The Next Monday
Mental health is not an easy subject to write about. Particularly when it’s your own.
My friend’s suicide over the holiday has shaken me. And while I have gotten on better footing these past couple of weeks I am still uneasy. As if I am on a boat struggling to get my sea legs but no longer gripping the hand rails.
I keep thinking I should be “over it” - whatever the hell that means - by now. I’ve dealt with lots of crises before. Lots of trauma. It comes with age. You live long enough things happen. Hospitals. Funeral homes. You start to think you have resilience. Things happen. You feel sorrow, grief but you steel yourself and move on. You should be able to handle stuff.
But this. Wow.
The phone call came on a Wednesday and I thought on Monday I should be ok to work. But I was wrong. Way wrong.
I mostly work from home - like everyone else - and that even further lulled me into a false sense of security. I mean I was in as comfortable an environment as possible - complete with fuzzy slippers :). no one would just swing by the desk unannounced. I could control the interactions as much as possible, right?
I got on the first couple of early morning zoom calls. The first was a regular weekly with my team. An email had gone out and they might have questions. See my friend was a former coworker who had recently left the company. So there were a number of people potentially impacted.
Next were some quick broader team standup meetings with various project teams. Typical Monday stuff. Honestly I was ok but not great. The prior team meeting had shaken me a little but I kept pushing forward.
Then came an extended team meeting. It’s a tight group. We were going thru an issue and the conversation picked up. It moved rapidly and I found myself struggling to keep up. I closed my eyes to concentrate. But all I saw were the sentences spinning around me like I was in some odd animation. The words flying around in a tornado. The sentences breaking apart. I could barely focus on a word. The spinning got increasingly violent.
Suddenly I kept hearing my name. I needed to answer something. I didn’t even know what the subject was much less the question. I kept trying to focus and figure out what it was I supposed to be doing. Finally I gave out. I blurted out “I’ve had a bad week. I can’t answer that right now.” The team lead picked up on my distress quickly and said fine let’s take it off line and deflected everything away from me.
I looked up and my camera was on. My head was in my hands. I quickly turned my camera off and muted myself. I got a tissue and started to pull myself together. Embarrassed. Angry at myself for having tripped. Thankful that the team lead had given me space and cover. Exhausted from the roller coaster.
I looked up and there was an IM from a friend in the meeting. “Are you ok?”
I thought about it. I debated the answer. Years ago I would have automatically said yes. See 40 years ago when I started working you left personal life at the door. You were always ok. It was a sign of weakness to say anything else. Leadership seminars were about always being happy. Being positive. Leaders were always up and embracing the moment. I got dinged on reviews for not being so. A moment like I had would have been potentially impairing to a career. Could he handle the pressure? He lets stress get to him. He’s not strong enough to lead.
I long ago decided all that was bullshit but company cultures are what they are so I tried to play along. So even 5 years ago I would have said yes I am fine.
I reflected a moment. I wasn’t fine. I needed help. So I answered “no” and explained in an IM reply.
“Do you want to talk after this?”
“I’ll send an invite”
And we chatted. A long while. It helped. I knew they had a lot on their plate. But they took the time and it helped.
I decided after that call that I would put the work and the email aside and focus on dealing with the issue at hand: me. I reached out to teammates who were also reeling at the news. I spoke to my boss. I walked in and hugged my wife and son randomly throughout the day - they are excellent huggers btw. I looked for a charity to donate to in my friends name. That night I wrote a note to my friend's mother who had called me that Wednesday with the news.
Over the next few days I talked with a therapist. I reached out to a few more friends at work. Had great conversations with my family - my brother especially. They helped too.
I appreciate all those conversations. And the response from everyone on my blog post. The support has been wonderful and amazing. I am truly blessed.
But we have to see and acknowledge that mental health is a work issue. You can’t leave things at the door anymore. You never could. In fact it is psychologically damaging. You are a person and you can’t leave part of yourself outside when you go to work anymore than you can leave your left arm at home. We have to recognize this in the workplace culture but also for ourselves. If I had replied differently to that IM, if I had not acknowledged to myself that I was not ok, I would not be as good as I am today. I am better and getting better because people reached out AND because I opened the door and let them help.
I also need to say professional help has also been key. As I mentioned I saw a therapist. Just like I would see my doctor for my asthma or a broken arm. Having someone with professional expertise to advise and guide has been critical these last few weeks. To know that these are normal reactions and emotions. And to advise on how to handle things and some steps to take to help - it’s ok to have that chocolate bar let’s not worry so much about the diet right now :)
Thank you to my friends and family who have helped in this process and to everyone who has reached out and responded to these posts. You have helped. And if you need help please reach out to friends, family, a therapist. And if I can help please reach out to me.
As always I hope this helps. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments and if you like subscribe.
All the best,