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I look at the clock as I drive to work, kids in tow, whom I’ll be dropping off en route at their school. My morning briefing starts at 8:35am; school policy states that my children cannot be dropped off until 8:40am. It’s only five minutes, but they are the most problematic of my entire day. I ensure my sons are safely inside the school gate. I try to be kind to them and quell the urge to shout at them to hurry up. Then I proceed to work. I’m already tired. My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) didn’t let me sleep last night, instead waking me up at 3am to ‘get a head start’ on the kids’ laundry.
Predictably, I’m late again. As I enter the room, the briefing is already in full swing. Fifty odd faces look up at me. What are they thinking I wonder? Do they wonder why I am late, or do they just think I’m hopeless at time management? I stand in the corner and try to make myself as small as possible, whilst trying to focus on what is being said. I notice that I’m sweating. I feel like my heart is pounding so much that it’s visibly protruding through my chest. My anxiety is off the charts today. Would you believe me if I said that I have a position of leadership at my organisation? Is this what leadership looks like, a hot mess like me? Well, my answer to that question is – yes, it can be.
You see, what I lack in terms of punctuality and composure I more than make up for in other ways. Firstly, I have compassion. Having mental illness gives you the ability to cut people a lot of slack. It gives you the means to sit back and listen first before reacting. Secondly, I’m as honest as the day is long. I have found that working whilst coping with having mental illness means that I long ago grew tired of keeping up appearances. In a revelatory moment, I decided to tell my peers that I take medication for my anxiety, and that I cannot function without it. I cannot get out the door to come to work without it. And that’s ok. A nurse once said to me, “if you had a heart problem, you wouldn’t feel weird about taking a daily pill for that, would you?” So, the same applies here.
At this point I feel I should add that I am a teacher. I work with teenagers. And that privilege gives me the unique position of being able to show via example that you can have a mental illness, be ok and not ok, and lead a productive life, all at the same time. Generally, these opportunities come at unexpected moments. One morning, I was meant to speak at a school assembly in front of 500. My anxiety was off the charts, even on my meds. I was sweating bullets. And I was antsy.
“Are you ok? You seem not ok,” one of my students enquired.
At this point I could have said “yes, I’m fine.” Bless him for asking, because that day I decided to say no, that I was not particularly ok. I told them what I was feeling and why. They listened to me – really listened – in a way that an adult probably could not. I saw recognition and empathy on the youthful faces before me. Feeling that sense of release at having shared, I then proceeded to speak at that assembly like a boss.
Speaking of bosses, not long ago my own boss sent an email asking staff who have young children needing to be dropped off at school in the mornings to make an appointment with her to discuss, if it meant being late to the briefing. Alarm bells go off, the panic in me rises up. What if she makes a big deal out of it? I do the right thing and tell her of my quandary.
“What do other people in this position do?” I enquire politely.
“Oh, everyone else made arrangements so that it wasn’t an issue,” she blithely replies.
Right. My ex-husband lives interstate, and my parents are either a) chronically ill themselves, or b) passed on. I don’t have anyone else to make an ‘arrangement’ with. It is this type of thing which triggers my anxiety badly, to the point that I wake up in the night stewing over it.
My OCD makes me late some days too. I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist about ten years ago. I told one of my superiors at work that there would be days when I would call in sick because of it. It’s ridiculous, who would be late for work because my brain tells me to make a bed in a particular way until it is just right? Or for not being able to leave the house until the dishwasher is unpacked? Some days I feel like crying or chucking in my job. Or both. But I need the money I earn, to raise my two boys on. Can I just stop this horrid juggling routine and apply for some kind of disability pension? Does my crippling anxiety or OCD count? How about the fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) a rheumatologist diagnosed me with? I have a letter from her, after twelve months of testing with various specialists to state that this is the case. But this does not constitute a diagnosis. So, I have to push on. And besides, why should I have to quit my job when I am capable of working, just not in the exact way that my employer requires?
To any bosses out there reading this, please – this is a call for flexibility. Does every single person need to be at that meeting, when much of the information could be circulated electronically? Could your staff start a little later, if it means that they can start the day off on the right foot? For me personally, the brain fog associated with fibromyalgia is intense in the mornings. Even simple, routine things like putting Vegemite on toast can seem like a Herculean task. Most people I know in my industry are professional, and they can be trusted to make up the hours elsewhere, later, at a time when their brains are not so jarred. Is there somewhere quiet and dark that they can go to if they need some peaceful time to recalibrate? And – most importantly of all – can you see the whole picture of who they are and what their life is like, rather than having a fixed position, rather than forcing them to give up some of their hard-fought and hard-won pride for having even gotten to work today, rather than demanding them to give lengthy explanations and having them plead for allowances?
Lastly, can you get to know your employee as a whole person? Can you read between the lines a little bit so that they don’t have to feel like they are letting the team down? Because they really want to be there, they really want to be a part of your team, and they really want to get in there and do the job that you pay them to do – even if it looks a little different to how your other staff do it.
Lauren is a teacher of English and History at a school in rural Victoria. She is also a published author of historical fiction.
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