How was my leave?

In the foreground, a black backpack, pink water bottle. The lake is in the background. It's a gloomy grey day
In the foreground, a black backpack, pink water bottle. The lake is in the background. It's a gloomy grey day
Picnic by Lake Monroe

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.

BehaviorBeing late, cancelingWithdrawing, absenteeism, odd/erratic behaviorThreatening to kill, reckless, risky behavior
AppearanceTired, unkemptPoor hygiene, agitated, withdrawnDifficulty breathing, overdosing
FeelingsLack of enjoyment, sadness, worryHopelessness, rage, despairDramatic mood change, trapped, no way out
ThoughtsDifficulty concentrating, indecisivenessSelf-blame, criticism, racing thoughtsSelf-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.

kids are coming off of a school bus in the background, most of them wearing tie dye shirts. A girl with blonde hair in the foreground is holding a water pistol.
A water balloon fight, parents versus kids, on the last day of public school.

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. 

Summer day, trees and field are green, there's a red barn with a white silo on the right of the picture
A barn on Jackson Creek trail, Bloomington, Indiana

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. 

A Canada goose at the center, staring directly at the camera. A shallow lake, the water is green, the other side with trees is visible
The goose that wanted my sandwich at Griffy Lake

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.

Woman asleep on a blue couch. There's a white cat in her lap and a grey cat with a paw outstretched on the back of the couch
Power napping with Lennie (white) and Marvin (grey)

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.

View from the kayak out into the ocean, a small white lighthouse is on the left. It's a bright sunny day, a few whisps of clouds.
Sea kayaking near Cockspur lighthouse, Tybee Island.

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