This is the end of my first week back after a mental health leave of absence. Co-workers ask, “How was it?” “How did it go?” “Is it good to be back?” It’s really hard to answer those questions. I wonder whether most people are expecting to hear the polite answer: “it was great, I feel so much better, I’m glad to be back.” The reality is messy, intense, and transformative.
One of my primary goals with my leave of absence was to rest and get to a reliable sense of calm. I was in a near-constant panic state from Sept 2021 through March 2022, the time spanning two covid surges. Everything felt like a threat to my wellbeing and physical safety. I had trouble focusing and prioritizing. I was agitated, irritable, and inconsistent. I had perpetual distrust. I was late on delivery for everything. My memory was shot. I was exhausted from maintaining that level of hypervigilance for so long. If you’re looking at a mental challenges chart, I was somewhere between moderate to crisis most of the time.
|Behavior||Being late, canceling||Withdrawing, absenteeism, odd/erratic behavior||Threatening to kill, reckless, risky behavior|
|Appearance||Tired, unkempt||Poor hygiene, agitated, withdrawn||Difficulty breathing, overdosing|
|Feelings||Lack of enjoyment, sadness, worry||Hopelessness, rage, despair||Dramatic mood change, trapped, no way out|
|Thoughts||Difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness||Self-blame, criticism, racing thoughts||Self-harm, hopelessness, delusions|
I don’t think most people would have known I was having this internal experience. I wear a happy, warm, reliable, productive, functional mask.
In March 2022, my armor of stoicism and self-sufficiency cracked during a Mental Health First Aid training (where I learned about that table). I saw my own panicked self reflected back to me in a video case study of a woman having a panic attack. The reality hit hard that I was in denial about my ability to continue coping with life-as-usual. I acknowledged then that my life had become unmanageable. This was not the experience I wanted to be having.
My leave lasted through April and May. I loved the glorious amount of time alone to learn to put myself first. I made a point of prioritizing my basic biological needs. I tried to do something that honestly interested me every day, especially things that are usually difficult to do because of work or family. I tried to experience that time away attuned to the curiosity, playfulness, and neediness of my inner five year old self. I leaned into the child-like unfettered joy of discovery and adventure while on field trips while navigating with the capabilities, wisdom, and access of an adult.
I hiked new trails around Bloomington at least once a week. I froze my ears off in early April walking along Lake Monroe and got excited about seeing Langmuir spirals in the water (I focused on lake ecology in college). At Griffy Lake, a copperhead, a goose, and a snapping turtle all wanted to share my picnic sandwich. On the Oak Tree Trail at Fairfax, I got lost briefly and stood in the pouring rain eating a sandwich under the tree canopy. At the site of TC Steele’s house and studio in Nashville Indiana, I found one of the painting sheds on a ridge in the woods. I didn’t eat a sandwich there.
I painted a lot. I watched some movies (Goonies and Addams Family 2). I read. I napped. I did yoga. I text-bothered friends. I helped to organize a last-day-of-school water balloon fight.
I noticed how much my leave was helping me physiologically during a monthly zoom mentoring meeting I have with women friends-colleagues-scholars-parents. Those of us who were in the trenches were worn down, emotionally reactive, and embattled. Those of us who had taken time away were calm, present, and attentive. We were able to offer perspective and creative possibilities to our friends who needed validation and comfort.
I learned a couple things from that meeting. The time away was really helping me be physiologically calm and cognitively clear. And we can’t all be burned out simultaneously; we need people outside the urgent zone who can help the helpers.
For the last week of my leave, we went on an actual vacation to my favorite spot in coastal Georgia. In the past, I’ve had to spend the first days of this annual trip learning how to be on vacation and helping my mind catch up with my body. This year, I could enjoy being there from the first day. Beach in the morning and evening. Naps or adventures during the day – zoo, art museum, shopping in the local arts district, city stroll. Always dinner out. I saw three different turtle crawls and nests. I went sea kayaking for the first time; dolphins came up close when we were in the open water, and I saw a mink in the marsh grass.
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