The Taint of MHD

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

~Buddha

The last place I worked allowed employees to take “mental health days.” (Of course, you had to schedule them in advance, get coverage for your shift, and your manager looked at you sideways for making the request, but that’s beside the point). It was the first job to introduce the concept – however imperfect a concept it turned out to be. I mean, the days came out of our general pool of “time off” so we didn’t receive a set amount or anything. But at least we didn’t need to produce a doctor’s note. It was a way to admit you were at your wit’s end and needed a quick breather.

With the taint of “mental health” applied.

Reality check: EVERYONE needs to take a break now and then. From work, from family, from responsibility. When anxiety, depression, obligations, pain, everything pile up and become too much, we need to step back and take care of OURSELVES. Because most of us set ourselves on the back burner, neglecting mental and physical health. But workplaces don’t have “self-care days.” Instead, they dress them up as “mental health days” and frown at you when you admit you need a break. And those two words – “mental health” – tar you with a glaring light for the rest of your career.

It’s as if NO ONE in the history of the planet ever reached a breaking point. Because (news flash) every person, regardless of whether or not they have a form of mental illness, hits a wall at some point. Everyone is capable of a mental breakdown. Stress KILLS, and there isn’t a job anywhere devoid of stress. There may be different levels, but people also have different tolerances.

Me? If you removed all of the stress from my life, my body would give out and die, at this point. My system doesn’t know how to survive WITHOUT stress. Some people start hyperventilating if you smile and ask them to have something completed within a week. But admitting to a need for a “mental health day?” People don’t want that stigma attached to them. So they push through the pain, the anxiety, the depression, the agony, and they break.

It’s a horrible thing to watch.

And I understand. I only used a mental health day once – and I regretted it immediately. I’d spent the entire night before in the emergency room. I was in severe pain, but the ER doctor dismissed me as a hypochondriac. (Fibromyalgia patients struggle with this battle constantly) I KNEW something was wrong, but I couldn’t convince the idiot to listen to me. I couldn’t lie down, could barely sit up, and the doctor couldn’t touch my back without me trying to tear her arm off. She dismissed the test results and told me to take Advil. I was beyond my pain tolerance, I was broken down by her attitude, and there was no way I could face work (never mind my exhaustion).

My managers? Yeah – more of the same dismissive attitude. It didn’t seem to matter that I HAD the note from the hospital; it didn’t say I couldn’t work – just that I’d been there. I was being a baby and trying to get out of work. It didn’t matter that I had the time to use, or that the policy was in place. I was instantly tarred as a slacker and whiner. (Turned out – after a week of further testing and a laparoscopic procedure – that I had a cluster of ovarian cysts and the worst pocket of endometriosis my doctor had ever seen. He had to CUT it out)

No judgement? Really?

I needed the day to reset and take care of myself so I COULD get back to work. I knew I was in no shape to face people, that I would hinder the work flow. I thought I was making a reasonable, adult decision. (Not to mention making a good call for MYSELF) Why have “mental health days” for employees if we weren’t allowed to take them? I learned those days were a tool for management to label us – and not in a good light. So I never took another. No matter how horrible I felt, how badly things might have been going for me, or how much pain I was in (and I went to work with a severe seroma following another surgery at one point). I didn’t want to feel that judgement ever again.

This is why people burn out. Why break downs occur. Self-care disintegrates in the face of fear. No one wants their co-workers or superiors to think less of them. So we push forward, scraping at brick walls with our fingernails. And then we wonder why pass out, collapse, or just plain shut down. (As if we don’t get weird looks for THAT!) “Mental health days” carry this horrible taint – and it’s right in the name! If employers honestly wanted to help us, they could approach the concept in a better way.

For one, they could change the name. A “self-care day” has a better connotation. Instead of giving us the side-eye and making marks in our record, they could smile in understanding and congratulate us on recognizing a need to reset our system. (Granted, I know some people abuse such systems, but this isn’t directed at those kinds of people) Hell, how would they feel in our shoes?

Now that I don’t have a time-off pool, I’m the not the best at remembering to take days when I need them. I honestly should have taken the entire week after the wedding off to recuperate (my husband was smart enough to do that…of course, he has paid time off). Instead, I told myself to dive right back into work. With the holidays approaching, though, I’ve forced myself to build in days off. To clients, I’ve said their days for family. In reality, though, their days for ME. Time to restart my brain and system. A chance to relax and get myself back to square one. It’s also why I refuse to work on weekends, much as it may inconvenience some clients. I need that time for ME.

No, I don’t call the days “mental health days.” As a self-employed writer, I can call them whatever I want. And after my experience, I refuse to use that hated label. So I call them what they are: ME DAYS. Maybe corporate worlds aren’t keen on that title, but I think it works better than the tainted title they use now. It might encourage more people to take the time they need – before they smash into the wall face-first.

I’ll Take Water, Thanks

No family may be better than two families
Photo by Paula Schmidt from Pexels

“You can’t choose your family.” Everyone knows that tired old phrase. Never mind that it isn’t precisely true. All of us defy those words when we settle into the groups we DO choose, composed of loved ones who don’t share our blood but mean every bit as much to us as the people who can donate a kidney or liver lobe to us. They also prove that old adage of “blood is thicker than water” wrong. Oftentimes, they stand beside us when our official, legal family members find it uncomfortable to stick with us through panic attacks, depressive fugues, and other mental health taboos no one likes to talk about.

The family we CHOOSE keeps us sane.

The family we have no input on? Those are the people who – more times than not – drive us over the cliff. They stop listening, they don’t hear us (and, yes, there’s a difference between those two things), they trample over our words, and they misunderstand our states of mind. If they don’t experience the same shamble of disorders we do, they have no frame of reference and fail (epically) to assist us. Even when they mean well, they do more damage than good. Old traumas resurface time and time again, reopening old wounds that have never properly healed.

Because these are the people closest to us (in my case, anyway. I recognize I can’t speak for everyone). They know our history more than anyone else; they were present for the majority of it. Odds are, they were the first people we ever attempted to talk to, to approach with the chaos in our minds. And there’s a pretty good chance they were the first people to dismiss our concerns. (Family’s great and all, but they usually screw up) It’s a Mobius Strip that no one ever quite escapes from.

And then your dumb ass gets married.

You DO choose your spouse (most of the time. I’m aware arranged marriages still exist). However, the family that comes with them? Yeah, you don’t get a say there. You’re stuck with whatever hand the Universe feels like dealing you, and not everyone lucks out in the deal. Some do – I won’t deny that. The rest of us come to realize all of those “in-law” tropes exist for a reason. And marriage shackles you to whatever lunatics your spouse is related to TILL DEATH DO YOU PART!

Granted, you have no legal obligations to THEM. (I know – I checked the marriage certificate just to make sure) But suddenly you have ties to more people with ZERO comprehension of your mental tolerances. Not to mention you’re expected to swallow their “quirks,” no matter how badly they scrape at human sensibility. (To say nothing of your anxiety levels) And when they push you over the edge, YOU’RE the problem. (As always – Wow, sounds just like home)

Fucking bullshit.

The family you create over the years, made up of the people who know you, accept you, understand you, and love you ranks above any level of blood relation. Maybe they can’t donate an organ to save your life, but they’ll hold your hand while you go through the transplant and recovery. They’ll cheer you on and bring you soup or saltines or a glass of water while your body copes. They kick your ass when it’s needed, dragging you out of bed and forcing you to get your shit together when you’ve wallowed in too much self-pity. THOSE people are worthy of the “family” label – not the ones who share your name.

That’s not to say you WON’T incorporate genuine family members into that group. I know people out there who love their parents and siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles – you name it. The word “family” needs to mean more than “individuals you’re related to.” It should stand for everything I described above. And if that includes relations, so be it. But, for a lot of people I know, it doesn’t. Because those blood relatives are a major source of the problem.

There are shredded pieces of the Mobius Strip of my immediate family. We’ve worked through some things, but there are a lot of problems that still continue to cycle around and around again, never making a breakthrough. I love them – I never doubt that – and I’ll do anything for them. But my parents…my parents still drive me over the cliff at times. No matter how often I try to explain things to them, they fail to hear me, see me. They circle the outside of my chosen family – because they don’t understand me the way my friends do.

Look at your family. Your REAL family. Don’t let the definition of the word weigh down your shoulders. You have one – everyone does – that’s surrounding you and supporting you and cheering you on. When you shift the way you look at that word, it lightens the burden on your mind. Maybe it IS water running through that family instead of blood. So what? Look at the world around you and all of the things WATER accomplishes.

Someone Else

“I have said that he has the power to deliver a compliment and make it hurt. So, too, he can say something that ought to be insulting and deliver it in such a way that it feels like being truly seen.”

~Holly Black, The Wicked King

You know when someone’s about to say something sweet about you. Their eyes light up, the corners of their lips curve, and a light emanates from their face. Meanwhile, your skin feels like it’s trying to crawl away from you, and your stomach drops out of your body. Your shoulders hunch up around your ears, and you drop your gaze to their feet. Maybe (just maybe) if you avoid eye contact they’ll stop talking.

Nope, too late – they spout that compliment.

Now you’re left standing in an awkward hunch, curled inward and mumbling incoherently in protest. If you’re lucky, the person’s a friend or acquaintance who’ll give you an odd look and move on. If the stars are misaligned, the person’s a boss or superior who’s going to continue to stand there and stare at you – wondering if you suddenly took leave of your senses. Because who in their right mind doesn’t love getting a compliment?

It makes sense, right? Compliments are positive statements made to buoy a person’s ego and heighten their day. The bulk of the population walks around collecting them with a fervor that matches PokemonGO. You can almost see the trophy case they install each statement inside, the time and care they invest in polishing the best ones. Bored? Ask a person to trot out their best compliments, and you’ll get entertained with hours of details and perfect recitations. That’s how normal, functional people behave. Because compliments are GOOD things. They’re meant to be treasured and enjoyed.

And then there’s the rest of us.

People like me treat compliments like bombs. We start hunting for the closest fallout shelter as soon as we detect that upbeat tone of voice. Excuses bubble up from our throats in a desperate attempt to head off those words. Anything, ANYTHING to prevent the other person from speaking. Is there a glass wall nearby we can dive through? A cliff we can jump off? A hole we can fall into? (Laugh if you want, but we honestly look for any escape route we can find) Compliments twist up our minds and bodies into knots, leaving us feeling beaten and broken.

It’s not because we’re wired wrong (although people with depression have that working against them). The problem comes from deeper in our pasts. See, not every compliment is spoken with sincerity. Girls, in particular, like to wield sweetness as a blade. Girls are MEAN (if you aren’t one or haven’t been one, you have no frame of reference). They’ll speak words they don’t mean, then turn around and laugh when you straighten your spine. Over time, your trust breaks. You assume every compliment is a lie, a joke. It’s another way for people to laugh at you behind your back.

So you stop accepting compliments.

Your brain teaches you to curl up in defense. You build walls and seek a way out. And it cripples you down the road. To this day, I flinch at compliments – even from the people I love the most. I look away and turn my head when my fiance’ tells me I look beautiful. (I rarely ask him if I look nice – so I guess he wins there) I cringe when clients praise my work – though I luck out there as most of our communication happens via messaging and email, so they never see. I dismiss family members, insisting they have to say nice things due to the familial bond. Friends? My teeth are always clenched (which is super awesome for my TMJ, incidentally).

I’ve never figured out how to accept a compliment. I parrot the expected “Thank you” in an effort to end the conversation. I scoot away. And in my mind (at least, I hope it’s in my mind), I roll my eyes and dismiss every word. I have never fit in to any group, and so I’ve always found myself the target of jokes. THAT I have no problem accepting (crazy, right?). And so even when a part of me screams that the words are true, I can’t accept them. I make excuses and the rest of my brain tells me it’s just people being polite.

Not a great mindset for someone getting married in 11 days.

People don’t think about the damage they cause with their pranks. And people don’t understand those like us. They think our reaction is rude, egotistical, or backward. Instead of looking beyond our awkward response to the motivation behind it, they sniff and walk away (or question our sanity – always fun). It isn’t fair – on either side. Speaking up and admitting you don’t know how to take a compliment helps. It lets the other person know you’re struggling, and that you’re uncomfortable. If no one says anything, the miscommunication continues. Opening a dialogue can help you lance the wound, at least. Not everyone will get it, but some people do.

There’s nothing WRONG with you. Damage takes time to repair. Hell, I’m still struggling, and I’ve been fighting to fix this problem for YEARS. But knowing that I’m not the only person makes a difference. And even if my brain spends hours arguing after the fact, at least I’m not searching for that bomb shelter anymore.