[Image: A photograph of me napping on the couch with my grey cat, Marvin, also napping on the back of the couch]
I’ve been on a mental health leave from my employment in graduate student professional development for almost two weeks now. I’m spending this time recovering physically and mentally from pandemic burnout, which I reflect on below, and I’m metabolizing grief from several major identity-changing events in the last four years, which I reflect on in a separate post. My friends have checked in to ask about how I’m doing and what I’ve been up to. I’m sharing here some reflections on my physical and mental recuperation. For graduate students reading, I hope my story helps you check in with how you are _really_ doing and gives you courage to ask for what you _really_ need right now.
Where was I when I started this leave?
In early March, I attended a day-long mental health first aid training on campus to develop some skills in supporting graduate students in crisis. (BTW, I highly recommend this training for _anyone_ who has a mentoring/advising role with undergraduates or graduate students.). During the afternoon part of the training, when the facilitators warned us things might start getting intense, I noticed something about myself. I had been existing on the edge of a panic attack, experiencing what the facilitators categorized as a moderate mental health crisis for a long time. Even with regular therapy, I was feeling withdrawn, erratic, hopeless, irritable, despair, self-blame, difficulty concentrating, worry, and racing thoughts. I was experiencing mental health challenges that didn’t go away quickly, that interfered with my ability to live my life as I wanted to, and that gave me unproductive and maladaptive thought and behavior patterns.
I was exhausted. Not just tired. Exhausted. Exhausted from two years of three full-time jobs: working, parenting, and remote schooling. I was also burdened by overwhelming and stuffed down grief. I had been calming the waters of everyone else’s life, meanwhile experiencing inner turmoil and suffering by not acting with inner integrity toward my needs, feelings, thoughts, and actions. My Wonder Woman fear-based, socially acceptable self was in full effect, prone to overwork and rescuing everyone and everything (all the things) during the pandemic. Except myself. I was living in denial about my own physical and inner experience. I was living in a mental world of shoulds:
- I should be able to work hard and get stuff done.
- I should be able to do something meaningful and helpful to support graduate students.
- I should be able to design a professional development program that matters.
- I should be able to pay attention, focus, and be settled at work.
- I should be able to get over my grief and manage my complex PTSD.
I wasn’t getting any better at the “shoulds” by screaming them louder in my head or banging my head, heart, body, and spirit against the same brick wall with the same, ineffective tools. I wasn’t accepting my present reality as it was. I was trying to control the outcome of everything. And I wasn’t doing what made me feel content, fulfilled, or peaceful.
What have I been doing during my leave?
What if I let my “forbidden self” have some time for play, rest, joy, and creativity? What if I let myself be off-duty and unscheduled, to be spontaneous and do things that bring deep meaning, purpose, and fulfillment? I am trying to have a true break, a reset, a do-over. I am making time and space for the true me in the everyday. I am giving myself space that is quiet, uncluttered, inviolable, easy to navigate, spacious, cozy, comfortable, simple, and resourced.
I admit fully that there are a couple work projects I have continued to be involved in. I care tremendously about the people on those projects and I enjoy their friendship as we do that work. These projects are also what I want for my future self. I have been putting in a couple hours a week on these projects and I am counting that as worked time.
Otherwise, I am learning to prioritize rest, creativity, and play. I’ve been painting, attending virtual live yoga, joining HIIT classes, napping, going to glass arts classes, reading, going on walks, reflecting, journaling, napping, catching up on delayed medical appointments, attending group therapy, napping, and going on coffee/lunch dates with friends. Once the weather dries out and warms up, I hope to be hiking and kayaking. And napping.
How am I doing?
Two weeks into my leave, how am I doing in my body (physical health), mind (thoughts), heart (emotions), and energy (spirit)? As I spend time away from a productivity-oriented environment, my body feels more relaxed and less agitated and panicked. I am becoming more attuned with and responsive to my physical needs and emotions in the present. My mind isn’t spinning so much with ruminations, planning, lists, and other people’s experiences to fret about. I obsess a lot less about checking and answering email – even though I’m not supposed to or expected to. As each day goes by, I’ve been less likely to make a list of “to dos” for myself and I judge myself less often about what I’ve (not) “accomplished” in a day. When I hear about work-related happenings, I am far more detached, able to let things go, and able to let other people handle it. I don’t take difficult situations as personally; I’m not as quick to see them as my fault or mine to deal with and I don’t react with urgency in trying to fix it to manage everyone else’s experience. I’m a lot less emotionally reactive and irritated about daily life struggles and I am calmer as I go about my day. I’m less likely to force a fix to keep the grind going. I’m more likely to be emotionally present and patient in my relationships of reciprocity. These are all small signs of my recovery from a productivity mindset, the hustle to people-please and overwork.
Reflections on this time
I’m still decompressing from the urgent phase of my mental health crisis. I currently see my actions as the necessary steps to remove myself from situations that weren’t contributing positively to my wellbeing. As Wonder Woman, I had been engaging in self-betrayal, self-deception, and self-denial for years. Years. What do my choices and actions to take a leave of absence reveal about my inner strengths, values, and commitments? The deep, inner truths are:
- my experience _does_ matter to me;
- I deserve to prioritize my experience and journey;
- I was not having the experience I wanted to be having; and
- I have the power to change that experience.
As I get calmer in my body, mind, heart, and spirit, I’m starting to get to the larger meaning and narrative coherence of my actions around my self-preservation. The kind messages I’ve received from colleagues at other institutions give me some language for these larger meanings. They express encouragement for my self-prioritization and gratitude for my courageous public leadership by example.
- “I love how vocal and unapologetic you are about taking care of yourself.”
- “I just want to share my admiration and support for your great choices to prioritize your health and quality of life and preempt a mental health crash. That is awesome. Thanks for being a great and brave role model!”
- “I was glad to see you prioritizing yourself in this way. And I appreciated your willingness to make that visible to others — we need good models these days of what it looks like to be human in the midst of a pandemic.”
I want for all of us to heal from the false ideas that the grind is necessary and that our worth is measured in productivity. I want these friends to have these same gifts of courage, vulnerability, and rest. I want them to be able to make these choices for their own self-prioritization, too. I want to be able to say these same supportive statements to others.
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