Reprinted from "Workplace: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (3), pp. 20-21
I'm an impostor. That was all I could think as I shopped for a business outfit to wear for a meeting three hours later with a former colleague who wanted to hire me as a part-time consultant. You see, this was to be my first work exposure since I'd been diagnosed and hospitalized with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), extreme exhaustion and depression. In the spring of 2012, I had spent a whole month in the mood disorder unit of a local hospital.
It was during the seventh month of my year-long maternity leave that I hit rock bottom: Although I had a few compulsions, mostly around germs and superstitions, the most debilitating symptoms of my OCD were the constantly intrusive thoughts—non-stop worries that occupied all my waking moments. I knew I needed help when I was so anxious that I hadn't slept in three days, convinced that I would wake up in a trance and hurt my children. I left the children sleeping at home in the care of my husband and drove myself to the hospital that night.
But I was lucky in many ways. Towards the end of my maternity leave, my employer significantly downsized, and I was let go from my job. This might not sound so "lucky," but it meant that I didn't spiral down in front of my colleagues; I never had to ask for a sick leave or resign. With a healthy severance package in my bank account, but also a complete absence of self-esteem, I had no desire to rejoin the workforce anytime soon. Destiny had a different plan.
About eight weeks after the end of my maternity leave, I got an email from a former colleague who had been laid off at about the same time. She was now in an executive position in a new start-up and was looking for someone like me to work on a part-time basis. I felt like I had won the lottery—a part-time gig with a former colleague whom I also considered a friend and mentor! First she wanted to catch up and give me some information about her company, so we made plans to have coffee together on a sunny afternoon. It should have been easy, no?
Well, about three hours before our informal meeting, it suddenly became clear to me that I didn't have anything to wear—or, at least, that I didn't feel good in any of the many outfits I tried on at home. I rushed to the mall to my favourite store, in which I normally find more outfits than my budget can bear. Without warning, I suddenly became completely overwhelmed by the options. Save for what little dignity I miraculously still had within me, I would have curled up in a ball on the floor of the store right then and there. It felt like the store was spinning around me, and I wanted to cry.
And then the thought came: "You don't feel like this because this is a huge milestone in your recovery. That's not why you feel anxious. You feel anxious because you know. You know that the OCD broke you, but you will be going to that meeting and pretending that you are the same old person. You are an impostor." I still don't remember how I got home after that. But once I was home, I knew there was only one option available to me at that point—one that I had sworn I would never use again...I popped a fast-acting anti-anxiety pill.
What a failure, I kept thinking. Lucky for me, and for the rest of my career, I was meeting with a mentor whom I could not stand to disappoint. Not showing up was out of the question. So I let the little green pill do its magic, and I made it (in an oh-so-boring outfit!) to our coffee meeting. And the meeting went perfectly well.
I met with the rest of the management team a few days later—without repeating the same mistakes, though! I got my outfit over the weekend and carefully prepared my presentation. I had planned to take another Ativan an hour or so before the meeting, but I felt good enough that I didn't have to take it. I got the gig, and many others in the following months. So many, in fact, that less than one year after my stay in the psychiatric hospital, I was billing more than 250 hours a month to four different clients. Not bad for a "crazy!"
It has been three years since the infamous coffee date, and I'm proud to report that I am a happy, full-time-working parent and that my OCD is well under control. Of course, I made mistakes along the way, just as anybody does (with or without a mental illness), but the experiences have taught me a couple of life lessons that I will forever remember:
1. Setbacks are not failures
Even though the meeting with my colleague had gone well, I became increasingly anxious about it in the hours following because I'd become so debilitated in the mall. Since I'd left the hospital, my anxiety management skills had improved so much that I felt increasingly as if the worst was behind me and that anxiety would never disable me again. Having to take the anti-anxiety pill just to make it to the meeting was a real blow. I contacted my cognitive-behavioural therapist, convinced that I was back at square one. Caught up in my anxious thoughts, I forgot a key cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) concept: It is impossible to "un-know" your diagnosis. I would never be back at square one again because I now know that having intrusive thoughts does not mean that you will act on them. My thoughts do not have control over me! Yes, I had to take an anti-anxiety pill to help me regain control, but I didn't spiral back down to rock bottom: I hadn't "relapsed." Setbacks are speed bumps; they slow you down, but they ultimately make you a better driver.
2. You are not alone
It took me a long time to share even tidbits of my story with people outside of my immediate circle of family and close friends. When I finally did (and I didn't necessarily disclose the whole story, just enough to show that I have lived experience), the reactions were all overwhelmingly positive. Never once did I feel negatively impacted or judged following my confessions. In fact, many of my confidantes actually came back to me to ask for help with their own anxiety or with the anxiety of a family member or friend.
For the complete story of Emmy's journey, go to www.anxietybc.com/whats_new.php and search for "Pure O—My Lived Experience."
About the author
Emmy is the proud mother of two children, aged four and six. She works full-time in a management position and volunteers as a director for AnxietyBC, a Vancouver-based organization that strives to increase awareness about anxiety disorders, promote education and increase access to evidence-based resources and treatments (www.anxietybc.com)