I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.
My confidence grew with each and every step.
Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.
I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.
I live with bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder and was going through a dark period. My depression was all-consuming. I struggled to get up and out of bed. My anxiety had also peaked. I was having near-daily panic attacks: with my breakfast. During our department's morning meeting. On the bus.
At first, I was afraid. Leaving my job was terrifying, personally and financially. I worried I was ruining my life, my family, and my career. Plus, my husband and I had no savings or nest egg. There was no backup plan. I was also ashamed. Millions of people live with mental illness — I was (and am not) unique — and they juggle both balls. They have a handle on their health and hold down a job. But I didn't. I couldn't, and that was discouraging.
It made me feel like a failure.
I thought I was weak.
But I wanted to take a risk. I needed to take a risk, for my happiness and my health. So I left my job, and immediately, a weight lifted off of me. I felt free. I had time for therapy appointments and counseling sessions. I could read, reflect, journal, and write. There was also time for self-care. I ran almost every morning. Without work, I found the energy to get up and shower everyday. But the shame persisted because I was incapacitated, contagious, or broken. This disease was "all in my head," or so I had been taught. Or so I had been told.
You see, when you are sick your doctor tells you to take time off. They encourage you to rest and recover and stay home. When you are going through medical issues, like chemotherapy or cancer treatments, there are numerous medical accommodations you can make, i.e. paid time off aside, there is short-term disability, long-term disability, and the Family Medical Leave Act. And if you have COVID-19 — or think you may have COVID-19 — you are told to quarantine for 10 days. For nearly two weeks. But mental illness? When you are depressed you are told to buck up — and suck it up. Society suggests you should just push through. It is also hard to get documentation saying you are too sick to work because mental illness is subjective. But everyone has limits.
It's important you listen to your body and your mind.
Make no mistake: I know leaving my job was a privileged decision. Many people cannot do so because their insurance covers therapy. Because without work, they cannot pay their mortgage, rent, or other bills. Many people cannot leave their job because there are true disparities in the (mental) healthcare system. Accessibility is an issue, as is stigma. And many people cannot leave their job because they do not have emotional and financial support — which I get that. Truly, I do. But there is help. There are options. You do not have to do this alone.
So talk to your psychiatrist, if you have one. Find a therapist, if you can. Say "no" when you're able to, to preserve your time and energy. To help clear your plate, and speak with your employer. Determine what you can do and what things you have the power to change, because while it is hard to take time off for mental illness, it is a covered condition. You should not be (or feel) ashamed. It is also imperative you realize your self worth, i.e. you matter. Your physical, emotional, and mental health matter. And knowing that is imperative. Paying bills is important, but breathing and being is invaluable.
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