to their advice and regular tutorials, I graduated from the University with a First Class Degree!
After my degree finished, I was excited to secure my first graduate job, in events management.
However, as someone who loved their lie-ins and late nights… I wasn’t quite ready for the 9-to-5 lifestyle, let alone the level of responsibility that comes with professional employment. Needless to say I was caught off-guard.
Generally, this shift in mindset is to be expected, and most people will get by without major concern, simply learning from each day to the next, finding their professional feet within a few months.
But, despite all my efforts, I couldn’t settle down. Granted, the role was fast-paced and required a great deal of organisation. Yet, even a year into the job, having proved myself more than capable of supporting the team, I had sleepless nights over basic tasks, and I feared that I would never be able to meet a deadline again. Every email that appeared in my inbox sent my mind into a panic. “Not another thing to worry about!” I would think to myself. And then… dramatic pause… there was the office phone (I know – nightmare!). For the entire working day I was on tenterhooks because it could ring at any… moment… now…
The unpredictable nature of my new life had sent my mind into a frenzy. It was as if from the moment I woke up I thought I might be ambushed. And panic-mode only led to more risk, which led, of course, to more panic.
The trouble was, I wasn’t talking about it, and I just disguised my Anxiety with conscientiousness for fear of appearing non-committal. More challenges came in, and I accepted them without any hint of hesitation. While, thanks to my obsessive organisation skills, I would come through the other side with a job well done… inwardly, I was a nervous wreck.
And so one day, I burned out. I couldn’t get to work because my brain was exhausted. I was trapped in my own body, confined to the bed. Thoughts went to how I would ever get over this hurdle. I felt alone, insecure and depressed.
This wouldn’t do. I hadn’t come all this way for nothing, right? The confident performer in me shook me awake and forced me to face facts: I needed help. My nervous demons wouldn’t go anywhere if I didn’t take them seriously. And if I truly wanted to succeed in my career, I had to take care of myself. I had to confront the idea that I was not okay.
I had no other option than to see a GP. I went to the doctors and, shaking like a leaf, told them how I was feeling. I was vulnerable and weary. But getting medical advice would turn out to be a very wise move.
There and then, I was diagnosed with “Generalised Anxiety Disorder, low mood and poor self-esteem”.
I was hardly shocked by this news, but now I had an illness in writing, I knew I had to help myself heal. And to help myself heal, I would have to be honest with my family, my friends, and my colleagues.
Telling my family and friends was the easy part – it was no surprise to them. On the contrary, it was more likely that they knew about this before I did!
But when it came to my work life, I was clueless as to how to address it. For too long I had played the role of unassuming, conscientious employee – what would my mental health condition do to my rep?!
I was fearful that outing the illness would only highlight my imperfections, and I would be judged, demoted, or even fired.
So I was extremely relieved when it turned out that having Anxiety was nothing to be ashamed of.
A week after the diagnosis, I scheduled a meeting with my boss and the words spilled out of me. I struggled to string a sentence together, but somehow, I told my boss that I had Anxiety, and I needed help.
The boss listened to my story intently, and shared their own, before explaining to me that, if there was anything I needed to make my time in the office easier, I was always more than welcome to say so. They would accommodate, knowing that I would be happier – and more productive – for it.
How nice is that?!
Contrary to my previous fears, nothing bad happened as a result of my fessing up. I was still the same person as I was before. Except now, I was happier.
I no longer had to disguise myself as a robot in the workplace – I was allowed to have emotions. I was permitted to take time out to seek help. I was able to take a few minutes to walk across the campus and catch a breath, and with that my brain-fog cleared, replaced by a sense of accomplishment. I had done something kind for myself, and now I was a better employee than ever before.
My new sense of freedom showed in my smile, enabling me to open up to my colleagues. This in turn allowed colleagues to open up to me, and to others. The mental health conversation was in full swing. Suddenly talking about mental health was part and parcel of the daily grind, and working relationships deepened tenfold as a result. From idle chit-chat to in-depth discussion, the conversations brought about a sense of solidarity. Morale was lifted, and the team spirit flourished.
Only fantastic things came about from talking about my mental health to others. Yes, it was daunting – especially for someone with Anxiety! But the simple act of self-care – talking it out – gave me the confidence I deserve. And the added bonus was that it had a ripple effect on the people around me. What had once been very isolating for me had now brought our team a little closer together.
I love my job, because it’s ever-changing, not without it’s dramas… and a little bit glam too! On top of that, I’ve just started a part-time Masters Degree in Psychology. I’ve shaped my career into something that accommodates my personal needs as an individual, as someone who has a mental health condition, as someone who can achieve great things not in spite of Anxiety, but because of it. I am more confident than I have ever been.
I write about this knowing that there are people out there who are on a similar path. From starting University, to thinking about what the heck is next, to taking that first step onto the career ladder, the crossroads we are met with are many, and it can be easy to neglect mental wellbeing in the process.
But by talking about mental health from the get-go, the stigma of “not being quite right” can be nipped in the bud, individualism can be celebrated, and people can get the real help that they need in order to reclaim their confidence as they venture into the working world. With small actions like this, the working world can stay up to speed with the needs of the individual, and necessary steps can be put into place to ensure the transition from education to employment is as worry-free as possible. Mental health condition or no, I’m pretty darn sure everyone wants that.