Too often we hear from people who are worried that they can’t achieve their dreams or have a successful career because of their mental health issues. We hope our “Working It” interview series proves that it’s possible to do that and so much more.
You can read previous interviews here.
TWLOHA: For our readers who aren’t familiar with you or your work, can you tell us a little about who you are and what you do?
SARAH: Sure! I run the mental health section at The Mighty, a storytelling community for people who live with mental illnesses, chronic illnesses, and disabilities. “Mental Health Editor” is my title, which is a little odd, but I’ve been going with it. My job is essentially to manage The Mighty’s mental health community, which involves running our contributor network and writing original content. I’m lucky to have an amazing team of people who help me do this as well.
As far as other things about me… (Why is it so much easier to write about what you do than who you are?!?): I graduated from Syracuse University in 2015 with a degree in magazine journalism, and I moved to Los Angeles about three years ago for this job. I never thought I’d be in LA, but I feel really settled here. I love editing and reporting, but I’m definitely a baby creative writer at heart—a part of me I’ve been failing to nourish recently.
TWLOHA: How does mental illness affect your life and work?
SARAH: Oohh boy.
So I’m an obsessive, anxious, perfectionist person who deals with mild depression, negative thoughts, and a negative perception of myself! Woo! I used to deal with a lot of repetitive, passive suicidal thoughts. (The words “I want to die,” would be stuck in my head…) I started medication about a year ago though, and it definitely helped cool down those negative thoughts, but I’m not totally free from them.
How all this affects my life: It’s silly, but the first thing that comes to mind is how horrible I am at texting. For some reason, I can’t text casually. (I can’t do anything casually…tbh). Every time someone contacts me either through text, FB messenger, Twitter, you name it, for some reason it feels like I’m being asked to climb a mountain. This makes me sad because I’m definitely a hard person to keep in touch with, and on top of that I’m a total flaker. If I’m not feeling well enough, my anxiety convinces me to stay at home. God forbid I’m not “on” in front of my friends and show them what a horrible person I am, or so my brain says. I also cry a lot. My brain is really bad at change, and I really like planning out my day, so when I’m in feeling vulnerable, something as simple as my dinner plans changing could drive me to tears.
How this affects my work: I’m actually really good at keeping my shit together at work, but my anxiety comes out in different ways. When I can’t express myself, I have a lot of physical anxiety. Right in the back of my neck and in my shoulders—it’s the worst. Something I’m also trying to break out of is weird rules and rituals I’ve developed to do things like answer emails. My anxiety is definitely on the OCD-spectrum, so sometimes I get stuck doing things in silly ways because it feels “right.” My biggest pain point at work though is definitely perfectionism-induced avoidance. Feeling like you have to do something “right or not at all” isn’t a great work style when your standard for “right” is unrealistic.
TWLOHA: What steps do you take to manage your mental health?
SARAH: I’m not the best at practicing what I preach, but I do try. I see a therapist once a week, and have been taking medication for about a year now. The medication doesn’t mean I’m anxiety free, but it really helps with the repetitive negative thoughts. Because my anxiety is so physical, I try to exercise as much as I can. Recently, that means doing a lot of yoga. Meditation can be hard for me, so it’s easier to quiet my brain when I’m moving. Being outside is important to me. Going for a hike or a bike ride gives me a few hours of relief like nothing else. I’m also so lucky to have an understanding boyfriend, and talking to him every night is an important part of my self-care routine. He has OCD and depression, so he “gets it” more than a lot of people. We message each other all day with our silly, irrational worries, and being with him makes me feel less alone.
TWLOHA: What would you say to people who want to work in a field or at a job where they have to talk or read about mental health issues but are worried because they also struggle with those issues?
SARAH: Great question. I would say two things:
(1) Create mental health allies at work. By this I mean, foster an environment at work where people can talk about their own mental health. On my team, everyone has experience with some kind of mental health challenge, and we’ve very open about what affects us. I know what topics trigger certain editors. I know when my editors are having a bad day. I try to do monthly check-ins to make sure everyone is on the same page. I’ll be honest, it’s not always easy reading about or writing about topics like suicide or sexual abuse all day, so it’s important that everyone feels comfortable expressing boundaries and taking breaks.
If you’re not in a leadership position, but you’re working in a mental health field, find a few co-workers you can be honest with. Sure, your boss doesn’t need to know every time you’re struggling, but if you have a buddy at work, at least you’re in it together. If you start opening up to people, you might be surprised to find other people are secretly looking for support too.
(2) Give yourself a break. Recently I’ve started to set more boundaries about when I stop working. As soon as I get home, no more mental health (except for my own self care, of course). Because my boyfriend works at a treatment center, we do end up talking about things that are mental health-related, but when I’m feeling shut down I’ll tell him, and we’ll just watch “The Office” or “Arrested Development” instead. I need that time to zone out.
TWLOHA: Do you ever feel wary about speaking so openly your mental health? If so, why did you decide to do so anyway?
SARAH: In college, I would put on gym clothes, tell my roommates I was going to workout, and sneak to counseling. As soon as I started being more open about my mental health struggles, my life got exponentially better. Living openly with mental health struggles has made me closer to my friends, allowed me to be in a true and honest relationship, and makes me feel more fulfilled in my work. I have to acknowledge that I’m lucky—in my job, personal experience is a plus. There are times though when I’m at a party blabbing about suicide prevention or anxiety, and I’ll become ultra-aware I might be coming across as weird, or morbid, but thankfully that doesn’t affect me as much as it could.
I totally understand that not everyone has the support at work as I do, so if there are reasons you can’t be “out and proud” all the time, that’s so OK. Everyone just needs at least a few people they can live authentically with. I would never go back to sneaking to counseling.
TWLOHA: Finally, is there anything you wish someone would have told you when you were struggling? Or something you’d like to share with our readers who are struggling right now?
SARAH: The shame you feel about your feelings right now is hurting you more than your feelings. There is nothing wrong with you, and you’ll learn how to navigate those feelings once you let go of that shame. Stop fighting against what makes you human, and know things are going to be OK.