Regaining a sense of productivity can be one of the hardest aspects of recovering from mental illness. When we are physically sick understanding and patience are more widely available. If a physical illness is long term then it can be very emotional, frustrating and life changing for all involved. But one of the biggest challenges with mental illness is that it is invisible.
The Effect of Mental Illness on Work and Everyday Life
When we have good relationships with friends, family and colleagues they can pick up on even small changes in our behaviour, body-language or voice that can indicate that something is not as it usually is. But everyone has their own struggles and if the earliest indications are missed then the individual may have already distanced themselves to the extent that there is not that closeness with which to be aware of the more drastic developments with ill-health and it becomes invisible.
Some individuals, such as myself, may have to get sick leave from work when the illness prevents them from successfully completing assignments, interacting with people, or even getting out of bed in the morning. Severe mental illness can inhibit individuals from effectively completing day to day tasks such as washing up, laundry and even aspects of personal hygiene.
The hopeful outcome is that even those of us who hit rock bottom will find the strength and light within us, assisted or unassisted by medication, professionals or loved ones, to regain full health, awareness and maybe eventually return to work. Sadly, this is not the case for all but I am one of the lucky ones and can only write from my own experiences.
Return to Work
I still have wobbles about work. I have just completed my annual review and it was tough for someone so self-critical and pessimistic to focus on successes and find things to be ‘proud’ of. When I returned to work I didn’t feel ready at all. I felt drained and groggy as if I had crawled out from hibernation and it took a lot for me to be able to face my colleagues again. I wasn’t confident about performing stories and still didn’t even like going beyond the front door. There are still days when I can’t face leaving the house and catching the train into the city feels overwhelming even though it a direct line.
It is difficult when you are effectively at war with yourself every time you try to accomplish something. Everyone has self-doubt and negativity from time to time and lots of jobs are very stressful these days. But when you have mental illness these periods are not temporary. The voice of self-loathing is constantly bullying you from within your own brain. You spend twice as much time worrying as actually doing and each worry makes the task seem so much bigger. Then there’s the agonising you do once the task is completed. Worrying about whether it was good enough and beating yourself up for not having done it sooner or quicker and all the while preventing yourself from moving on to the next task.
Have Patience and Be Kind to Yourself
We are our harshest critics. We will tell others that they should slow down, take a break, stop being so hard on themselves, but we are (for the most part) useless at taking this advice ourselves. I volunteered for a charity that supported those with mental illness. I sat at the end of a phone listening to others tell me about their experiences and I would see all the warning signs. It was part of my job to spot the triggers and ask the difficult question: Are you feeling suicidal? To try and help others give words to how they were feeling.
I missed all the signs for myself. I told myself that what I was feeling wasn’t real, it was all in my head, that I was attention seeking, pathetic, weak. But I have to be patient with myself. I have to give myself permission to slow down, to take a break, to heal.
I am not the same as I was before I was suicidal. I don’t have as much energy, my memory isn’t as good and I can’t take on as much as I could before. This makes me feel like I am not achieving as much, that I am not productive.
Loss of Perspective and Regaining Productivity
As a result, I seem to have lost all perspective on time. I am no longer assigning reasonable, achievable timescales to the tasks I am hoping to complete. If the goal is designed from the outset to be unachievable, then the feeling of failure will creep in before you have even begun and snuff out all your motivation. This is how productivity can become elusive.
But when it happens, productivity can be blissful. The same way that unachievable goals, which are only that way because they have not been fully planned out, accurately time scaled or suitably prepared for, can lead to a tailspin of negativity, anxiety and depression; the completion of even the smallest, simplest task, can buoy up, motivate and brighten.
There is a lot of advice out there on how to be productive. There’s a lot of stipulation about what time to get up in the morning, when to go to bed, how much to drink, what you should eat; endless lists on how to be successful. Yet, everyone is different. I feel most productive when I get up early because I work best during daylight hours, but my husband works best later at night because it is quiet and there are less disturbances from emails and the like.
Does it matter? There is so much emphasis on changing everything about your routine, your diet, your exercise pattern to become better, more, to be successful. If you are recovering from any form of mental illness that is immediately going to be overwhelming and you will have your head under the covers again waiting for it to go away. I know because I did just that.
So don’t change. At least, not all at once. Just reach out your arm to the nearest writing materials you have. You’re phone is probably in arms reach so type a note or a text to yourself and list 5 things that you can do that day that will be an achievement. Whether it is getting dressed, brushing your teeth, having a shower, it doesn’t matter. Being able to check, cross or delete things off of that list will make you feel stronger, it will let you be able to move on to the next thing. Start as small and as simple as you need to. Then build it up.