Answering the Big Mental Health Questions at Work

Well, I did it.  I made it through my first day back at work after over a month away.  In some ways, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected, but in some ways, it was a little worse.  Everyone seemed to be pretty happy to have me back, which definitely made my heart soar. Obviously, after a month, there were some questions to answer, though.

First and foremost: “Are you feeling all better?”  (Or the alternative statement of “glad to see you’re all better.”) This question is always closely followed with “Where have you been?” or “What was wrong?” If I hadn’t spent the last week or so rehearsing my answer, those two questions alone would be enough to make a giant pot of anxiety soup. As it was, it was still a little nerve-wracking to have to shoot them down at the first question and explain why the thought of “all better” is all wrong. Follow that up with explaining where I’d been and suffice to say, it was a long half day.

Why is “all better” all wrong?

Well, when you’re dealing with a chronic illness (mental or physical) the reality is there may never be an “all better.”  You can be better than you were.  You can even on some days be decent, or good.  But there might never be an all better.  The nature of a chronic illness is just that, that it’s chronic.  Persistent, recurring, possibly never-ending.  And when someone someone suggests that it has just vanished, that creates a very strong misconception.

Today, I spent a lot of my time explaining that while I feel better, I am not fixed.  Bipolar doesn’t have a cure, and while I might be lucky enough to never have a depressive episode like that again, even that would be because of constant vigilance and medication. Maintenance is a life-long task when it comes to illnesses like this.  I have to eat properly, sleep enough, pay very close attention to my moods (and notify appropriate medical peoples if that changes), and ALWAYS take my medication.  Even if I feel “all better.”

It’s hard to have to share this with well-meaning well-wishers.  I understand the sentiment behind it: that they’re glad I’m back and they want to express concern over my health.  For some, maybe even many, people, it would be sufficient to leave it at that. I would never blame a person for saying “yup, thanks for asking!” and moving on with the day.  But I worry that if we fall on that ideal too often, we risk creating unrealistic expectations from those around us.  Heaven forbid I relapse tomorrow and all they can say is “But you said you were better!”

When I answer honestly, though, it opens up a new conversation about Bipolar disorder and what it means for my day to day life. We begin to talk about hypomania and manic depression, and what it means to have your brain work so hard against you that you choose to be locked away for over a week.

So, where have you been?

There are a lot of ailments that send a person to the hospital.  And an awful lot of them are the sort you just don’t want to talk about in polite company (colonoscopy, anyone?).  But few have the stigma associated with a psychiatric stay at the hospital.  Many seem to think mental patients only stay in a hospital by force, and those are “dangerous lunatics” or “addicts” or some other kind of horribly labeled human.  Seemingly “normal” folks don’t need to be locked up, and certainly not of their own choice. Right?

Wrong.  In fact, of the people I met while an inpatient, many of them were there because they chose to be.  Were some forced?  Sure.  Were some dangerous?  Yeah, they could be.  Were they all there because they were ill?  Yes.  Every. Single. One. And the hospital offered them a safe place to figure it out.  There they were kept safe from outside influences and toxic relationships, and from themselves.  They had a place to learn a bit about what was going on (because many came in with no real idea why they were sick), and a team of medical professionals to care for them while they figured it out. Of the people who showed up involuntarily, many of them chose to stay and work on getting better.

Because of that, I am honest.  When people ask where I’ve been, I talk about the 9 days in the hospital.  I talk about the 12 days as a partial hospitalization patient.  I talk about all the times in between, too, and how it all worked together to help me get to a better place.  If they stick around and want to know, I talk about what it feels like to have your brain rebel against you and tell you things that you logically know aren’t true.  I talk about how hard it was to decide to go into the hospital, and how my daughter cried while I was away.  I talk about any of it that they ask about because they need to know.

Healing is a process and there is no shame in getting the help you need.  I had a weekend of extreme depression, two medical visits with all of my family on watch, and three missed days of work before I believed I should get that help.  Damned if I’m going to waste it.

Where have I been?

The psych floor of the hospital.  Healing.  Getting to a better place than I was.  Yes, it took a long time.  No, I’m not fixed. Yes, it will probably get worse a few times before it gets better again.

But most of all, yes, I’m very glad to be back.

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3 thoughts on “Answering the Big Mental Health Questions at Work

  1. Kudos for being honest with them and not just sticking to the typical platitudes or outright lies about what has been happening. Maybe some day I can do the same when I have a day where coping strategies just don’t cut it and I go into full on compulsive mode.

    1. Thanks! In the weeks leading up to my meltdown, I’d been pretty honest too, but when you’re always smiling (because I’m too used to it not to), they tend to doubt you’re actually depressed. Ah, well. We’ll figure it out eventually!

  2. Relevant to my interests. This past week has been a struggle, and where that struggle has really been manifesting is in being chronically, unacceptably late for work. (Thank the universe that my employer and job give me some flexibility.) There’s just no good way to call or text and say, essentially, that you’re late because you’re going a bit crazy. Well, that and I’m not comfortable being “out” to all of my eight coworkers.

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