Normalizing Mental Health Conversations
2020 has been incredibly hard for all of us. Harder than we might think.
With the constant stressors and uncertainty impacting all of us, it is important to normalize mental health conversations. Especially now. I share my story — neither as an expert nor to diminish the success of those who are masterfully managing their mental health. I am sharing my story to start the conversation for others newly experiencing the effects of nine months of unrelenting stress. To give context and language to the situation we all find ourselves in. Trigger Warning: This article contains information about mental health and thoughts of suicide, which may be upsetting for some.
In March, when we retreated to our homes due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, I pretended that I could just continue doing my job just as well as the month before. I denied the weight of the stress I was feeling. I would tell myself, “Snap out of it. Buck up. Keep it together. You’re being overly dramatic. It isn’t that bad.” In reality, I have a job I can do remotely. A living space large enough to set up multiple work areas. And on my morning runs in the subdivision, I would pass at most, three people. Yes, the global pandemic, systemic racism, and a divided political landscape were ever-present anxiety stressors. Comparatively, I assessed my situation to be pretty lucky.
Every conversation started with, “How are you?” To which my canned reply was, “I’m fine.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I was not fine. I didn’t realize just how not fine I was. Trying to create some normalcy, I designed a routine. I started every morning with a run, as I figured it was the best productive thing to do. I would then jump on back-to-back Zoom calls, where I would start counting the number of meetings until the laptop could close.
But I was frustrated that I couldn’t do my job as I had always done. I didn’t have the focus to context-switch or juggle, the way I could in February. Each day it took everything I had to show up and get on video camera. I tried to give myself grace not to figure out a strategy or craft the next killer presentation. I just showed up. Work was the only thing I wanted to focus on. I wanted to continue to succeed. And yet I felt like I was barely holding on. I didn’t know what I needed.
By the end of each day, I was too tired to cook. Ordering delivery every night, I had to push aside my anxiety of COVID exposure. I’d binge re-runs curled-up as small as I could get under my favorite blanket. Friends and colleagues invited me to Zoom happy hours and chats. I did not want to sit awkwardly on camera, pretending I was fine. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do or what I needed. So I withdrew.
I am not sure when it started, but as I woke up each morning before I was fully conscious, I’d hope it was all a bad dream. I’d try to hold on to that thought — that everything was just as it was so I could feel normal for a few seconds. Then, reality would seep in, and I’d drag myself out of bed to run.
I began to look for ways to feel normal.
Feeling normal was getting harder. I started to worry if I had undiagnosed ADHD, as no matter how many lists, reminders, or alerts, I felt like I was failing at work. I could not concentrate. I second-guessed every decision I had to make. I didn’t have the energy to pull a late night to get ahead. I could hardly remember what happened the day before. The days blurred together. As I went to sleep each night, I didn’t notice that my thoughts drifted to not wanting to wake up in the morning. I just wanted a break from the constant pressure and stress — some relief from it all.
These nightly ideations started to become persistent. My rational self would fight back, telling me, “This isn’t you. You’re being stupid; get over it.” I noticed over time, my fight was getting tired, and my logic was changing. From: I need a break, to not wanting to exist was the only way I thought I could feel any relief. I’d try to distract myself by working longer hours. The paradox was that I didn’t feel suicidal, yet I didn’t want to exist. I just felt hopeless and tired.
I was scared. I hadn’t experienced feelings like this before. I wanted to snap out of it and couldn’t. I started running more. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t want to alarm anyone. I told myself that everyone was in the same situation; we’re all dealing with the stressors.
I wanted to ask for help and then would convince myself that I was being overdramatic, and that I’d feel “better” in a day or two.
Until I lost control.
On my morning run, crossing the same intersection I had for the past six months, I just stopped. I was unable to move. It was as if someone else was in control of my body. I stood there in the middle of the intersection, hoping I’d get lucky. Hoping it would just all be over. I could not do this anymore. I did not want to do this anymore. My fight didn’t yell; it didn’t have the strength. All it could do was a whisper, a tired plea: “no, no, no…” This was my scariest moment. I didn’t recognize myself. I felt like a shattered shell of who I used to be.
I had to admit to myself I’d lost control, and I needed help.
Within 24 hours, I was diagnosed with acute anxiety and depression and was prescribed medication for the first time. The medication saved my life. I felt my control coming back; I felt my fight getting stronger. Thoughts of not existing weren’t clouding my mind. I am still unpacking my personal feelings and biases about mental health as I regained my balance.
What is clear to me now is that this year is incredibly hard for all of us. Harder than we might think. The constant pressure, the continuous unknowing, and uncertainty is impacting everyone.
I assert that no one is doing fine.
I had to be more vulnerable than I’ve ever had to be. Scared in every conversation that people would think less of me because no, I wasn’t fine. Scared people would think I was weak. Afraid I’d be sidelined at work and lose my team. That telling anyone that I wasn’t fine would be irreversibly damaging to my reputation — impacting my livelihood.
What I found was the opposite. I found warmth and acceptance in unexpected places. I found deep listening and understanding. I found a genuine connection. And I found others. Others who shared their stories.
I know I am not alone. I didn’t wait to find the right words; I just started talking. I found the courage to say, “I need help; I’m worried about my mental health.”
I hadn’t planned on saying anything to a colleague.
The words fell out of my mouth, and I instinctively wanted to grab them back. I cringed, bracing myself for what I thought would be the inevitable alarmed response, “What is wrong with you? You’re fine.” followed by a string of fixes disguised as helpful suggestions. I exhaled in relief when they said, “That sounds so scary.” A weight was lifted — I didn’t feel judged; instead, I felt relief. The relief I was desperately seeking. The conversation carried on, not trying to solve anything or find the fix. We just talked about these feelings I didn’t know what to do with. They asked me if I had access to mental health resources. If I was talking to a professional, and what would help me right now? For the first time since March, I didn’t feel alone. As we ended the call, I promised I’d talk to a professional. They followed up on Slack with links to our company’s mental health resources so that I had them handy.
Looking back, I wished I had sought professional help sooner.
When the moment came that I stopped in the middle of the road, when I was scared for my safety, I didn’t have to ask for the link to those resources at work. I didn’t have to explain myself. I didn’t have to find it. It was there in our Slack chat history, waiting for me to take the next right step.
When I started looking for help, my critical thinking skills weren’t working; brain fog and stress made it difficult. I read and re-read portal directions, navigating through multiple systems and PDFs to find therapist offices in my area. I was desperate to find a professional and abandoned my company’s system and started Googling. I left messages at multiple places, asking for help TODAY — now — I knew that I didn’t have any time left.
Office after office wasn’t taking new patients but would recommend another office to call. They also suggested a plan B, which was to go to the ER, something I hadn’t considered. And when I did find an office accepting new patients and connected me with a professional, a crushing weight was lifted. I could breathe deeply — though I felt shattered into a million pieces, I knew help was coming. That I had gotten myself to safety. I didn’t have to white-knuckle it alone anymore.
I assert that no one is “doing fine,” as 2020 has been incredibly hard, harder than we might think. I am sharing my experience to start the conversation for others who may be newly experiencing the effects of nine months of unrelenting stress. I hope to give context and language. Now is the time to normalize mental health conversations. Now is the time to take the right first step.
Start talking; Don’t wait.
About Rahshia Sawyer
An Experience Design Leader, Speaker, and Professor who thrives on identifying opportunities that enhance individuals, leaders, and communities. One to wear many hats, she is the Head of Privacy and Data Ethics Design at Capital One focusing on the intersection of humanity and digital privacy. A professor at George Mason University, teaching undergraduate and graduate students the nuances of photography. And, as an internationally recognized photographer, she is active in the art world, presenting her work on resilience.