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.

The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.