For someone who spends a huge amount of time focussing on wellbeing and mental health, it comes as a shock to me to find myself signed off work with stress.
I am a huge advocate of good mental health and actively practice many ways to keep myself well. I exercise, eat healthily, and walk everywhere, I regularly do yoga and I meditate every day. I am especially conscious of the impact of work on wellbeing, and as a preventative measure I opted to reduce my working hours this year so that I now work over 4 days, having a regular day to myself to focus on self-care. I also have a very supportive and caring network of family and friends who I surround myself with. I even blog about intentional living and the importance of wellbeing! All in all, I am pretty good at taking care of myself and frequently remind others to take care of themselves too, so how on earth did I end up here?
The combination of a low immune system coupled with a huge amount of pressure at work has gradually spiralled (without me really noticing) to a point where, despite all my wellbeing strategies, I could no longer cope. All the physical symptoms of being run down (lethargy, headaches, exhaustion, etc.) had been manifesting for a long time, but I pushed through and kept plodding on. Breaking point for me came in my mid-year review at work when I was able to articulate all the things that were affecting me negatively and to admit that I felt totally overwhelmed. Encouraged by my line manager, I agreed to take a few days off to get myself well again.
However, I don’t think at that point I actually had any idea of how bad things really were. It was only when I had acknowledged out loud to another person that my current work situation was unmanageable that it dawned on me – it really wasn’t manageable, and I wasn’t managing! My body had been trying to warn me for weeks (maybe even months) and I was only just beginning to listen to it.
I don’t really do ‘ill’, and prior to this current stint I have only taken a handful of sick days in almost 15 years at my current workplace – I just get on with things. So after 3 days of ‘recovery’ I planned to return to work. The night before going back I felt anxious and I couldn’t eat. The day of return I got up, got ready, but couldn’t bring myself leave the house. I tried calling the doctor’s surgery to get myself an emergency appointment that day but couldn’t get through, so not knowing what else to do, I set off for work. I didn’t make it to the end of the street before I had tears streaming down my face and it was at that point I realised that I was nowhere near ready to go back to work.
After a tearful appointment with the GP the following day, I emerged from the surgery with a diagnosis of stress, a 2-week sick note and instructions to have immediate blood tests to rule out any physical causes. The first few days I felt fairly good and began to convince myself that I shouldn’t be off, I should be at work – I was fine really (cue huge waves of guilt!) However, I know now that the good feeling was just relief at not having to even think about work for a while, and being able to focus instead on getting myself well. This was also temporary as only a few days later I felt awful. I was suffering with symptoms of an infection, was totally wiped out and had no motivation to do anything. This was only a few weeks ago, but that time is a huge blur. I know I got up each day, I went out regularly for walks, I definitely ate (mainly because my husband cooked and fed me!) and I slept – a lot. But I was not myself at all. I had been feeling low for a long time, but now the world was entirely flat and grey, and I felt numb.
At a further appointment, it was revealed that my blood test results had identified a substantial vitamin D deficiency – something which my doctor explained would be the likely cause of someone feeling exhausted, run down, picking up constant infections, unable to cope at work … pretty much everything I was experiencing! Armed with a 15-day course of industrial strength vitamin D, and various other medications for the multiple infections I had acquired, I left the appointment with renewed hope. It was a huge relief to know that there was an underlying physical reason as to why I felt so low. I knew that I was already doing all the right things to keep my mental health in shape (exercise, diet, fresh air, yoga, meditation, friends, etc.) and was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t emerge from the bleak place I found myself in.
An off-grid coastal weekend retreat with one of my best friends in the world was something I’d already booked before being signed off work, and it felt like exactly what I needed. So a few days later we set off to Anglesey with a small bag (filled mainly with medication, vitamins, natural remedies and essential oils!), walking boots and our waterproofs. The weekend retreat, led by Helen of Venture7Coaching, enabled me to totally switch off and I returned feeling refreshed and revived. The following day I met up for a meal with my close friends, and still feeling positive I reassured them that I was much better, and would no doubt be back at work a few days later when my sick note ran out …
Then I crashed, quite spectacularly! Whilst the weekend had done wonders for my mental wellbeing, physically it had probably been too much, too soon. By Tuesday I was utterly wiped out and back to functioning on a basic level – just getting through each day again. I extended my sick note and began to wonder if I would ever feel well again. This persisted for almost a week before I felt like I could do anything useful. The following Monday (this week) I cleaned the bathroom, and still had energy when I’d finished (small victories!) – it was a good day. Tuesday, and Wednesday have also been good. By Thursday I was even up and out of the house before 8:30 am for the first time in weeks! I’m now getting back into doing ‘normal’ things on a daily basis. I am also starting to think about the future again (planning a girlie holiday with my amazing friends) and after weeks of grey it feels like the sunshine is finally starting to peek through the clouds. And this brings me to today – today I feel really well – I feel much more like ‘me’ again. Today I am actually writing this blog post, something which I love doing but haven’t had the energy or motivation to try for months!
I am hopeful that this means that I’m on my way back up now, but I’m also aware that there may be further lows, and I may crash again. Recovery from stress is a rollercoaster. My mental and physical health are up and down, often not in tandem with each other. While the ‘sunshine’ moments have not endured, they are far more frequent and reassure me that I will once again return to a place where happiness is my natural state. I am due to return to work soon, but I am not making any immediate decisions, or taking any feelings of wellness as a sign that I’m better. I have begun to realise that wanting to be well enough to go back to work, is not the same as actually being well enough to go back to work.
Stress can, and does affect anyone. It is not a sign of weakness, but can leave you feeling drained and powerless. I am lucky that I have amazing friends and family around me as I work on getting myself well again. So as I fight off the tail-end of this infection and recover my energy levels, I will keep on taking the vitamins, walking, meditating and being around positive people. Here’s to more days where the sunshine breaks through, and the hope that before long I will again feel well and joyful every day 🙂
Coastal retreat: Venture7Coaching https://www.facebook.com/Venture7Coaching/?pnref=story
Meditation: Calm https://www.calm.com/